On Tuesday January 12, 2010 an earthquake of an unimaginable and catastrophic 7.0 magnitude ravaged Port-au-Prince, Haiti killing over 300, 000 people and injuring tens of thousands more. The disaster response has been wide and varied from people all over the world donating food, clothing, money, services and medical care. As a Haitian-American I was personally struck with grief and utter shock as I viewed the news coverage on TV and in the newspapers. This was a disaster of incomprehensible proportions and I was left numb for weeks. My immediate concern was for my mom, who at the time of the disaster was getting her hair done in New York, preparing for her annual sojourn only two days later to her homeland, and to her house she spent so many years building. Fortunately, the house is still standing though there was a lot of interior damage. Sadly, so many were not as fortunate.
As soon as I got back to my day job following the earthquake (I'm a medic at Mount Sinai Medical Center), I set the ball in motion for my own deployment to Haiti. I knew the medical needs would be enormous and I wanted to utilize my medical skills which I initially received in the United States Air Force. In fact, I had served as medic in Operation Desert Storm (1990-91) when I was deployed to Saudi Arabia to provide medical care for American and Iraqi troops and citizens.
Several emails and a couple of months later, conflicts of dates of deployment, I was told I would be heading to Haiti on April 25th, only a week and a half before I left. Things had been put on the fast track and I was in a frenzy shopping for mosquito nets, canned goods and gathering medical supplies to take with me. On the day of departure, I made a quick stop to the store to purchase balloons and lollipops for all the children I was sure to encounter in Haiti, many of whom were ill and or had lost family members. In circumstances like this I figured anything could help lift their spirits.
Getting to Port-au- Prince was an odyssey. After several delays and few announcements, a group of 30 medical professionals from across the country descended on Haiti with a single mission in mind: to help heal the sick and wounded. The determination of the group was palpable. I was proud and eager to get started with the work.
On the plane leaving Miami bound for Haiti.
We cleared customs in Port-au-Prince's infamously hot airport, picked up by a Medishare representative and whisked off a short distance away to the large tent hospital set up by the University of Miami who founded the non-profit group Project Medishare.
By the time I arrived to the hospital, I had already been up for a full 32 hours without any sleep and my second-wind, along with adrenaline had already taken over. I was met immediately by a gruff Paramedic from New York named Peter Taft who was in charge of Medical Logistics. He seemed to be expecting me and told me we would be going on a mission into town very shortly. I had barely unloaded my luggage off the truck that transported us but I was completely game for anything. I picked out a cot in the massive non-gender segregated tent and hung my mosquito net. While I was no stranger to the environment, I still felt like I was in a movie and set out for an adventure. To my surprise, the tent was air-conditioned and not too many mosquitos milled about, that is, until the air-conditioner broke down one evening.
Peter Taft/Medical Logistics
I met Peter outside and he asked me to help a pregnant woman who was clearly sick onto our SUV for transport to a GYN clinic in downtown Port-au-Prince. We loaded into the car along with our Haitian driver and so began the adventure. On the way, I snapped photos from the vehicle of the devastation that had turned Port-au-Prince into a garbage-infested ruin. I was in awe of this scene because even amongst the mounds of rubble, debris and garbage, "life" still took place. Vendors selling wares, people cooking along the boulevard, kids playing, women bathing in trenches filled with muddy water, kids walking home from school and tons of people just milling about throughout the streets. But I understood that life had to go on for the Haitian people.
We finally arrived at the medical clinic for GYN specialties. I carefully unloaded the feeble patient from the car, and with her arm around me for support, we started to move slowly inside. As we approached the entranceway, I heard echoed wailing and crying, sometimes in unison. I walked into an unusually dark lobby where the wailing became progressively louder and desperate. A single fan blew hot, putrid air in a circular fashion. All around me were pregnant women lying on a filthy floor, some asleep on benches, some wandering aimlessly about and some looking listless and staring off into the darkness. I approached a desk where I assumed I was to check in the patient. Sitting there was a young Haitian woman who seemed unbothered by the terrifying noises and smell around her. I handed her the patient’s records, and she simply said “mesi (thank you)”, and began to ask the patient what was wrong with her. I guess this was the triage nurse, and I guess also, that to her, this was yet ‘another’ pregnant patient with “problems”. I sat the patient down on the only free chair available and asked her if there was anything I could do for her. Her eyes rolled up at me and seemed to beg silently for the world, and in an instant she fell asleep.
Outside, Peter told me the driver’s shift was ending and that we were getting a new driver who was already present. Once the new driver learned that I speak Kreyol, he seemed at ease, as if he had a brother to talk to as opposed to a white stranger from the U.S. Together, we all boarded the car and headed through the congested streets of Port-au-Prince back towards the hospital. On our way, Peter and I spotted smoke rising up in the distance. He told me to tell the driver, not to take us back to the hospital, but rather, head towards the towering smoke cloud. I translated, and we made our way through the narrow, crowded streets finally arriving to the scene of a fire.
Peter and I jumped out of the car to assess the hectic scene. We looked for anyone with obvious injuries or anyone in charge for that matter. A Haitian firefighter approached us and told us the fire had erupted in a large supermarket and had been burning for two days. He said they had run out of water on the truck and had been trying to contain the fire. While talking, I pulled out my flashlight to check the firefighter’s red eyes to see if there was any damage. I listened to his lungs with my stethoscope and checked his exposed flesh for signs of burns. There were none. Soon after, a crowd of men gathered around us, all explaining that they had been exposed in the fire. Peter and I performed similar assessments on about thirty men, and treated them all for eye irritations and smoke inhalation. Darkness fell as the crowd swelled, and we took off for security reasons. Fortunately, there weren’t any serious injuries here. We had planned to return later in the evening, but never did. This was my first official medical assignment in Haiti.
The tent hospital and living quarters was situated a few hundred feet from the airport runway with nary a tree to provide shade. Some of the patient’s wards and work areas were air-conditioned, however, the Emergency Department where I worked was not. We simply had large fans blowing hot air around, and we were the only area of the hospital located outdoors. Food was scant; for breakfast I alternated between canned tuna and chicken salad with crackers, lunch consisted of large hero’s with very little meat or anything in between, and dinner a few times a week was the only meal that was “cooked” food consisting of white rice, a piece of chicken and something that looked like cole-slaw but really had no flavor. Showers were set up outdoors a short distance away from the portable poddies. The men’s urinal was an ingenious design I had never seen before; plastic pipes dug into the ground, where men could simply pee into the “mouth” opening sending the urine into the ground.
The tent where I slept was non gender-segregated. It was large enough for 100 people. We slept on military-style cots and each cot had a mosquito net draped over it which I often found myself tangled up in when I woke up in the morning.
Section of ER
Outside the sleeping tent.
Showers and port-a-pottie
Filtered warm water from this pipe was what we had to drink when we ran out of bottled water (which was often). Cold water which we had on occasion was a luxury!
In the emergency department we saw a variety of cases, many of which were non life-threatening. People of all ages came with varying degrees of “emergencies”. Some of the cases we saw were: fevers of unknown origin, infections, burns, respiratory disorders, urinary tract infections (male and female), rape victims (which were particularly heartbreaking), abscesses, cancer, tuberculosis, miscarriages, pregnancies, aches and pains of all sorts, fractures, to the more serious spinal cord injuries, multiple gun-shot wounds, stabbings, stroke, seizures, head traumas, and multi-system failures. In the emergency department we easily put in 15 hour days in 104 degree heat, but given the cases we received, this seemed to pale in comparison, even as dehydration, exhaustion and a lack of caloric intake challenged our every move.
Workers remove a body from the ER to the morgue. We did the best we could...
While I can speak Kreyol pretty well, i never expected to be able to write it with such ease.
Patient transfer from another hospital to ours.
Patient registration at the ER.
New wheelchairs for amputees and others.
Suturing a deep hand laceration
Xray for a critically injured boy.
Toasting to a job well done.
THE ER CREW
I worked with an amazing team of docs, nurses and medics from other parts of the country and some from New York. The passion and commitment of the team was palpable. As each day wore on, we grew closer and closer. We supported each other through those emotionally difficult cases, we endured the same hardships with the heat and living conditions in the camp, and we lifted each others spirit with laughter. No matter how many times we tell the stories of our experiences, or show photographs, no one will fully understand the life-changing experience we’ve gone through in Haiti, except those of us who were there.
There was no case too large or too small. Though we were the emergency department, we tried to accommodate as many people as we could. By the end of the week, we had seen and treated about 400 (or so) patients.
(L to R: Amy (Medic), Dr. Svetlana, Dr. Scott, Ocean, Sil, Kevin (Medics))
The Haitian crew: Ocean, Marie and Roberson.
ER Rockstars (l to r): Roz, Sil, Ocean, Svetlana, Sarah, Nicole, Scott, Kevin, John.
The future of Haiti remains uncertain. I’m not sure how many more hardships Haitians can withstand. One thing is clear to me though, the resilience of my Haitian people is remarkable. An amputated leg did not mean the end of the world, but a new lease on life. Hope prevailed throughout the wards and from the patients we’ve seen. Their eyes spoke of their will to live. Even when we delivered bad news to patients or family members that have died in our hands, there was a resolve that was inherent in each and every person we saw. Children's smiles made all the difference in the world...
Mother praying over her baby girl as doctors work to stabilize her.
Ocean and Sephora.
"Together, we will go further"
This mission certainly helped me put things in perspective. Life is precious and valuable. There are so many things that we take for granted and so little that we appreciate. This is the perfect wake-up call. Next time I encounter a "hater" or a drama queen, I'll reflect on my time in the field, helping those who need it the most and who still manage to show appreciation and gratitude. I will be processing this mission for several weeks and months to come, and yes I will return. I may be back in the US for now, but my heart is in Haiti with my people.
Thanks to all the wonderful souls who volunteered their time and skills for Project Medishare. I feel so much closer to humanity because of the work and because of all of you!
Check back next week for more reflections and images of my medical mission to Haiti.