Last month, on Aug. 14, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck the Caribbean nation of Haiti. Two days later on Aug. 16, Telluride local Heidi Attenberger received a call from Team Rubicon, the disaster relief organization she volunteers with, asking her to pack her bags and fly to Haiti as soon as possible.
A paramedic for the Telluride Fire Protection District, Attenberger rose to the occasion and tried to catch a 10 a.m. flight out of Montrose the following day.
“It’s all pretty stressful,” Attenberger said. “I have to change all my paramedic shifts and find people to cover my shift and pack up, not knowing where I’m going or what I’m doing.”
While working with Team Rubicon, Attenberger has become a pro at packing for international disaster trips. Typically, the disaster-stricken areas she visits are hot and humid climates where jackets and heavy layers are unnecessary.
“You can’t bring anything that you’re not willing to lose or get dirty. The clothing will be ruined along the way,” Attenberger said.
One of the first things Attenberger packs are her Team Rubicon shirts. Over the years, Team Rubicon has grown dramatically, and they do not have enough shirts to give out to all of their team members, which now includes over 100,000 people from across the country.
Team Rubicon was started in 2010 after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12, 2010. That’s when two Marines, Jake Wood and William McNulty, decided to act.
“Gathering supplies and volunteers, the small group of veterans, first responders and medical professionals deployed to Haiti in the days following the earthquake,” according to the Team Rubicon website. “From this initial operation, a larger organization grew, one committed to helping underserved communities impacted by disasters.”
Last month, Attenberger flew with Team Rubicon to Haiti, where the initial operation and organization began.
“It was really special to be back there 11 years later in Haiti with the team and with another earthquake,” Attenberger said.
During the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, an estimated 250,000 people died and at least another 300,000 were injured. While the most recent earthquake was twice as strong as the one in 2010, the death toll was much lower. This disparity is partly because the epicenter was 78 miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince, in Haiti’s more rural, less populated areas. According to the United Nations, the death toll was over 2,000 and injuries surpassed 9,900.
As Attenberger sat on the plane getting ready to land in the disaster zone, she tried to get a sense of the devastation on the ground, but in Haiti, that wasn’t easy.
“There is so much ruined already from the previous earthquake that hasn’t been fixed yet,” Attenberger said. “This earthquake was not so widespread as the one in 2010, so you could not see things from the air. One house would be completely flattened between other houses that were still standing.”
After landing in Port-au-Prince, Attenberger and her team took a U.S military Black Hawk helicopter to reach Les Cayes. Les Cayes is a small city on Haiti’s southwest coast and was one of the hardest hit communities of the August earthquake. The team could not take cars “because the only roads going down to the more rural areas were controlled by Haitian gangs,” Attenberger explained.
In Les Chey, they stayed in an orphanage run by an American Christian group that had an extra bunkroom for guests.
Attenberger’s role during the two-week mission was to support Haitian doctors in a local hospital, specifically in the pediatric unit. The “emergency room” the hospital had set up wasn’t “really a room; it was an emergency area and triage,” recalled Attenberger.
When the 2021 earthquake struck, Haiti was still recovering from the earthquake 11 years ago. In addition to natural disasters, their president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in his home on July 7, leaving the nation in a state of political unrest. At the hospital, Attenberger witnessed the effect years of turmoil and devastation have had on the people of Haiti.
“The Haitians take it like this is just what their life is like now,” Attenberger said. “When I’m here, I get so upset about the littlest thing. It helps to put things in perspective. They must wait forever in lines because that’s part of their life. There were so few of us and so many of them that needed help and treatment, but nobody ever complained.”
Volunteering in Haiti and her countless trips with Team Rubicon have presented Attenberger with an abundance of challenges. However, due to her background, Attenberger was prepared to face most of these obstacles. For the past decade, Attenberger has worked as a paramedic for the Telluride Fire Protection District.
“Being a paramedic helps you to do this in a physically challenging environment. A big challenge is the unexpected, and that’s what I do in my daily life, too. I never know what to expect in the next hour or the next 10 minutes sometimes. That’s what it’s like to go on a Team Rubicon operation where you often have no idea what to expect,” she said.
Susan Lilly, the public information officer fore the fire protection district, echoed that sentiment.
“The very nature of emergency medical services requires medics to be ready for any type of call at any time,” Lilly said. “We all train to be prepared physically and mentally ready and have our equipment ready for that next call.”
According to Lilly, the emergency medical field and what Attenberger does with Team Rubicon share similarities, but are also vastly different.
“You have to be a selfless and caring person to do either. But the difference in what Heidi does is that she is performing in adverse and perhaps even unstable environments with poor conditions,” Lilly said.
Attenberger acknowledges she couldn’t do what she does without the support of her team in Telluride.
“I couldn’t do it if they didn’t cover my shifts when I’m gone,” Attenberger said. “I know it puts hardships on my fellow paramedics, but I want them to all know that in the time I was gone, we saw over 1,000 patients. If you save a few lives and possibly a few limbs, I think it’s worth it.”