Volunteer: One can make a difference

Local surgeon goes on a mission to Haiti

By Lee Schoenbart


Through avalanches, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and now earthquakes, this emergency room physician assistant always remembers to take along his lucky surgical hat wherever disaster strikes.

Cyril Thomas’ surgical hat resembles an African kofia, a brimless cylindrical cap with a flat crown. Thomas has a colorful motif with the flags of many nations. Sadly, Thomas had to don the hat during a humanitarian mission to Haiti following last month’s earthquake.

“I have had this surgical hat since 1993 when I went back to my native country of Madagascar to help a group of plastic surgeons perform reconstructive surgery,” said Thomas, a 16-year resident of Carmel Valley. “I took it along on my other medical and surgical trips to Haiti, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, San Salvador, Ecuador and Mexico.”

This was Thomas’ third trip to Haiti, his two previous trips were on medical missions in 2007 and 2009. For last month’s trip, he took two weeks’ personal vacation time from his job as an emergency room physician assistant at Kaiser Permanente in Mission Valley. Thomas said he would like to go back, but does not think it financially feasible with his own family to care for.

Why Haiti for a third time?

“It’s probably more of who I am as a person,” Thomas explained. “I was born in Africa, in Madagascar, and Madagascar and Haiti are kind of on the same poverty level. I think Haiti is No. 20 (in the world) and Madagascar is the 25th poorest country in the world. I believe we have a lot (in America) and we need to share it.”

After landing in Haiti, Thomas said one of the doctors there summed up the experience.

“I can tell it in a very different way because I asked one of the local physicians when we arrived, ‘Can you describe the conditions in Port au Prince?’ and she said, ‘This is the Apocalypse.’

“For me, it was something I was used to because I’ve done many, many medical missions and surgical missions all over the world,” Thomas said. “My first two days, I spent a lot of time in surgery helping perform emergency amputations. After my first two days, we worked in one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in Port au Prince called Cite Soleil.”

He made the trek as part of New York City Medics, a group of professionals who volunteer in the immediate aftermath of disasters to serve the emergency medical needs of the injured who would otherwise be inaccessible by a variety of barriers. His education, extensive medical experience and linguistic skills made Thomas a very good fit for the team.

Thomas studied to become a physician assistant at the Medical College of Georgia, did his surgical residency at the Norwalk Hospital/Yale School of Medicine and emergency room residency at the University of Nebraska. His practical experience during disasters includes ski patrol and avalanche research work. Thomas and his son volunteered during the county’s wildfires a few years ago, spending three days at QUALCOMM Stadium. Additionally, he speaks French, Creole and English.

About the Haiti mission, he said, “We have excellent cooperation with the 82nd Airborne (Division). Without them, we could not have done what we did. The true mission of New York City Medics is to reach out to people who have not had any medical care since the earthquake.

“We went to the epicenter of the earthquake and we had the wonderful support and safety of the 82nd Airborne,” he said. “It was a great combination of civility and working side by side with the Army for one goal — to be able to help people in desperate need.”

But the crisis is far from over and Thomas said there’s an enormous amount of work to be done.

“In Haiti right now, there’s basically a need for everybody,” he said. “There’s a need for everything, everywhere.”

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