Warren alum travels to help Haiti victims

DOWNEY - Zachary Smith never thought that he would be on the frontlines, treating earthquake victims in Haiti and saving hundreds of lives, but after hearing a plea for help on the radio, the 31-year-old firefighter packed his bags."It was totally against my train of thought," said Smith. "As first-responders, we don't go unless requested to go so I won't go somewhere unless I'm asked." But while listening to a radio broadcast, Smith felt inspired to help those living in the aftermath of the devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake centered near Port Au Prince. "I heard how atrocious the medical care was," he said. "I heard that the large organizations were not responding. The Red Cross, UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders are great organizations, but they take a week or two to get in and set up." After hearing that a rapid response, vanguard style medical rescue team named Team Rubicon was looking for former Marines, soldiers, firefighters, medics, and RNs to help fill the gap until larger organizations could arrive in Haiti, Smith immediately called the organization, volunteering his time. Smith, a Roseville resident who grew up in Downey and graduated from Warren High School, returned home on Sunday after spending 10 days in Haiti caring for hundreds of patients in makeshift tent cities near Port Au Prince. Founded by former Marines, Team Rubicon is a self-sustaining, all-volunteer, non-profit organization that calls upon skilled first-responders from across the country to provide medical assistance for victims in major disasters. The first Rubicon team flew into the Dominican Republic and drove into Port Au Prince, avoiding the congested airport. The team soon found themselves operating a hospital until the larger medical organizations could arrive. After trading shifts with his fellow Rocklin firefighters and taking several vacation days off from work, Smith bought a plane ticket to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he met with Rubicon's Bravo team at Fort Bragg. Smith, along with nine other members of the Bravo team, was sent to relieve and restock the original Rubicon team. The group flew to Haiti, where they spent hours each day treating victims with deep wounds, lacerations, foot fractures and severe eye injuries. "That's what we did - we were a trauma team," said Smith. "We would go to the camps and befriend the locals. We'd get some good intel on where the most hurt people were and we'd treat them." Using four Toyota pickup trucks, the team would travel into the city and care for nearly 300 patients a day on the beds of the trucks. Those who were seriously injured were transported to the hospital. Smith said there were many doctors and nurses in Haiti, but very few paramedics, making their role very difficult yet vital. "The people were just in a state of bewilderment," said Smith over the phone. "I couldn't believe it, people weren't asking for handouts - they were asking for jobs. They wanted to work." While in Haiti, Smith and his team members stayed at a Jesuit compound where each morning at 6:30 a.m. the people would have mass under a giant mango tree and pray each night before going to bed. "Each morning we would go to mass and prepare our minds for the day ahead," he said. "Bro. Jim would lead us - it was an amazing experience." The last 48 hours of Smith's time in Haiti was spent administering medications to patients day and night. It was here that Smith met a woman that he will never forget. As new patients arrived each day, Smith said the hospital staff was forced to kick out patients who had already received treatment. "There was no room and we needed the space," Smith said. "There was this elderly lady and we needed her bed - she had been there a couple of days for a back injury, but we needed her bed." In Creole, the woman began to beg Smith to let her stay, insisting that sending her to the streets would "send her to her death." "She kept saying it," he said. "This was probably the most destitute woman in Haiti and she had no one. In 10 hours, she probably would have been dying on the street - but we were able to get her into a convent and save her life." Although his mission in Haiti is finished, Smith plans to continue his relationship with Team Rubicon as they assist in other disasters around the world, but in the meanwhile, he employs all Americans to give. "Haiti was a poor country before, but now they are a hopeless country," Smith said. "We've got to give - we are the only way they have hope to rebuild."

********** Published: February 5, 2010 - Volume 8 - Issue 42

FeaturesEric Pierce