About volunteering in Haiti

Recently, I’ve been living without a phone, TV, or much Internet access, so I just found out about the earthquake in Haiti not too long ago. Last night, a co-worker said he wanted to use his upcoming vacation to volunteer in Haiti. American Airlines, he said, is flying people to Haiti for free, and you can join the RNRN network to get placed properly in Haiti if you only have a valid US passport. Sounds great, right? Like the way the world should work?

Actually, you don’t need to know that Port-au-Prince has only one small airport, and that the US military is currently using it to land supplies. It would cost AA an enormous loss to fly people to Haiti when any current tourist travel has surely dried up. And, it turns out, the free flights for medical volunteers meme was a hoax, as per Snopes.com

RN Relief Network

However, volunteering for Haiti is not a hoax (I think). The RNRN network apparently did intend to send volunteer nurses on the US navy ship Comfort. The USNS Comfort is traveling to Haiti, as reported by Voice of America. Then the navy apparently decided to use only military personnel. That’s per an RNRN e-mail I received for potential volunteers, but you can read about it from the Contra Costa Times, and it accords with this Kitsap Sun article on naval personnel catching a red eye flight to Bethesda to meet up with the USNS Comfort.

Apparently, the RNRN network still wants to get their volunteers to Haiti, though. As reported by the LA Times, RNRN nurses traveled to Florida, where they met up with the Haitian-American Nurses Association and started scouting out sites and possibilities for volunteers.

Service organizations

So, you’re a nurse, and you still want to volunteer in Haiti (like I did)? Several possibilities come to mind: (1) the Red Cross is not accepting volunteers for Haiti per their website; (2) Doctors without Borders has a long-standing relationship with Haiti, but they want you to be able to carry on a conversation in French and be able to commit to 9-12 months at a time; (3) the American Nurses Association wants you to volunteer locally and get trained before you do anything crazy like going overseas.

The gov’ment

You could try the US Embassy in Haiti or USAID. Both of them ultimately direct you to the Center for International Disaster Information, which has a registration database but makes it clear that you aren’t likely to get a call back unless you have previous disaster relief experience (chicken vs. egg?).

Freelance volunteers

Who’s most desperate? Haitians. If you try contacting the Haitian Consulate in New York, they have a special contact e-mail for medical volunteers. You provide license and insurance information. But this is the Haitian government, now. I sent them my information, but I don’t expect to get a call back.

Lessons from this experience

So, here I sit, prepared to jump a free AA flight at a moments notice with just my klettersack with stethoscope, sphygmomanometer, trauma shears, iodine tablets, and clean socks. Yet nobody wants me. I signed up with RNRN and the Haitian Consulate, but I’m not holding my breath. I also e-mailed the Haitian-American Nurses Association.

The lesson I draw from this is that if you are really interested in disaster relief nursing, you best join the military. You second best get in on the ground floor of a smaller relief organization like your local Medical Reserve Corps, and start getting trained and getting experience. Formally established organizations are the best route to getting someplace. Plus, nursing is all about assessments and planning, right? You need to know things about disasters before you can do much good. Be honest: in a pinch, your ability to give a SQ or IM injection doesn’t qualify you to do much. Get specific knowledge.

And if you do get a call back from the Haitian Consulate, you might want to browse the CDC’s webpage of recommendations for volunteers in Haiti before you get malaria or Typhoid or something.


Apparently, some nurses are going to Haiti via Canada, and also I read about nurses going in through Dominican Republic. There is a Haitian Nurses Assocation in Boston. E-mail correspondent Mary Crotty says to stick with RNRN, which has like 8000 nurses ready to go.

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