January 25th, 2010
12:08 PM ET

Venting of compassion

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

In the aftermath of natural disasters, there is what I call a “venting of compassion.” It is a phrase I coined a few years ago after reporting on the tsunami in Sri Lanka. I was there for a few weeks and I soon saw a rush of aid to the devastated regions. Seemingly more water bottles than the nearby Indian Ocean, more T-shirts than the entire population of the country and aid organizations flying, driving and shipping in with relief supplies in hand, earnest to help. For me, and many people, seeing the images on TV and hearing the stories of anguish, stirs something deep in our humanity. We have an innate, instinctive, almost reflexive need to help. It is as if the world starts to vent compassion. Read more on why we feel compelled to help after a disaster.

It is a galvanizing thing to witness and I remember being so fulfilled to work side by side with these generous souls and report on their healing hands. It is a good thing and it is happening now in Haiti as well. Even as I write this blog, there planes circling overhead in Port-au-Prince with folks with humanitarian aid hoping to get a slot to land. If they can’t land here, they will most likely land in neighboring Dominican Republic and convoy across the border. Anything to lend a helping hand and have a therapeutic impact in a place that could really use it.

That is why it might not be that surprising that after a few days of limited help, there is now such a surge of surgeons, some medical personnel are being turned away from some of the big hospitals in Port-au-Prince. “We appreciate your efforts, but we have more surgeons than we need,” is being repeated at the general hospital in downtown. I was told of one neurosurgeon from Oregon who started crying upon hearing these words. “Surely, there is something I can do,” she sobbed. The director of the hospital had her changing dressings and helping clean up the area, and she happily complied. Anything to help, anything at all, anything – to vent compassion.

To be sure, there are medical needs here in Haiti, and the need will be persistent in the months and years to come.  However, as I am learning, some of the unmet needs are farther away from Port-au-Prince and in the mountain areas, which are often forgotten. Mobile surgical teams are now being created to help there. And, while there may be an adequate number of neurosurgeons in some areas, there are hardly ever enough of the true workhorses of any hospital, nurses. Most places still need both acute and chronic nursing care.  And, what of all the amputees, having lost their limbs while being extricated from rubble or because of gangrene. They will need rehabilitation and prosthetics to walk, run, and even dance again.

Yes, the venting of compassion is undeniably a good thing. But it must be a productive, effective and organized venting as well. Perhaps, planning a humanitarian trip in a few weeks or months would be a smart strategy for you, if you are considering this. In a short time TVs are likely to go dark on this story and you will have to flip through many pages of copy to get to a story about Haiti, but continue to vent your compassion. I will be right there with you.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.