Three brothers, all doctors, volunteer in their homeland after the quake

From left, Haitian-born Ford brothers Jean, Henri ’80, and Billy ’83 in Port-au-Prince, where they cared for earthquake victims.
courtesy Billy Ford ’83

It did not take long for Henri Ford ’80 to respond to the disaster of the Haiti earthquake. Four days after the January quake, the Haitian-American pediatric surgeon landed in the Ameri­can embassy in Port-au-Prince, which had become a temporary hospital of sorts, and came face-to-face with a 6-year-old boy whose abdomen had been crushed when the ceiling of a building fell on him.

“A closet had been turned into an operating room just to do amputations, but this was a kid who had had no medical attention for four days. He was very ill, and there was really no safe place to operate on him,” said Ford. The boy and Ford were transported by helicopter to the USS Carl Vincent, an aircraft carrier stationed off the coast, where a better surgical facility awaited.  

“Anyone who knows me knows that to get me on a helicopter, you’d have to have me unconscious,” said Ford, with a somewhat embarrassed chuckle. “But the boy and his needs gave me the strength to get on there. The naval surgeon and I did the operation, and the boy was saved. You cannot have a better feeling.”

Henri was not the only Ford family doctor to go to Haiti on a volunteer medical mission. His brothers Billy ’83, an anesthesiologist at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y.; and Jean, a 1978 Columbia University graduate and pulmonary specialist at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, arrived a few days later. They came under the auspices of Medishare, a nonprofit with a longstanding interest in Haitian medical relief.

While Henri Ford was stationed in facilities nearer to Port-au-Prince for about two weeks, Billy and Jean worked in a makeshift tent-hospital — almost like a MASH unit — near the airport.

“The one good thing about working in these tents is you know where everyone is,” said Billy Ford. “We were doing 30 to 35 operations a day, but if it was the middle of the night and they needed an anesthesiologist, I was only a few bunks away. My brother Jean had a ­surgeon in the bunk next to him. The X-ray man was by me. In a strange sense, it was easy.”

What was hard, both Henri and Billy Ford said, was seeing the devastation of their native land and knowing that the aftermath could be even more brutal. Their family had immigrated to Brooklyn when they were boys, and among their family members only their older sister Marlene, the principal of the American school in Port-au-Prince, was living in Haiti when the earthquake struck. Soon after the quake, she left for the United States.

Billy and Jean Ford returned to their regular jobs in the United States after about a week of emergency work, but Henri Ford, the vice president and surgeon-in-chief at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, returned to Haiti in February to provide more care.

“The major problem now is that there is basically no trauma system at all in Haiti,” said Henri Ford. “And a lot of the volunteer people are leaving, but we have a second wave of people dying because they need follow-up care.

Robert Strauss is a writer in Haddonfield, N.J.