When a massive earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, Stephanie Wang, MD, medical director of Rush University Internists, was in a unique position to help. For the past five years, Wang has organized and led physicians and students at Rush University Medical Center on volunteer medical missions to the Dominican Republic, which shares a border with Haiti on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
Wang led a team of 18 volunteers from Rush, who traveled to Haiti via the Dominican Republic in late January. The team spent 10 days providing medical care in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s earthquake- devastated capital.
In recognition of both her lifesaving work in Haiti and her ongoing service in the Dominican Republic, Wang received this year’s Henry P. Russe, MD, Humanitarian Award. The award honors the memory and humanitarian efforts of its namesake — the dean of Rush Medical College and vice president of medical affairs from 1981 to his death in 1991 — and is given to members of the Rush staff who demonstrate an ongoing commitment to the well-being of others in their work.
‘Thinks only of others’
“She is a selfless individual who thinks only of others and giving back,” says David Ansell, MD, MPH, vice president for clinical affairs and chief medical officer, who was part of the Wang-led volunteer team to Haiti and who also has taken part in some of the Dominican Republic missions. “When you do this kind of work you realize how blessed we are to have what we have, and to be able to give our patients what we have as far as our skills and resources. That’s what drives the passion that Stephanie has.”
Wang’s relationships in the Dominican Republic enabled her team to get to Haiti when others couldn’t, because the earthquake had left the airport in Port-au-Prince inoperable. “We had the contacts and the knowledge of the terrain and the means to maneuver,” she says.
The team flew into Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, then traveled in a bus for hours over dirt roads to reach Port-au-Prince. During the team’s stay, they treated more than a thousand patients suffering from fractures, wounds, infections, and even heart and kidney failure.
Physicians on the team also performed 30 to 50 surgeries daily and organized an intensive care unit in the tent hospital on the grounds of General Hospital, Port-au-Prince’s main hospital. “We wanted to make sure that future teams coming to Haiti would have better conditions than what we found when we got there,” Wang says.
Work is ongoing
Those subsequent teams have included other members of the Rush community. As of mid-June, seven groups totaling more than 50 clinicians from Rush have volunteered in Haiti. The teams have expanded their scope, working with communities outside Port-au-Prince and looking for places where Rush volunteers can maintain a long-term presence to help the community develop its health care capabilities.
Wang’s work in Peralta, a village of 20,000 people in a remote rural area in the Dominican Republic, provides an example of such an ongoing, developmental effort. Part of the goal is to help Peralta develop a self-sustaining health system.
Her work also has an educational purpose, providing Rush residents and students with an exposure to tropical medicine. In addition to her administrative and patient care responsibilities at Rush University Internists, Wang is the associate director of Rush’s residency program in internal medicine. She trained in the program herself and received her medical degree from Rush Medical College.
“Having trained at Rush, I have reaped the benefits of great teaching and role-modelling,” Wang says. “However, there were no opportunities available at the time for international medical service. This program has helped provide such an opportunity for the current generation of Rush students and residents.”
‘Part of the social contract’
The Dominican missions have taken place four times a year since 1995. Wang and other volunteers have flown to Santa Dominica, then made the three-hour drive west to Peralta. They stay one to two weeks, providing primary care in Peralta and traveling into the surrounding mountains to deliver the three-month supply of medications they’ve brought for residents of the outlying communities who are unable to come to the village. Members of the team also perform general, reconstructive, urological, and ear, nose and throat surgeries, and have completed about 400 procedures to date.
Along with direct care, the teams train community health promoters to provide primary health care in the area. “We’re starting to see measurable improvements there,” Wang says. “We’ve been able to help establish public health systems by teaching the health promoters about basic health processes and to help the village set up a water purification plant run out of the clinic.”
Just as her teams are building Peralta’s health care capacity, Wang is building the abilities of her Rush colleagues. Jennifer Tobin, MD, internal medicine, now leads her own team on one of the quarterly missions.
Even though Wang is no longer traveling to the Dominican Republic four times a year, coordinating the missions remains a major time commitment to undertake on top of her other duties. “Obviously, this is something I believe in, and gives me a lot of energy,” she says. “I’m a doctor, and this is where my skills are. It’s part of the social contract. You’re expected to contribute what you have the capability of contributing.”