St. Vincent’s medics are ray of hope in Cité Soleil


A group of St. Vincent’s paramedics who saw the great need for emergency-trained medical personnel in earthquake-devastated Haiti decided to carry the hospital’s mission to Port-au-Prince. Five paramedics were able to join their colleagues in NYC Medics, a nonprofit disaster-relief group, on the journey to provide medical care in Haiti. 

Rhona Chambers, Charles Berkowitz, Sean Kivlehen and Jason Ribisi traveled to Haiti as part of a “first wave” through NYC Medics; George Contreras served as the team leader for the “second wave” to visit Port-au-Prince and the nearby slums and tent cities in Cité Soleil, one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest areas.

“Our mission is to go where the need is greatest,” said Contreras. “Even in the second wave, my team was seeing people in Cité Soleil who had not received treatment yet and were brought in with open wounds and underlying chronic conditions that had not been treated for years.” 

NYC Medics was founded by a group of former St. Vincent’s Midtown Hospital paramedics in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, and aims to provide emergency medical relief across the world in the aftermath of natural disasters. 

Contreras with youths in Cité Soleil, where hundreds of thousands of Haitians live in grinding poverty.

The NYC Medic teams worked with local community leaders in Cité Soleil to determine where to pitch their temporary clinics. Because of the dangerous conditions they relied on the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne to provide security as they traveled throughout the slums. An average day saw between 350 and 500 people receive medical attention in the makeshift clinics.

At night, the NYC Medics team traveled to the largest Port-au-Prince hospital, University General, and took turns attending to patients overnight after other foreign relief teams left the facility.  

“Every night, I also led a team debriefing to help everyone deal with the experience,” said Contreras. “People took it very hard if it was their first time on a mission, and it was really powerful to see the need and be able to provide some help, even as we also struggled with feeling guilty about the fact that we would be leaving.”

The NYC Medics teams were able to provide some care that will help the people beyond immediate relief for earthquake-related injuries by providing tetanus and diphtheria vaccinations, and by establishing ties with community leaders for future primary-care teams. 

“It was an amazing experience,” Contreras said.