Beth donating at MSF, 2012
I've been visiting (and occasionally living in) Haiti since 1998. These days, it seems like there are more foreigners than ever visiting Haiti. I know a lot of the increase is due to the publicity Haiti received after the earthquake. I suspect that this increase in visitors will continue for some time.
One very beneficial thing that short-term visitors to (and long-term residents of) Haiti can do is to donate blood. There are always severe shortages of blood in Haiti, which unfortunately means that many people who need a blood transfusion do not get one.
In the United States, we have a volunteer blood donation system that works relatively well. There are oftentimes temporary shortages, but it is rare that blood is unavailable. In many hospitals, blood (type O negative) can be transfused immediately, if needed, even before blood typing tests are done. This saves lives.
In Haiti the situation is very different. I am most familiar with how the system works in Port au Prince. Keep in mind that Port au Prince is the largest city in Haiti, and, in general, has more medical resources available compared to the rest of the country. At most (though not all) hospitals in Port au Prince, blood is not immediately available for transfusion, even if someone is in danger of dying due to ongoing blood loss or severe anemia.
Because blood shortages are so severe, at most hospitals, a person in need of a blood transfusion must first recruit multiple other people who are willing to donate blood on their behalf. These people must go to a blood donation center, fill out paperwork, have basic lab tests done, and then (if they qualify), complete the donation process. Even if they are willing, many people are not eligible to donate blood due to existing medical conditions, current illness, anemia, and so on.
As you can imagine, the process of finding enough eligible people to donate blood on your behalf is not quick or easy. Sometimes, it means that a person with severe anemia or life-threatening bleeding never receives the blood they need, and sometimes it means that people die because the wait for a transfusion is too long. I have seen this happen multiple times. Even in the best case scenario, it means that an "emergency" blood transfusion is oftentimes delayed by a day or two or more. I am not familiar with how blood is collected, processed, and transfused in other cities outside of Port au Prince, but I suspect the delays are even worse in many locations.
There is one medical organization (that I know of) that has a policy of giving blood transfusions emergently when needed. This is a lifesaving policy, but unfortunately, this organization's ability to do this is the exception, not the rule. And even at this organization's hospitals, people who receive blood emergently must still find people to donate blood on their behalf to "pay back" what was used for them. I completely understand this policy--requiring people to pay back what they used means that the hospital will be able to continue providing blood on an emergent basis. Yet even at this hospital, they deal with acute blood shortages regularly.
I don't pretend to think that having foreigners donate blood in Haiti is somehow going to solve this huge problem. And I fully realize that the system of having to find others to donate on your behalf is probably not going to change any time soon. But every donation matters, and every donation helps. If you are going to be in Haiti, please take a few hours and go donate blood. It is a relatively easy and straight-forward process. I have given blood in Haiti and can attest to the fact that it is completely safe.
I put together a Google Document that explains the blood donation process for three locations in Port au Prince. You can access that document HERE. Please feel free to share this document with others. And please give!
Jen donating at the Red Cross at General Hospital, 2011 (yes I was sweating...but they've since installed air conditioning in this donation center!)
Visiting group donating at the Red Cross in the Digicel Building, 2012