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Phoebe doctor headed to Haiti's disaster zone

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- An emergency room doctor from Albany arrived this morning in the Dominican Republic where she will spend the next five days providing medical assistance to Haitians fleeing their homeland following last week's earthquake.

Dr. Monica Kasongo has joined 11 other physicians from around the country who have accepted a medical mission from a world relief operation organized by the Lutheran Church. She left Albany bound for Miami and then the Dominican Republic Monday night. But before she did, she spoke to reporters about her decision to go.

"It's just something I feel strongly about," Kasongo said, fighting back tears. "There was a dramatic need for medical care in Haiti before the earthquake hit. Now it's much worse."

It's hard for Kasongo not to get emotional. Since the magnitude 7.0 earthquake demolished most of Port-Au-Prince a week ago today, countries and relief organizations from around the world have rushed to provide aid in some form or another to the country's residents.

The American Red Cross estimates that at least 50,000 are dead with millions more injured or displaced. The Haitian government is more pessimistic with its outlook, saying the death toll may be more than 100,000. For Kasongo, it is estimated that she and her colleagues could see anywhere between 1,000 to 2,000 people a day seeking medical treatment.

Kasongo, who left Albany on her vacation time and is paying for the trip -- including the medical supplies she's taking with her -- said she's trying to prepare the best she can for what will likely be an emotionally trying experience.

"I've just tried to tell myself that I know there will be times when I will just feel overwhelmed, but you have to help," she said. "It will definitely be a challenge in many ways."

Kasongo has received some advice from a fellow doctor who is intimately familiar with Haiti and its plight.

Dr. Joel Holcombe has been to Haiti before on medical mission trips and was set to go again in March when the earthquake struck.

Holcombe's advice for Kasongo? Try not to be shocked by what you see there.

"You just have to try and not be shocked. It's absolutely startling to see how poor these people are, and that was before the earthquake," he said. "Now, these people literally have nothing, and that can be hard to swallow."

Holcombe said that very little communication is coming out of Haiti and that Kasongo and the group of doctors will be taking satellite phones to try and establish some basic contact from the area.

Kasongo said she has the reluctant support of her family members, who she said were concerned about her safety and well-being while abroad.

"They are a little apprehensive, but they know that this is something I feel passionate about," she said.