The use of volunteer interpreters during the 2010 Haiti earthquake: Lessons learned from the USNS COMFORT Operation Unified Response Haiti


  • Clydette Powell, MD, MPH, FAAP
  • Claire Pagliara-Miller, RN, PhD



Haiti, earthquake, COMFORT, interpreter, volunteer


On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude Richter earthquake devastated Haiti, leading to the world’s largest humanitarian effort in 60 years. The catastrophe led to massive destruction of homes and buildings, the loss of more than 200,000 lives, and overwhelmed the host nation response and its public health infrastructure. Among the many responders, the United States Government acted immediately by sending assistance to Haiti including a naval hospital ship as a tertiary care medical center, the USNS COMFORT. To adequately respond to the acute needs of patients, healthcare professionals on the USNS COMFORT relied on Haitian Creole-speaking volunteers who were recruited by the American Red Cross (ARC). These volunteers complemented full-time Creole-speaking military staff on board. The ARC provided 78 volunteers who were each able to serve up to 4 weeks on board. Volunteers’ demographics, such as age and gender, as well as linguistic skills, work background, and prior humanitarian assistance experience varied. Volunteer efforts were critical in assisting with informed consent for surgery, family reunification processes, explanation of diagnosis and treatment, comfort to patients and families in various stages of grieving and death, and helping healthcare professionals to understand the cultural context and sensitivities unique to Haiti. This article explores key lessons learned in the use of volunteer interpreters in earthquake disaster relief in Haiti and highlights the approaches that optimize volunteer services in such a setting, and which may be applicable in similar future events.

Author Biographies

Clydette Powell, MD, MPH, FAAP

Medical Officer, Bureau for Global Health, US Agency for International Development, Washington, District of Columbia; Child Neurologist and Inter-Agency Liaison, USNS COMFORT for Operation Unified Response Haiti, Washington, District of Columbia.

Claire Pagliara-Miller, RN, PhD

CAPT USN (Ret), NGO Coordinator, USNS COMFORT for Operation Unified Response Hait, Herndon, Virginia.


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How to Cite

Powell, MD, MPH, FAAP, C., and C. Pagliara-Miller, RN, PhD. “The Use of Volunteer Interpreters During the 2010 Haiti Earthquake: Lessons Learned from the USNS COMFORT Operation Unified Response Haiti”. American Journal of Disaster Medicine, vol. 7, no. 1, Jan. 2012, pp. 37-47, doi:10.5055/ajdm.2012.0079.




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