Ophelia Dahl: Extended Interview

Partners in Health executive director, Wellesley grad, daughter of Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal, 46, Cambridge.

When the earthquake happened, yours was one of the few organizations that could respond immediately and directly because you had hundreds of people already on the ground in Haiti. What was happening here in Boston?
We had a situation room here [at the Commonwealth Avenue headquarters] where we were moving magnets around to say, “Here’s an offer of a plane, here’s an offer of supplies, here’s a team from Partners Healthcare, from Children’s Hospital, from the Brigham, and they’ve got 10 days that they can all go.” We put it all together to make sure they had a landing slot.

Because it was hard to even land at the time. Lots of relief planes were circling.
A lot of planes were sent away, but we managed to get our planes in because we had folks on the ground who could clear Customs. We had close to 500 tons of supplies that got into Port au Prince airport, and then we had trucks and people and Customs personnel who could serve as a supply chain.

Sounds like you were more efficient than—
Than a lot of people. We’re not a disaster-relief organization at all, but it was that platform that allowed us to respond. We had ways to get things to different people.

And it probably never felt like enough.
It’s still very hard to know that after all this support you can still walk into what’s become a refugee camp and see children and babies and people who can’t sleep at night because there’s 12 inches of mud. They collect dust and rock from the rubble and put it on the floor to try to absorb the mud — it’s easier to “sleep” on rocks than it is on mud. There are mosquitoes, sewage. We were literally slooping around in the mud as we walked and that was, you know, sewage. The camp directors are trying to be as organized as possible — there were piles of rubbish, and they said to me, “We’ve appealed to several organizations to help us remove this stuff.” The people aren’t living in this filth because they can’t be bothered to clean up their trash; quite the reverse. A woman came up to me and said a rat had bitten her child in the night because there was all this trash around.

Some people may not know you also work right here at home. Tell us more about PACT (Prevention and Access to Care and Treatment), the HIV program.
PACT was begun in the ’90s and was based on the model in Haiti, using community health workers. We realized what HIV patients needed was accompaniment — they couldn’t get to the hospital, or they came home with 12 sets of pills and didn’t take them. [PACT] workers now go visit every day, to help address those things that get in the way of healthcare. It’s a great model for other chronic diseases — diabetes, mental illness, anything that needs some kind of daily accompaniment. We think it’s a fantastic model for this country. It’s something Boston should be very proud of.