TRINITY — A woman walked for miles in labor so American doctors could deliver her baby. A man had a toe as big as a peach because of an ingrown toenail. Children's already meager nutrients were being stolen by intestinal worms.
Dr. Leo Vieira never forgot those images, now memories of his previous medical mission trips to Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
So when the 36-year-old family practice doctor saw news that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake had rocked Haiti, he thought of only one thing.
How could he get there?
He tried the American Red Cross. Doctors Without Borders. Other nonprofit groups. No one was making arrangements to bring in volunteers.
"I was so frustrated," recalled Vieira, whose father was a physician with the World Health Organization.
Finally, Vieira got the break he needed from an old friend two states away. The friends had done residencies together in Orlando. Michael White, now a doctor in the small South Carolina town of Newberry, had connections to an orphanage just outside Port-au-Prince where he and his wife had volunteered and adopted a son. He was assembling a team to set up a clinic there.
"Can you pray for us?" the e-mail said.
Vieira did more than that. He called his friend and snagged the last available spot.
He was set to leave for the disaster-ravaged country Tuesday on American Airlines, but commercial flights to Haiti are being canceled. White was about to call congressional representatives. On Friday, a prominent South Carolina dentist offered the use of his private jet. It will fly to Tampa on Tuesday and then to either Haiti or the neighboring Dominican Republic. Once there, they can try to cross the border by taxi or bus.
In the meantime, Vieira's wife, Guiga, immediately shifted into warp drive, gathering as much in cash and medical supplies as possible. The 38-year-old former social worker said she'd love to join her husband, but someone has to stay with their children, ages 6 and 7.
"When they are old enough, we want to take them with us," said Guiga, who went on the mission trips before becoming a mom. While there, she saw people get operated on with little or no painkillers, who would show intense gratitude for even one acetaminophen tablet.
"It changes your perspective," she said.
"Leo going to Haiti — Help us help them!" said the e-mail that was sent to family and friends. The team is limited in how much they can take, and they must also bring in water and protein bars for their own sustenance for the week or so they're there. So money was the best way to help.
"All the money will be used for medical supplies," Guiga said. Volunteers are paying for their own travel and food.
The donors didn't disappoint. The group has collected a couple thousand dollars, with more coming in. Trinity Elementary School, where the Vieiras' two children attend and where Guiga volunteers, has helped spread the word and on Friday let teachers donate for the privilege to wear jeans. Some pharmacies donated antibiotics and other medicines.
Guiga and a friend visiting from the Vieiras' native country of Brazil have spent the past few days filling snack-size plastic bags with a month's supply of gummy vitamins for children. The dining room table is cluttered with bottles of non-prescription painkillers, which are running dangerously low in Haiti.
The Vieiras hope this is the first of many visits to Haiti. They are now setting up a nonprofit foundation to collect tax-deductible donations.
So why give up a comfortable lifestyle in Trinity for a place where your only bath will likely be done with baby wipes?
"I don't mean to undermine the sinus infections and strep throats I treat here," said Vieira, who spent so much of his residency doing mission trips that he was told to finish up stateside. "But you can do so much for so little in those countries. The people are so desperate and so appreciative."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.