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Haitian-American Officer Seeks to Aid Communications

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

AT SEA ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT, Jan. 19, 2010 – Mill Etienne was 5 years old when his family fled Haiti in 1981 to escape the violence of the Duvalier regime.

Now, Navy Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Mill Etienne is returning to the island nation to help Haiti in its hour of need.

Etienne is a neurologist aboard the USNS Comfort, which sailed from Baltimore Jan. 16 and is expected to arrive in Haiti later this week. The Yale and Columbia-trained physician is helping his fellow medical professionals understand Haiti and Haitians before they begin treating them aboard the ship.

“Basically, the crew will be much better received if they are educated on Haitian history, Haitian culture and also know some Haitian language,” Etienne said to reporters traveling aboard the Comfort. The commander is being helped by 14 other members of the crew who also are from Haiti.

He is putting together instructions for the doctors, nurses and corpsmen aboard the vessel, as well as a Haitian “word of the day” for the medical professionals.

The relief effort is personal to the commander. He still has close family and many friends living in Haiti, and they have been affected by the earthquake. One of his cousins was buried in the rubble of the Hotel Montana in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, but was brought out alive after two days. Many family friends still have not been found, Etienne said, and he fears they are dead.

Reports out of Port-au-Prince are dire. Government estimates of the death toll are now up to 200,000. An estimated 150,000 people are injured, and another 1.5 million are homeless.

One fundamental of medical care is communication, Etienne said. Cultural understanding will help that process, and the communication must be two ways, he added. “The patients must understand that they have a choice,” he said. “Everything must be explained to the patient, and then they make the choice. I know we’re doing a service and giving aid to this country, but they are still people who have a choice, and I’m going to make sure that happens.”

Haitians are fighters and have a lot of pride, Etienne said, and Americans need to understand that pride.

“I’m grateful that my mother and father moved from Haiti when they did,” he said. “I’m grateful for the wonderful education that I received in the United States. And I’m particularly proud and honored that this time while serving the United States, I’m going back to serve Haiti – two countries that I’ve grown to know and love throughout my life. This time, I’m on a mission serving both.”

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Related Sites:
USNS Comfort
Special Report: Haiti Earthquake Relief

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