Minn.-based Project Haiti landing in damaged country

Lining up for a boat
Haitians line the banks of the main wharf hoping to get a ride in any one of many small boats for hire in Port-au- Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010. With the city left in ruins after last week's deadly earthquake, many of the displaced people are leaving town and traveling to stay with relatives in outlying towns.
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

A team of medical personnel put together by a Minnesota group is scheduled to go ashore Wednesday in Haiti.

Brainerd-area surgeon and Project Haiti founder Dr. Paul Severson won't be with the team, he'll be by his phone managing logistics. The mission is an unusual one for a doctor in a state with a small Haitian population.

Severson's commitment to the impoverished Caribbean nation is rooted in a chance meeting two decades ago with another surgeon who was born in Haiti.

Severson has made 40 trips to Haiti over the past 20 years. He's not making this trip he said because he's answering phone calls from other medical doctors around the country volunteering their help.

On Wednesday, a Project Haiti medical team is scheduled to go ashore there with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard. Severson said the U.S. Government's willingness to work with private sector groups including Project Haiti is unlike anything he's witnessed in the past.

"We're seeing cooperation between our government, our military and private sector that I don't know really existed before," Severson said.

Severson created Project Haiti, a non-sectarian humanitarian relief agency, in 1992. Since then, he said the group has sent 450 medical volunteers and others on trips to Pignon, Haiti, where the agency does much of its work.

Dr. Paul Severson
Brainerd-area surgeon and Project Haiti founder Dr. Paul Severson created the program in 1992.
Image Courtesy of Cuyuna Regional Medical Center

"Right now we have a total of ten teams projected to provide continuous medical support to the hospital of Pignon for the next three months," Severson said.

About 30,000 people live in greater Pignon on Haiti's north central plateau, about 70 miles by road from Port Au Prince, the city destroyed by last week's earthquake.

Severson said Project Haiti volunteer medical personnel report tens of thousands of residents have left the capitol city. He said the charity hospital his group supports in Pignon is setting up shelter and trying to find food and water for refugees.

Death toll numbers from the earthquake, some as high as 200,000, make it difficult for outsiders to put a face on the disaster.

Not for Severson.

He knows some of the victims, and is stunned at both the breadth and depth of the toll. He remembers the faces of students in a nurses training program that were studying to work in the country's health system.

Pignon clinic
The clinic in Pignon, Haiti.
Image courtesy of Dr. Howard McCollister

"We had just been down and toured that school and been through classrooms with these nurses all stood up and greeted us and met our professors, our nursing professors from Minnesota and met the administration," he said. "That school, the 108 nurses, were in class with their professors and the school collapsed and all of them are dead. All of them."

Severson said there are up to 45,000 Americans working in Haiti at any given time. They include U. S. government workers, and thousands of others working for charities from all around the country including Minnesota-based Project Haiti.

Paul Severson, 57, is a native of St. Paul's Merriam Park neighborhood. He said he thought he'd become a Catholic priest when he grew up. Instead, Severson graduated from the University of Minnesota medical school as a surgeon.

He heard about Haiti in 1988. Severson was being inducted into the American College of Surgeons and met another American surgeon, Dr. Guy Theodore, who later retired and returned to Pignon, the city of his birth, to start a charity hospital.

"The college had allowed him to put up a booth to try to get volunteer surgeons to come down and help him and here was a man who was taking care of 180,000 people alone, just one doctor, and I couldn't conceive of it," he said.

Severson said part of the motivation for his work in Haiti is what he describes as the depth of suffering there. It's beyond anything he's seen in this country.

"These are people who don't have enough food to eat that day, can't find a clean source, are sick all the time because they can't drink clean water, who have no ability to help themselves, who have 80 percent unemployment," he said.

Or as someone said to Severson recently, it should be an embarrassment that such conditions should be allowed to exist in a country in our hemisphere.

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