Archive for February, 2010

History as a Guide

In my last post I copied an editorial that I wrote for the Frederick News Post.  I was recently asked what specific lessons we could learn from history and how they might apply in the current relief efforts in Haiti.  A recent news story answers that question in marvelous way. 

A recent report claims that a Catholic relief services organization has become so fed up with the delay in supply delivery and a lack of security to protect supply lines that they have started a new tactic.,..surprise deliveries.  They are going out at night and simply setting up their operations when no one expects them.  they hand out the supplies to those who they find and continue to invite the local population to get supplies until they run out.  This method has everything going for it.  It is simple, effective, innovative and meets the mission goals of the organization while supporting the local population in need.  In short this was a stroke of brilliance. 

You see, in 1862 when Jonathan Letterman was faced with a similar shortage of vehicles and logistical support, he simply invented a new system.  He used his ambulances to carry supplies after they had delivered their patients.  He also sent his subordinate officers out into the countryside to find medical boxcars which had been side tracked by officials of the B&O Railroad at the request of army officials keen on speeding ammunition and other supplies to the battle front.  By taking control over his own logistical destiny, Letterman carved a new path for himself and his department.  This new thinking helped him support his mission of medical support while it improved the lives of the soldiers that he would care for during the Antietam campaign. 

The Catholic relief organization in Haiti showed the same type of innovation.  They assessed their assets, analyzed the need, took note of the obstacles in their way and then took the action needed to meet their mission goal.  It sounds so easy and yet it is very difficult to do.  There is always the temptation to say:” That is not how we do things here.”  It is hard to step out of our comfort zone and do things differently. If we fail then we are no longer protected by our past successes.  We can no longer claim that it had always worked before.  When we break the mold and take a bold new direction we are out on a limb and there is no safety net.  If we fail in our efforts we do so for all the world to see…or do we?

The great Leonardo da Vinci saw failure in a different light.   For him it was better to try unsuccessfully than not try at all.  The only failure was failure to try.  By learning from all of his unsuccessful endeavors he was able to plan and predict for future efforts.  His brilliance lay not in the fact that he never failed, but that he learned from his mistakes and then changed his future plans accordingly. 

Late night food deliveries in Haiti could have been a disaster.  The question is whether the disaster would have been any greater than the  earthquake itself.  Like Letterman before them, our relief agency saw that their mission was not being met by status quo thinking and therefore they decided to risk an innovative plan to meet fulfil their mission.  Like Leonardo, they saw that the only failure was to do nothing and allow the people to continue in their suffering.  In this case history, and humanity, were on their side. 

This is a perfect example of using the past to lead in the modern world.  I am sure that Letterman and da Vinci would be proud!

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February 9, 2010 at 4:21 pm Leave a comment

Learning from History

The following letter has been sent to a number of media outlets.  It is the mission of the Museum and the Letterman Institute to improve the future by learning from the past.  Unfortunately history can not be used for positive change when the media continues to reiterate false, negative stereotypes regarding that history.  Here is our editorial about this important issue. 

Please feel free to leave your comments below, we want to hear what you think!

                The news of the recent earthquake in Haiti has sent a flood of assistance and money to that impoverished and now critically stricken country.  Who cannot be moved to action by dire needs of our close southern neighbor?  It further saddens me to hear of the continued suffering of those injured as they struggle to find adequate care in the face of complete destruction of their country.  Medical relief workers, who are dealing with a lack of infrastructure and supplies, are accused of practicing “Civil War” medicine.

                Unfortunately, it is not Civil War medicine that is the problem.  The problem is the failure of our society to understand the lessons that Civil War medicine can teach.  When we think of Civil War medical treatment, we correctly see unsanitary conditions, antiquated instruments and a general lack of the technology we expect today.  What we fail to see is that our modern emergency response systems and protocols were born of this now distant war. Understanding the true lessons of the Civil War could relieve the sufferings of thousands if the popular myths could only be left behind. 

                The Civil War gave us our first system of medical logistics, modern emergency room organization and management structures, triage, medical records, medical communications and intelligence, organized first aid and evacuation procedures.  Our Civil War caregivers gave us a system that would become the ambulance and 911 communications networks of the current day.  Faced with unthinkable numbers of wounded and sick in an environment where modern communications and transportation did not exist, our ancestors devised innovative low-tech solutions to our most critical medical problems. 

                Recently the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan named the medical dormitories after Major Jonathan Letterman who commanded Union medical staffs at Antietam and Gettysburg.  A bronze plaque located there is a testimony to the lessons learned from the man whose “Letterman Plan” became the basis for much of our modern emergency medical system.  This honor is not a hollow one.  Letterman’s writings have been instrumental in plans to improve medical communications systems in Iraq and even lower airframe maintenance and fuel costs of Air Force medical transportation flights.   Civil War medicine has a broader reach than most would expect.

                These seemingly ancient protocols have proven themselves not only on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan but also in the aftermath of Katrina and the recent tsunami.  Over 3,500 military and civilian caregivers have been trained in these Civil War systems and processes over the last four years and have achieved great things around the world.  Numerous citations have been awarded to these professionals who are using the past to push innovation forward.  Unfortunately, as Haiti reminds us, we still have a great number of organizations and caregivers who have not yet heard this lifesaving message. 

                We need to change our opinions of the past.  If we continue to look at history as a frightening era to be mocked and avoided, then we will never learn the lessons needed to improve our future.  Those who are using the lessons of the past are now reaping the benefits.  More importantly, their patients and those they assist are reaping the true benefits.  We need to wake up and see that Civil War medicine is not something to be mocked and feared, but contains lessons for the future that can improve the quality of emergency planning and medical care.  

 Submitted to the press on Jan. 31, 2010

February 1, 2010 at 8:49 am 1 comment


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