Pittsburgh medical staff, Rendell, Altmire, doctors on plane to Haiti

Luis Fábregas
| Monday, Jan. 18, 2010

Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire today joined a team of doctors and others on a charter plane to Haiti that left Pittsburgh about noon and could bring back nearly half the children in an orphanage run by two Ben Avon sisters.

Rendell, Altmire and other Pennsylvania lawmakers worked over the weekend to secure the children's departure. The plane had been expected to leave at 9 a.m. but was delayed several hours when it finally left Pittsburgh International Airport, according to several people with knowledge of the trip.

The mission is expected to bring to Pittsburgh 61 of 150 children at the BRESMA orphanage in Port-au-Prince, said Gary Tuma, a Rendell spokesman. The plane landed in Miami about 3 p.m., Tuma said. It is expected to return to Pittsburgh about midnight.

Last week's 7.0-magnitude earthquake mostly destroyed the orphanage. Jamie and Ali McMutrie of Ben Avon, who have run part of the orphanage since 2007, expressed fears for their safety and well-being and told friends and relatives they are short on supplies such as food and water.

Larry Smar, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, said today the orphanage received food, water and medical supplies but "there remains a need to provide security and more resources" for BRESMA and other orphanages in the capital. Smar said Casey was not on the plane.

Tuma said 41 of the 61 children coming to Pittsburgh are in various stages of the adoption process. They will be evaluated at Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville, he said.

"They don't know what they're going to find once they get down there," Tuma said. "We're hoping for a quick turnaround."

The mission was the culmination of efforts by lawmakers and several small groups trying to figure out a way to help the earthquake-ravaged nation. It wasn't clear how many people were on the plane but Tuma said the team included several doctors and nurses from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, West Penn Allegheny Health System and the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System.

The group did not include former federal prosecutor Mary Beth Buchanan, who had been working toward the same goal.

"I had little prior knowledge of the attempted air rescue mission that departed from Pittsburgh today, though I have since been advised that some of the resources aboard the flight were collected through the efforts of myself and others," Buchanan said in a statement. "Now that it is underway I am hopeful for the best, and continue to pray for the safety of young Jamie and Ali, this group of Haitian orphans and all of the people suffering in Haiti."

The group sponsoring the flight approached the North Side-based charity Brother's Brother this weekend and asked if it had medical supplies it could donate, said Luke Hingson, president of Brother's Brother Foundation. The organization sent along antibiotics, surgical packs, surgical instruments and other items, he said. Hingson declined to identify the sponsors of the flight or say when the plane will return.

A spokesman for West Penn Allegheny Health System said three people from the hospital network were aboard the plane. They include Dr. Chip Lambert, an emergency medicine physician who is the volunteer medical director for Brother's Brother, a neonatologist, and a pediatric critical care physician assistant, said Dan Laurent, West Penn's director of media relations.

Laurent said one of its hospitals, Allegheny General's Suburban campus in Bellevue, is prepared to help evaluate any of the children if necessary. The hospital houses West Penn Allegheny's inpatient pediatric critical care program. Lambert is expected to spend about five or six days assisting in Haiti, Hingson said.

Two people from Pittsburgh Mercy Health System were on the plane, according to spokeswoman Kimberly Flaherty. They were: Dr. Mary Carrasco, who runs the child advocacy program "A Child's Place at Mercy," and Smana Pamphile-Clerse, a native of Haiti who is a crisis clinician for Mercy Behavioral Health.

Paul Wood, a spokesman for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, declined to talk about the mission. UPMC last week convened a planning group to determine how it could help victims of the earthquake. The group includes: Clyde Jones, president of the Medical and Health Sciences Foundation; Deb redmond, vice president of ambulatory services at UPMC Presbyterian; and Bill Smith, senior director of emergency preparedness.

Allegheny County's Department of Human Services has a list of 300 licensed caregivers to temporarily care for the Haitian refugees, said Megan Dardanell, a spokeswoman for County Executive Dan Onorato.

Representatives from the county's human services, health and police departments, and emergency services met this afternoon to discuss the plans, Dardanell said.

"We don't have confirmation of anything that's going to happen, but we're putting plans in place because we want to be pepared," she said. "There are a number of county departments greatly involved with the possibility of bringing children in from a foreign country."

— Staff writers Margaret Harding and Adam Brandolph contributed to this report.

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