The First Days in Haiti
The decision to travel to Haiti to assist with medical relief following the earthquake was at the same time easy and difficult. It was easy, because how could anyone know of such misery and suffering and not volunteer to help, but difficult because it was intimidating.
Watching the news the day after the earthquake, my good friend Bob Norris, MD from Stanford was asked to pull together a team under the auspices of International Medical Corps. I joined a group with Bob, Ian Brown and Anil Menon (Stanford emergency physicians) and Gaby McAdoo, Heather Tilson, Julie Racioppi and John Gardner (Stanford nurses). I flew out on Thursday and was routed on Friday morning though the Dominican Republic. I was hoping to continue on to Haiti that day, but that was not possible because of air traffic control and the situation at the airpot. Our group tried to get there on Friday, but we were once again stymied at a military base in the DR, so we chartered a bus and followed a Polish national search and rescue team on an anticipated all night drive to get to Port au Prince. I had watched a bit of CNN in the DR, including possible threats to medical personnel, so the anticipation was not restful. The bus ride started off all right, but then the radiator spewed forth steam and smoke, which engulfed us inside the bus. It turned out to be a dry tank, but we played it safe and got another bus. I had contracted infectious gastroenteritis, which hit me on the ride, so was green behind the gills for the entire trip.
The scene in PAP was indescribable. Most of the buildings were crushed or damaged, there were large crowds milling on the streets, and hordes surrounding relief trucks. Some came in waves over the rubble to obtain food and supplies. We followed a helpful police escort to bring us to the university hospital, which was the center of medical activity. Nearly the entire poplulation of PAP is now living on the streets in massive tent cities, because people are homeless or afraid to enter damaged buildings. Buildings crushed. Hordes on street, coming in waves over buildings to chase resources.
The hospital grounds were packed with patients, and the immediate and constant emotion was, and is, a sense of urgency. There are hundreds of patients constantly, with constant cries of distress, and a regular smell of death. However, there is also hope, and a wonderful growing collection of volunteers from many nations, including International Medical Corps, Doctors Without Borders, Partners in Health, Hope for Haiti, Canadian Red Cross, Norwegian Red Cross, Swiss surgeons, and many, many others. It is a team effort and will continue to grow with the rising need.
I will write more later, but will say for now that we are caring for incredibly brave people, who are suffering under the most adverse circumstances. Yet, they all have time to say how much they appreciate the help and to thank us. We are treating fractures, massively infected wounds (some with maggots), disfiguring injuries, tetanus, while in the midst, babies are being born. Our team has established itself in the field where many patients choose to live under tarps attended by the medical personnel and their families. We cannot do everything, and sometimes can do nothing, so there are situations that are beyond our control. Each day brings many new challenges, with more patients needing surgery and trauma management.
I will write about this journey in detail at a future time, when I can sort out my emotions and try to put it into perspective. This morning we awoke in our hotel, where we live in a conference room, to a 6.1 earthquake. We cared for an injured reporter who jumped from his balcony. All the patients at the hospital were evacuated from the rooms and were subjected to intense sun and heat exhaustion. A 5 year old boy was found in the rubble after a week without major injuries other than dehydration and whatever emotional trauma he has suffered. We have walked with Bill and Chelsea Clinton and other celebrities and all the reporters and photographers. It is impossible to make sense of all of this right now, but we know that tomorrow morning we will wake up, go out, and do the best we can to relieve the suffering.
I must go to sleep now.