With them all the way Penn medical student Naomi Rosenberg put her education on hold to help seven people injured in Haiti's earthquake get care in Philadelphia. "It's the right thing to do," she says.

Posted: March 11, 2010

Naomi Rosenberg was washing dishes in her Center City apartment when she got a text message from a friend at Partners in Health, the international medical-aid organization she worked for in Haiti.

"Turn on the TV," the message read.

Rosenberg flicked on the news the evening of Jan. 12.

"The second I heard 'natural disaster' and 'Haiti,' I knew it would be bad," she says. "Bad things that happen in the world get magnified in a place as poor as Haiti."

Unfortunately, Rosenberg was right. A 7.0-magnitude earthquake leveled most of the capital of Port-au-Prince. An estimated 223,000 people died and countless others were injured as poorly constructed buildings collapsed over several days. About a million people are still homeless.

As she sat in her apartment watching scenes of destruction, the 28-year-old, second-year Penn medical student didn't ponder her next move.

She called the Boston headquarters of Partners in Health (PIH) and offered to help, acting on a conviction that she and her older sisters learned from their parents.

"When things happen," Rosenberg explains, "you show up."

Rosenberg did far more than show up. She found local hospitals willing to take patients, arranged takeoffs and landings in two countries, and navigated federal agencies and immigration laws. She is still guiding patients through the health-care system.

And she's put medical school on hold.

*

Growing up in Bethesda, Md., Rosenberg always considered a career in medicine. You could call it a genetic predisposition: Her father, Steven Rosenberg, is chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute and her mother, Alice, is an HIV/AIDS nurse at the National Institutes of Health.

In her early 20s, while a premed student at Bryn Mawr College, the direction of Rosenberg's life changed after she read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, a book about physician Paul Farmer's drive to bring top-notch health care to the poor in Haiti and elsewhere.

Farmer's philosophy of accompanying patients through treatment and healing, of walking others through times of need, inspired her, as did his approach of engaging entire communities in those efforts.

Rosenberg ended up traveling the world with Farmer as his assistant. Now, Farmer is a fan of hers.

"She has this ability that is both rare and necessary," he said after returning from Haiti recently. "She understands the magnitude of a problem like an earthquake, and then locally, she's driven to follow through on details for patients."

Rosenberg went to Boston the day after the quake, then returned to Philadelphia to find hospitals able to accept critically injured victims.

She asked the hospital she knew best - the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) - and turned to a pair of its influential physicians.

"Would you be able to get HUP to accept trauma cases for free care if they can be transported out of Haiti in the next 24hrs? Perhaps 2-4 cases?" Rosenberg wrote in an e-mail to Richard P. Shannon, chair of the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Medicine, and Roger A. Band, assistant professor of emergency medicine.

They answered yes. So did Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and St. Christopher's Hospital for Children.

Her apartment became a logistical hub as she juggled calls with federal officials from several agencies, PIH colleagues, and the evacuation team. Over the next two weeks, she orchestrated two trips and the transport of 11 Haitians.

Erik Bartkowiak, an emergency-flight nurse who donated his services and equipment, was awed by her efforts.

"I've been doing these international repatriations for 12 years and they are not easy in normal circumstances," Bartkowiak says. "Somehow this 28-year-old girl with no experience in this whatsoever was able to . . . get these people into the United States."

The three women and four children, each escorted by a parent, arrive at local hospitals and Rosenberg throws herself into accompanying them through the next stage.

Rosenberg, who speaks Haitian Creole, interprets questions from the doctors. Because of their crush injuries, the women would have to undergo leg amputations. Rosenberg is waiting for them in the recovery room after surgery, "just to be with them when they wake up."

As they convalesce, Rosenberg turns her attention to preparing a house in Germantown, lent by a local Haitian church, where the quake survivors will live while receiving outpatient care. She manages the PIH budget for renovations and living expenses. PIH also will give her a paycheck at some point.

It's late February and Rosenberg sits at a table in the HUP cafeteria nibbling sushi from a plastic to-go container as she checks e-mail on her laptop.

Celine Gay, 27, calls Rosenberg to ask if she is coming to her room before Gay is discharged.

"M'ap vini, cheri," Rosenberg says. I'm on my way, dear.

As Rosenberg walks there, she talks on the phone to a hospital worker who wants her to sign papers and then to the ambulance company that will take Gay and another woman to the Germantown house.

When Rosenberg reaches the hospital room, Gay is anxious. A nurse goes over discharge papers with Rosenberg, who stops the conversation to translate into Creole. Gay relaxes.

Afterward, Rosenberg heads to Good Shepherd Penn Partners, which operates a rehabilitation hospital at 18th and Lombard Streets, where 21-year-old Sherline Pluriose also awaits discharge.

Most of Pluriose's belongings are in hospital-provided plastic bags on the floor.

"This is my worst nightmare right here - moving with 200 bags," Rosenberg says half-jokingly. "I can't blame anyone other than me. I should have known to buy extra suitcases."

Rosenberg sits down heavily on a folding chair at the table in the Germantown kitchen. She's tired.

"I don't sleep well," she says. "I have earthquake nightmares."

Her parents understand the emotional toll.

"It's hard to imagine it wouldn't have a severe emotional impact on her," says her father. "But she's strong and she keeps going."

Her mother says her youngest always had a tenacious streak.

"She wasn't well-coordinated as a child, so trying to catch a ball was hard. Her vision wasn't good," she remembers. "That didn't stop her from playing on a softball team."

Rosenberg's current team is made up of workers, volunteers, and friends of PIH. Support staff such as local contractor Israel Martinez (a "real hero," says Rosenberg), who renovated the house in less than a week, delivering far more than what PIH paid him and his crew to do.

She also counts on HUP nurses Darlene Rosier and Kerlange Mentor, Haitian Americans who helped treat the women patients and also befriended them.

The "volunteers extraordinaire," as Rosenberg calls them, still visit the women at the house and help however they can.

"We're friends now, we're part of the family," Rosier says of her fellow Haitians.

Nearly two months after the quake, there have been some unexpected health problems, but all of the airlifted patients have been discharged from the hospital.

Recently, Gay nimbly leaned on a crutch as she swept the kitchen floor and chatted with the others, none of whom knew each other until they met in Philadelphia.

Five-year-old Given Dorsinde, who suffered burns and broken bones in the earthquake, was discharged this week. Betina Joseph, 5, who was near death in Haiti, survived tetanus and is full of playful energy.

Fifteen-month-old Angelo Joseph is healthy and tottering around the house after a near-fatal bout with pneumonia. His father, Maudelaire Joseph (no relation to Betina), watches over him and helps in the house, quietly mourning his wife's death.

He searched for days through rubble for her. Only her Haitian identity card was found.

Joseph, in broken English, says he is grateful to everyone in Philadelphia who has helped him and his son. He gives special thanks to Rosenberg: "My son is safe now, so I am safe."

Rosenberg will wait until January to resume school and begin her clinical rotations. For now, she is not finished accompanying her Haitian patients.

"People say, 'Naomi, detach.' I'm not a martyr, I know how to take care of myself," she says. "But that doesn't include not showing up."

For more information on the work of Partners in Health in Philadelphia, e-mail philadelphia@pih.org.

Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214 or cdavis@phillynews.com.

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