Alumni Association

Debbie Johnson

When Debbie Johnson first saw the coverage of Haiti’s devastating earthquake on the news, she felt just like everyone else—shocked at the level of destruction and saddened for the people who watched their world crumble. She had no idea that 36 hours later she would be on a plane bringing medical relief to the island.

Johnson, a 1972 DeKalb College nursing graduate and current secretary of the GPC Nursing Alumni Association, is a member of the Georgia Disaster Medical Assistance Team. More than 30 volunteer DMATs operate throughout the United States, bringing much needed medical care to victims of large-scale disasters. Johnson worked during the 1996 Olympics, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Her team’s two-week Haiti mission was one of the first three DMAT international deployments in history.

Within a day and a half of the earthquake, Johnson and a team of 35 other doctors, nurses, pharmacists and paramedics headed toward the desolated island nation. Their adventure began before the plane even touched down. In the confusion around Haiti’s airspace, the team’s plane nearly collided with another aircraft. Pressure in the cabin dropped dramatically, and oxygen masks fell from the ceiling. The pilot was forced to make an emergency landing in Turks and Caicos.

Once on the ground in Haiti, the team set up a medical holding facility for critical patients who were being evacuated to the USNS Comfort. They provided care until helicopters could transport the patients. At one point, a rescue helicopter landed too close to the team’s tent city, sending their housing and belongings flying.

“There we were taking care of patients as we watched our sleeping bags blow away,” Johnson said.

The team cared for approximately 60 patients a day—people with traumatic crush injuries and other life-threatening injuries, women in labor and children whose parents were missing.

A young soccer player in their care had been inside a practice facility with his team when the roof collapsed on them. He had been left for dead but kept waving his hand until rescue crews found him.

“He had tears in his eyes talking about his teammates,” Johnson said.

The human spirit continued to triumph even in the face of destruction. Johnson said one of her patients who had multiple fractures sang hymns to keep up the spirits of her fellow patients.

“I was struck by what a stoic people the Hatians were,” Johnson said. “The patients were being cared for in very austere conditions with minimal resources, but they were extremely humble and grateful. Our team left knowing we contributed in some small way to helping these people recover from such a catastrophic event.”