CRANBERRY TWP — Oberto Charles looked over the three neon yellow ambulances sitting inside the Cranberry Township EMS garage Tuesday.
A lifeFlight EMT from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Charles was wrapping up a tour of emergency medical operations in the Pittsburgh region with a crew from Cranberry. As Ted Fessides, chief and executive director of the organization, showed off the fleet, he mentioned to Charles that the ambulances serve a population of about 30,000. Response times, he said, are typically within a few minutes.
It was a stark contrast for Charles, who said the Port-au-Prince population of nearly 10,000 and another 2.6 million in the metropolitan area is served by just three ambulances.
Wait times for an emergency, he said, can be up to eight hours — if responders can get there at all.
It's those challenges that brought Charles, a 34-year-old husband and father of two, to Cranberry Township this week seeking more information on best practices and concepts to take home.
Charles was inspired to become an EMT after the massive 2010 earthquake that rocked Haiti and its more than 10 million residents. The magnitude 7.0 quake resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and ravaged homes and businesses in the area.
In the fallout, doctors from the United States and other countries flew to Haiti to help address medical needs. Charles was waiting for them at the airport, ready to help in any way he could.
He helped by translating for doctors and, at times, moving bodies and transporting the wounded. In 2011, when training was offered to educate more locals to become EMTs, Charles jumped at the chance.
Since then, he has learned as much as he could to become a better EMT. He has done similar ride-along visits in Virginia, Miami and Tampa. His trip to Pennsylvania included a ride-along with Pittsburgh EMS as well as a local life-flight crew.
He currently serves as one of three air EMTs with Haiti Air Ambulance, which he said provides a needed service. The countryside is far from the city center, he said, making response times lengthy.
“Helicopter service is really, really important,” he said.
There are three trauma centers in the country, he noted, but they are full most of the time. He said, perhaps, the biggest difference he has seen during his visits to the United States is the way patients are received.
“To accept a call or flight, we need to figure out every single thing,” he said.
That means, of course, checking vital signs. But it also means determining if hospital space is available — and if the patient can pay for it.
“You could have money but no space, or you could have space but no money, so that is a really big challenge,” Charles said. “Here, you get the call and just go.”
The limited available resources can force EMT crews to choose between four or five calls, and occasionally they can't respond to any, Charles said. Due to slow response times or a lack of response, residents might try to help by taking patients to seek medical care on their own, he said.
Charles said this leads to other issues, as there is little public outreach or training for residents in Haiti. “People can make a mess” in trying to help, he said. He added there are TV and radio programs that attempt to teach basic things such as stopping bleeding, but hands-on demonstrations and education are needed.
“If we try to train people, that's something, and that will increase that knowledge,” he said.
In Cranberry Township, Fessides noted public outreach and education are key components of its operation. Programs such as the Stop The Bleed campaign aim to educate teachers and other residents on how to buy emergency responders valuable time in the event of an emergency. That 30- to 40-minute class goes a long way, Fessides said. “We're pretty proactive in Cranberry,” he told Charles, “because I think the best call we get is the call we never get.”
Charles said he hopes to implement programs such as Stop The Bleed once he returns home, and was appreciative to see how agencies operate in the United States.
“We need to learn how things function in other countries,” he said.