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John Brebbia: Surgeon's Work Honors Fallen Friend

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, December 2, 2010

"In the face of such a huge and overwhelming tragedy I saw people who really acted in a decent manner."

In our annual HealthLeaders 20, we profile individuals who are changing healthcare for the better. Some are longtime industry fixtures; others would clearly be considered outsiders. Some are revered; others would not win many popularity contests. All of them are playing a crucial role in making the healthcare industry better. This is John Brebbia's story.

For trauma surgeon John Brebbia, MD, volunteer work in Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake was inspired by the memory of a fallen colleague, as much as it was by the knowledge that the practical expertise and care he could provide was desperately needed in the stricken island nation.

"I had a good friend who really would do this kind of thing on a fairly regular basis. That included him joining the military to be a doctor in Iraq," Brebbia says of U.S. Army Maj. John P. Pryor, MD. "Unfortunately, John was killed by a mortar on Christmas Day 2008. I know that if he had still been alive he would have gone to Haiti. Since he was not alive, that space was not filled. I know he would have been on me to go, go, go, and as a tribute to him I went."

Brebbia, of Dover, DE, became one of the thousands of healthcare professionals who travelled to Haiti in the days immediately after the quake.

The United Nations estimates that between 250,000 and 300,000 people were killed by the 7.0 magnitude temblor, although no firm number has been established. Hundreds of thousands more suffered from traumatic injuries as well as illnesses  resulting from the ensuing breakdown in public sanitation.

Brebbia was part of a 22-member team of healthcare professionals affiliated with Christiana Care and Bay Health Medical Center in Delaware that travelled to the flattened hillside city of Jacmel, 90 miles south of Port au Prince, eight days after the quake.

"It is an unbelievable, overwhelming sight. You can see the pictures but you cannot even fathom it until you are standing there looking at it," Brebbia says. "Jacmel is built on a hillside. You stand at the foot of the hill and everything is in rubble and there are people living in the streets. More than one person, when they stood there and looked at it, cried because of what they saw."

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