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Nurse practitioner answers the call for Haiti

Is part of medical team going to help survivors

By David Abel
Globe Staff / January 19, 2010

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WESTWOOD - Spread out on her dining room table are four pairs of medical scrubs, 50 water-purifying tablets and a bottle of anti-malarial pills, two stethoscopes, an extra set of contact lenses, disposable wipes, toothpaste, breath mints, energy bars, and a small notebook.

It’s just about everything that Annie Lewis O’Connor expects she will need for the two weeks she plans to spend with a team of nurses and doctors treating victims of the earthquake that ravaged Haiti last week.

The 53-year-old nurse practitioner at Brigham and Women’s Hospital is one of a growing number of medical personnel volunteering to leave their families and everyday life behind to respond to the overwhelming demand for emergency aid.

Yesterday, the divorced mother of 10-year-old twin boys was waiting for a call to tell her when her plane would be leaving and whether she would be sent to Haiti or the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola and has become a staging area for much of the relief efforts.

“I’ll go wherever they need me,’’ she said yesterday as she tried to appease the concerns of her boys, apprehensive about their mother leaving them for a danger zone.

“It isn’t easy to go, but I have the skills; I have something to offer, and every once in a while you have to step out of your comfort zone and use your skills to do something important.’’

As her boys watched her test her flashlight and explain what a medical clamp does, they said they understood why their mother would miss many of their hockey and basketball games.

“I’m sort of worried because I’m not sure she’s going to be safe,’’ Daniel said. “I’ve seen what’s happening there on the news, and people are doing all sorts of bad stuff. I’m definitely going to miss her, but I know she’s going to be helpful to people who need help.’’

Her other son, Liam, suggested she consider scaling her relief work back to one week. He wondered where she would sleep and whether she would be able to call them, but she doesn’t know.

“I’m worried I might feel the slightest bit of loneliness,’’ Liam said. “But I’m proud of her. I don’t want her to go, but I feel good that my mom’s going to help people.’’

Similar conversations are occurring across the country as hundreds of emergency medical personnel rapidly deploy to the Caribbean island.

O’Connor said her ex-husband and adult daughter will look after the boys when she leaves, which she expects will happen in the next few days.

She will be part of a triage team that includes about 50 doctors and nurses being sent to the island by Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals.

O’Connor has spent much of her career treating injuries from car crashes, falls, violence, and sports. She has been trying to prepare herself for carnage on a different order of magnitude. O’Connor expects to be part of a team that assesses patients with critical injuries, administering pain medication, antibiotics, fluids, and ordering whatever tests and care can be provided. With water and food in increasing demand, she expects to see everything from catastrophic wounds to signs of dehydration and starvation.

Yesterday afternoon, as she shoveled the driveway of her suburban home and refereed as her boys pelted each other with snowballs, she tried to imagine what it will be like in such a different world with so many pressing needs.

“This is what I’m trained for,’’ she said.

On a calendar in her kitchen, her boys drew a line through the next two weeks, in which she will also miss their piano lessons, before-school math classes, and a nephew’s birthday.

She thanked them for letting her go, for understanding what she feels she has to do.

“I think this is a good lesson for my kids,’’ she said. “I think they’ll learn that our community is larger than we think, and that any time we have an opportunity to help, we should.

“Sure, they’re going to miss me, but it’s good that they can share me and let me do this.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.