SCHENECTADY -- Capital Region residents hear sirens every day. The high-pitched tones always mean help is on the way.
Brian Merriam says people who live in Carrefour (pronounced "Carr-foo"), Haiti, rarely hear the emergency sounds.
"Imagine how your life would be if when you called 911 they said, 'We have no ambulance for you,'" Merriam said. "This is the way the people of Haiti live."
Merriam, who owns the Merriam Insurance Agency in Schenectady, knows how Haitians live. There are water and health problems. Of late, civil turmoil has been part of life in the country.
But change is coming to Carrefour. A triple team-up that involved Schenectady Rotary, Mohawk Ambulance and the Mayo Clinic Ambulance Service has produced a used ambulance that will begin its long trip to Haiti this morning.
Merriam and his friends in the project showed off the 2009 Ford E350 ambulance on Monday, during a press conference held near the corner of Union and North Church streets in front of the First Reformed Church. The white rig, with gold and blue trim, has been decorated with the logos of both the Carrefour mayor's office and Rotary.
Merriam has made several trips to the country since 1999. As a longtime Rotary member, Merriam has embraced service projects. He has worked on several filtration system installations that have improved Haiti's drinking water.
In 2016, Carrefour Mayor Jude Edouard Pierre made a special request. He asked Merriam if he could arrange donation of an ambulance and garbage truck to the Haitian community.
“I told the mayor that I would look into it,” Merriam said, "but I just couldn’t imagine shipping a garbage truck. It seemed much more realistic to source and ship an ambulance."
Getting real for a free ambulance was a tough assignment. Merriam made bunches of phone calls, but could not come up with the emergency vehicle. Carrefour had just one ambulance, and that rig had been donated 27 years ago.
Earlier this fall, as Merriam prepared for another trip to Haiti, he heard from Chris Hedlund of Mayo Clinic Ambulance Services, part of the Mayo Clinic.
"Chris called me and said, 'Are you ready for a road trip?'" Merriam said. "I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Well, I found your ambulance.' Three and a quarter years after the mayor of Carrefour asked for one. So this was wonderful news."
The Mayo Clinic regularly cycles through ambulances, and was willing to make a donation.
Last Friday, Merriam flew to Eau Claire, Wisconsin and met Hedlund. The guys started a 20-hour road trip early Saturday morning, and drove through heavy rain to bring the ambulance to Schenectady.
Merriam and Hedlund eventually will drive the rig to the Port of Baltimore. The ambulance will be shipped over the Atlantic and reach Haiti in early December.
David Gardner, director of operations at Mohawk Ambulance, donated some Mohawk supplies. Splints, cervical collars, head blocks and oxygen administration equipment will soon be used by Carrefour medical technicians.
"We're very proud of the work you folks do, we're proud to be able to partner with you to help support you in this project in Haiti," Gardner said. "It's a very important project ... to be able to reach out to different parts of the world is just an amazing feeling."
Added Hedlund: "It's incredible to think the little things we take for granted are luxuries in a place like Haiti. We have benefits every day that we don't even realize are benefits to us until we understand how people live in extreme poverty."
Hedlund said Mayo has donated older model rigs before, to places such as small ambulance services and technical colleges. "It's unusual for it to go that far away but since I work for them, they honored my request and give me one of their trucks."
The Ford's engine has racked up 298,000 miles. Gardner said the diesel rigs can be expected to run well past 400,000 miles.
Merriam, who expects the Carrefour EMTs will transport people suffering from heat stroke and intestinal problems -- among other medical conditions -- is not worried about breakdowns putting the brakes on the goodwill project.
"There's an expression that says 'Give a Haitian a new wheelbarrow, it will be broken in a day.' And 'Give a Haitian a used wheelbarrow, it will last him a lifetime,' because the roads are so terrible," Merriam said. "They will have problems, but they can also fix just about anything."
"When I hear a siren, I'll be wondering how many lives are being saved in Haiti," he said. "It's a great feeling."
Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]