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HomeNewsArchivesIsland Profile: Amy Gurlea Fights to Make Order Out of Chaos

Island Profile: Amy Gurlea Fights to Make Order Out of Chaos

Amy GurleaAmy Gurlea arrives for our interview with a phone plugged to her ear, juggling her purse, a backpack and a clipboard, her normal appearance since the day after Haiti was ravaged by the earthquake.

The clipboard holds a draft of instructions for medical teams going to join the relief efforts in Haiti and a complete layout of the newly organized Community Hospital in Frere. Though Gurlea is a registered nurse, she is the logistics person on the mission, a skill which comes to her naturally. She is flexible and resilient. And her energy is, apparently, boundless.

"I nurse when necessary, but my job is to keep things organized and moving," she says.

Gurlea is graciously taking time for an interview before rushing to meet Carmen Partridge to set up plans for Saturday’s Virgin Islands Haitian Medical and Children’s Relief Trip. She returned Tuesday from the mission’s first trip.

The nurse, logistician, yoga instructor and teacher, moved to St. Thomas from Pennsylvania in 1988, when her husband took a job in the construction industry.

She went to work as a registered nurse at the Roy Lester Schneider hospital soon after arriving, just in time for Hurricane Hugo, which slammed into the islands in 1989. The experience strongly influenced Gurlea’s current mission.

"We worked four days straight," she recalls. "We’d set up a Red Cross disaster shelter at the hospital, but there weren’t enough doctors and nurses to care for everyone. We were really hit hard."

After four days, she says, a medical team from Boston Medical Center arrived.

"I’ve never forgotten the help and support they gave us. It made us feel so much better. They told us to go home and rest. That’s always stayed with me."

Gurlea left Schneider in 1991 to join Antilles School as school nurse, a post she held until 2000, when she moved to become coordinator of the school’s Mark C. Marin Center, Jackson Wellness Complex, and the school’s athletic director. .

When she got the news about Haiti, she says, "Basically, something inside me said, ‘you gotta go.’"

She already knew Partridge.

"When you live on St. Thomas, one person gets something going and the dots get connected. We put out a call for medical supplies, for doctors and nurses. Carmen called Dr. Adam Shapiro, and he helped line up the doctors. The nurses volunteered from the hospital, and the hospital donated supplies and Carmen lined up the private aircraft. She’s very persuasive."

Possibly the most critical of those dots was Michele Baker, a Haitian who lives on St. Thomas and has family in Haiti. Baker went on the first flight as translator and ground contact.

After first setting up shop at a field hospital, the group was soon shuttled to the Haitian Community Hospital.

"The hospital director was killed in the quake," Gurlea says. "There was so much to do right away. We set up a triage station, where the nurses were handling three patients at a time. We created a support system on the ground. The hospital has become the supply center."

Gurlea had her hands more than full with organizing amid the chaos.

"The doctors did 88 amputations and 142 surgical procedures from Saturday to Tuesday when I was there. Fifty people died, and we had five births. We had acute crush injuries, with open compound wounds."

Gurlea recounts one incident she won’t soon forget.

"I was outside the hospital getting something when this crowd surrounded me, taking me to a car with a woman who wasn’t breathing. I radioed a code blue. I’d just gotten my breath and turned around, when a newborn infant was placed in my arms, the umbilical cord just cut," she says. "Birth and death in one instant, the life cycle."

The staff lived on energy bars, and little else.

"We created a little tent city," she says. "I slept on air bags, some of the support staff slept in chairs. We dug holes for latrines."

Gurlea’s focus is totally on returning.

"Every minute you’re not there, you know someone is dying," she says. "Until I feel I’ve finished the task I set out to do, I can’t stop thinking about it. The medical staff is overworked, you might get a needle prick, it’s taxing, they’re stressed out."

She says they set up a discharge center for the amputations and other surgeries.

"We need to give them 10 days worth of antibiotics, pain meds and vitamins. They must return in 10 days to get their dressings changed. We are working with the most rudimentary tools. They need everything."

Right now she is working on instructions for the new teams.

"They need to know what to expect, where the operating room is, supplies, sleeping tents. When the they arrive, they are given gloves and set to work."

Gurlea smiles when she talks of her first trip.

"We had no idea what we were walking into. We came together as strangers, and became friends."

Gurlea left Saturday with a new medical team.

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