Dr. Andrew Furey
Breaking new ground in global health with Team Broken Earth
Inside his doctor’s briefcase — along with all the expected accouterments of an MD, MSc, FRCSC, associate professor of surgery and president and CEO of Team Broken Earth — Andrew Furey carries two small hunks of cement. They represent the “two people who have had the largest influence on my desire to help those in need,” he explains.
The first remnant comes from the demolition of Newfoundland’s infamous Mount Cashel orphanage, where his father, George, spent part of his childhood. Despite that less than optimal beginning, George Furey managed to put himself through Memorial University, become a teacher, a principal, a lawyer, a political organizer and a Canadian Senator. Not to mention the father of four, including Andrew, now 39.
“My father has always been an inspiration for me,” Andrew explains. “His leadership style is one of a calming demeanor, while being able to motivate. He has influenced me to be sensitive, empathetic and have confidence in a cause that you believe in. His piece of cement keeps me grounded in the path which my family history has taken and to never lose sight of how sure determination can change the world.”
The second chunk of cement? Well that’s another story entirely. Unrelated. But related.
It begins in early 2010, soon after a devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake heaved up the dirt-poor country of Haiti near its threemillion- residents capital of Port-au- Prince. By the time the last of more than 50 aftershocks had subsided, close to 200,000 people were dead, 300,000 homes and buildings had collapsed or needed to be demolished and more than a million people were living on the streets amid the rubble.
There was a desperate need for everything, including, of course, doctors to treat the hundreds of thousands of injured and ill.
Andrew Furey was among the thousands to answer the call.
Before going to Haiti, Furey knew little more about the country other than that it was an unfortunate speck on the map of the Caribbean, an economic basket case whose history had been dominated by notorious dictators like Papa Doc Duvalier and his son Baby Doc — and, of course, the images he saw on the TV after the earthquake.
None of it prepared him. “You can see pictures and film of the poverty but until you see it, smell it, hear it, you don’t understand it… tent cities, millions living on less than a dollar a day. It’s mind blowing.”
Andrew, his wife Allison, an emergency room doctor, and Will Moores, an orthopedic resident from St. John’s, joined one of the early makeshift teams of doctors and health care professionals doing what they could.
They did help. The devastation was so total, the need so great, it was impossible not to help. But it had taken much of the week they were on the ground to even acclimatize themselves to their unique situation, their unfamiliar colleagues… precious time, he realized, that could have — should have — been better spent treating the needy.
What if they had arrived instead as a “self-contained team of medical professionals who could hit the ground running”?
That was the seed of the idea that blossomed into Team Broken Earth, a St. John’s-based, non-governmental, non-profit, national organization that — operating on an annual budget of just $800,000 but with millions more in premium-priced but donated labour — has staged close to two dozen missions to Haiti by well-prepared teams of coordinated volunteer doctors and health care practitioners from seven provinces “from coast to coast to coast.”
All that said, at first blush, Andrew Furey and Team Broken Earth — as otherwise worthy as they are — might seem unlikely winners of an Atlantic Business Magazine “business” award as “innovator of the year.”
Compare Furey’s “business” accomplishments with last year’s winner, Travis McDonough of Halifax-based Kinduct Technologies, whose smart software for measuring performance is now used by more than a dozen professional sports teams, including the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, and is currently evolving new business applications in health care and beyond. Kinduct’s innovation is technological, its results measureable on a balance sheet.
Andrew Furey and Team Broken Earth “did something quite different,” concedes Pierre-Yves Julien, the president & CEO of Medavie Blue Cross, a judge in this year’s Top 50 CEO competition — and himself a winner of the CEO of the Year title in 2007. “But innovation is in the eye of the beholder,” he adds simply.
“There are a lot of good doctors, and there are a lot of good businessmen. But it’s rare to find a health care professional who can transform advocacy into a business model, rally a large number of people in the health care field and in the general population behind their cause, package it to make it appealing beyond Atlantic Canada and produce something on a large scale in a way that is both sustainable and important. That is something we decided was worthy of recognition.”
None of it has been easy. With 600 volunteers on the ground during regular missions that now include not only hospital-based work in Port-au-Prince, where they will treat 500 patients a week, but also mobile clinics that fan out to rural areas of the country, “the logistics of taking that many people to a developing country are a nightmare… It’s like organizing 20 weddings a year!”
Furey’s view of leadership is “not being a boss or commander…. It is having the self confidence to engage people to follow you, in situations that are often ill-defined, with a common purpose.”
The process begins long before the first boots land on the ground. Coordinators spend months screening would-be volunteers — “we don’t want any cowboy attitudes” — and shock-proofing the new arrivals for what they will encounter. Facilities are inevitably overcrowded with more patients than can be coped with, using equipment that is often a decade or more past its best-before date. There aren’t enough medications to treat diseases many of the volunteers will have never heard of. The local medical staff doesn’t always speak their language. Electricity comes and goes. Between too-long shifts, they sleep on bunks in dorms covered in mosquito netting and use chancy bathroom facilities. The hospital itself is protected by armed guards, in part because they are surrounded by suffering, impoverished people living in tent cities.
There is the real danger volunteers will return home suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. To ease the sense of dislocation, Team Broken Earth attempts to balance new with returning volunteers.
When there are inevitable personality clashes or other difficulties, Furey says he tries to call “group meetings, often on the roof of the hospital, to let everyone air any issues they have with the team and their respective medical units. Often times, there are small issues that need minor adjustments to make personalities work together. I am a firm believer in dealing with small issues as soon as they arise in a nonconfrontational manner in order to prevent them from becoming larger ones.
“Our job,” Andrew Furey understates, “is to be helpful. And to expect the unexpected. Sometimes it’s tough to step back and look at the view from 35,000 feet.”
That view has evolved in the five years since his first trip to Haiti. And so has the role of Team Broken Earth. As important as it still is to help those who line up for treatment, “the state of healthcare [in Haiti] is woeful and it requires a massive amount of investment to turn around. More importantly, it needs a commitment to sustained help for some of the poorest people on earth.”
Which means training local health care providers.
St. John’s reconstructive surgeon Dr. Art Rideout — who, along with Furey and anesthesiologist Dr. Jeremy Pridham, originally launched Team Broken Earth — now performs his cleft lip and palate reconstruction surgeries in Port-au-Prince surrounded by attentive local health professionals, showing them how to do the delicate surgeries themselves. And Team Broken Earth recently launched a telemedicine project to bring new techniques to local health care professionals.
In May 2014, Furey — who has personally taken part in 20 Haiti missions — chaired a National Trauma Symposium in Port-au-Prince that brought together most of the country’s trauma specialists. “The course was so successful,” Furey reports, “it made the local TV and radio stations, and the president of Haiti requested a meeting with me to discuss its success.”
And last fall, contractors broke ground on a Team Broken Earthsponsored hospital wing. “Negotiating with contractors in a Caribbean country while trying to stay focused on quality, budgets and transparency was a learning experience that involved managing multiple agendas,” Furey acknowledges. He describes it as “a major milestone in my career.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Furey, in what passes for his spare time, currently also attends Oxford’s Said School of Business.
“The real direction,” he says, “is education. The goal is to work ourselves out of a job. We can only do that by helping to provide infrastructure and education. It won’t happen soon, but we must keep that focus.”
And not just in Haiti. In 2015, he says, Team Broken Earth is also “doing a needs assessment and site visit in Bangladesh.”
Oh, yes. That second hunk of cement in his briefcase?
After the earthquake in Port-au- Prince, Furey explains, “we treated a man who had suffered a hip fracture. He had been lying in a ‘Doctors Without Borders’ tent in traction, on his back, immobilized for months waiting for a surgeon. He was transferred to us on the second day of our first trip. His companion and caregiver was his orphaned 11-yearold granddaughter. She did not leave his side. She provided his food, gave him his medication, walked with him to the OR, and waited patiently for him to come out of surgery. And, as we were discharging her grandfather, this young girl shook my hand in thanks with the hope and courage of a mature adult.
“It was the courage in her eyes that instilled in me the hope that there could be change, and the courage to help affect that change.
“After I left her, I reached down and picked up a piece of the partially collapsed hospital and put it in my pocket. Her piece of cement keeps me focused, keeps me hopeful that Haiti and, in fact, the world can be a better place.”
Dr. Andrew Furey of Team Broken Earth, a worthy winner of Atlantic Business Magazine’s CBC Innovator of the Year award for 2015.