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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

First Responders in the Face of Disaster

When William McNulty, MA '07, first learned of the earthquake that devastated Haiti last January, he was hell-bent on helping. A former Marine with infantry training and experience in Iraq, he was determined to join the relief efforts. "It was all I could think about," he says.

Through high school and family networks, McNulty Skyped with Jim Boynton, a Jesuit brother in Ouanaminthe, Haiti, who was in touch with priests in Port-au-Prince. Boynton's message to McNulty was very plain: "Get down here now, because these people are dying."

But as he and fellow former Marine Jake Wood prepared to fly, a government official told him to stay put—traveling to Haiti would only interfere. The Red Cross told him it was too dangerous, he says. Make a donation instead, they suggested. "But I had skills to offer, not money," says McNulty.

So, at the speed of Facebook, Twitter, and PayPal, McNulty and Wood amassed an ad hoc group of skilled volunteers, medical supplies, and donations—and "Team Rubicon" was born. A few days after the earthquake, the team—which consisted of McNulty, Wood, and two firefighter friends from Milwaukee—flew to Santo Domingo to meet Boynton. Along the way, they picked up three more volunteers: a special forces medic they met on the shuttle in Reagan International Airport, and two doctors they met in the Dominican Republic. "They were doing what we were doing," says McNulty. "They were self-deploying."

Rubicon's first goal was to do a security assessment and establish a base of operations in Port-au-Prince. A family friend of McNulty's had pulled together a team of doctors and nurses from Illinois Masonic Hospital and waited for McNulty's green light. "When we arrived, we found security to be a non-issue," says McNulty, and they set up shop at the Jesuit compound in Port-au-Prince. Reflecting on the support they received at the novitiate, McNulty says, "Jesuits are called 'God's Marines' for a reason. They are the Special Forces of the Catholic Church."

With a base established, the medical team and 2.5 tons of medical supplies were flown in on a donated flight, and doctors were paired with Marines. The military veterans doubled as medics, having learned in service how to clean and dress wounds. From there the team went to refugee camps and began treating patients.

Says McNulty, "None of us, not our doctors or our special forces medics, was prepared for what we saw. Everyone was used to seeing fresh wounds….what we found were wounds that had been festering for days. Gangrene, compound fractures, and sepsis."

On their first day, Team Rubicon treated 350 patients, setting up triage and transport. Doctors amputated gangrenous limbs and debrided wounds, sometimes with only ibuprofen for anesthetic. "It was apocalyptic," says McNulty.

McNulty stayed in Haiti for about eight days, and Team Rubicon personnel were there for 18 days total. Online, the effort went viral, raising about $30,000 a day through Facebook, Twitter, and the team's blog (www.teamrubiconusa.org).

Since then, McNulty and Wood have established Rubicon as a nonprofit organization. Its mission: to fill the time gap between disasters and the somewhat delayed responses of large aid organizations. He describes his partners and himself as 21st-century medical minutemen. "The large aid organizations are going to solve the problems," he says. "We're going to fill the gap as a first response, vanguard medical team. Once 'Big Aid' is set up, we leave."

After Haiti, the team deployed to Chile after it was hit by an earthquake and a devastating tsunami. Most recently, Team Rubicon deployed to the Thai-Burma border, where they delivered medical aid to Burmese nationals displaced by the military junta that raids villages of ethnic minorities along the border. This was the team's first proactive mission.

In addition to co-founding Team Rubicon and serving on its board of directors, McNulty, 33, has created TitleTen, Inc. (www.titleten.com), a film production company that he founded two weeks before the Haiti earthquake. With co-founder Drew Lewis, whom he met while earning his master's degree in government from Johns Hopkins, McNulty tells stories from the national security community, where he has substantial experience. He thinks the films, which are still in the early stages, may make the bureaucracy nervous, because they "challenge conventional thinking."

Where does McNulty find the grit to challenge the Red Cross, the U.S. government, and the intelligence community? "I gained a lot of confidence in the Marine Corps," he says, "and I built on that confidence while I was at Hopkins." It was at Hopkins, he says, that he found a valuable network of alumni—"some of the smartest people I know."

 

 

 

William McNulty describes his partners and himself as 21st-century medical minutemen. "We're going to fill the gap as a first response, vanguard medical team. Once 'Big Aid' is set up, we leave,"he says.

—William McNulty, MA '07