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Monday, January 25, 2010
I returned from Haiti two days ago. I was there for one week as a member of an emergency team that went to the city of Carrefour to take care of the victims of the string of earthquakes that have devastated the country. Unexpected twists with respect to our plans had me spending more time in Port-au-Prince than in Carrefour, so I record here below my impressions, above all, of the Haitian capital city, in an effort to provide to my friends and family an account of my experiences.
Briefly, I would first like to say a few words about the news media. Since the function of the news media is not restricted to the dissemination of news, it seems essential to me that the viewer keeps in mind that as they model their reports, every news network or team's ultimate objective appears to be to sufficiently entertain their audience in order to keep viewers watching. Without even considering the effect of biases, hidden agendas and other political leanings, the result is often a distortion of current events that, while certainly keeping viewers up to date, may misinform the consumers of this information. I therefore advise every viewer to ask her- or himself, while watching the news, whether everything she or he sees is reliable and representative of what is actually taking place, and also why the news the she or he receives is delivered in the particular manner that news stations pass the info on.
Ironically, while the team that I traveled with was set up to operate our temporary medical center out of Carrefour, I didn’t actually get to Carrefour myself until the end of our last day because of logistical challenges I had to face in Port-au-Prince (PAP). My aunt and I went to PAP in order to obtain medical supplies that our team gravely needed and also to visit and give emotional support to a relative who had been terribly psychologically affected by the loss of another close relative. I will say more about the trip to Port-au-Prince below.
As for the few patients that I did get to see at Carrefour, what affected me the most was the degree to which health problems caused by the earthquakes overlapped with chronic illnesses that the people suffered from even before any of the earthquakes. I saw people with many classes of festering wounds and acute infections as well as other infectious diseases. The patients at Carrefour demonstrated just how much there is a tremendous need for antibiotics in Haiti.
According to all that was told to me by other members of the team, the highlight of the mission at Carrefour may have been a C-section that was performed in the open air with a single scalpel that may have saved the life of both the mother and her newborn baby. Thus, in the midst of disaster and total chaos, our team had the great fortune of witnessing a miracle and to catch a glimpse of the skill of an elated surgeon reach the top.
In general, the city is completely destroyed. Innumerable houses and buildings have collapsed. Many of those that are still standing are leaning toward their neighbors, as if to threaten that they would soon join the rubble of the former structures that were not able to withstand the first earthquakes. For me, not having grown up in Haiti, I saw the catastrophe with a rather objective eye, while failing to experience the depth of sadness that I watched my aunt sustain as she witnessed not only a catastrophe, but the diabolical destruction of the home used to know. As for cadavers, I saw only the legs of a single one, whose body had been stuffed into a dirty white and grayish bag that was stained with dust and blood. The poor guy had his toes crushed and bloodied, no doubt the result of trauma sustained at the time of the falling of a building. At the home of another aunt, whom I will refer to as “L”, and who had transformed her home into a medical center, I saw a young girl of about ten years of age whose left thumb had been completely crushed, in addition to a bloodied eye and a head injury. When her thumb was submerged into a cup of hydrogen peroxide, she felt nothing, which meant almost certainly that the thumb would have to be amputated – with or without anesthesia according to the availability of supplies.
I directly experienced the challenges that prevent efficient arrival of help. Firstly, there is a terrible lack of communication, a situation that is resolved little by little, but that continues to render the work of humanitarian teams very difficult. There are security issues, which have actually always been part of daily life in Haiti, but which, following the earthquakes, have gotten much worse. These security troubles make it very difficult to get anywhere at any time of day, but especially after sunset. Moreover, the fear of the people of PAP with regard to the continuous aftershocks that take hold of the city every few days force these people to sleep outside of their homes. In other words, it is no longer only the original and the newly homeless people who sleep in the street, so it is therefore very difficult to move about at nighttime.
I will go off on a slight anecdotal tangent here to demonstrate how much the state of things in the Haitian capital – and in the country in general – can impede the effectiveness of humanitarian efforts. On Thursday morning, my aunt and I went to the office of our relative, “L”, at PAP in order to file a requisition to obtain the medical supplies I mentioned above; “L” is trained as a doctor and is a highly placed government official who deals matters relating to public health and management of humanitarian efforts in the country, which should have much facilitated the process. In order that the trip from the place where we were staying all the way to “L”’s office might be done in a safe and secure manner, she had another relative go pick us up, accompanied by two friends, one of whom served as chauffeur and the other one as an armed bodyguard. We arrived at the office not knowing that we would be there for about three hours before the requisition could be completed. Finally, with the requisition in hand, we went to “L”’s home to see the patients who were being cared for by her, and then we visited the relative I mentioned at the beginning. In the meantime, my cousin and one of his friends went over to gather our medical supplies. They finally returned two hours later, empty-handed; it turned out that the supply depot had already closed, and that we would therefore need to return there the following morning. In addition, since the sun was about to set, we were not able to find a chauffeur willing to drive us back to our team’s base. Ultimately, we ended up having to return to an aunt’s home, and spend the night there, in addition to having missed the first day of care at Carrefour, and having not yet obtained a single medical supply, or a single medication.
The following morning, we found ourselves, again, stranded since my cousin, who was supposed to have been our chauffeur, had to leave himself to go pick up another team of doctors at the airport. Forced to figure things out on our own, my aunt and I ended up walking to my uncle’s home where, very luckily, my father had parked his car at the end of his last trip to Haiti last year; next, we went to see another relative, the director of a school that had been built by my father’s uncle, and this relative provided us with a chauffeur and a cell phone to facilitate our journey. We then headed as quickly as possible to the supply depot where, despite a threat that it would take another 24 hours before we could get our supplies and medications, we convinced the WHO representatives to hand over our supplies on the premises, and finally our chauffeur drove us all the way back to Carrefour, where I was able to participate in the medical care provided by our team in the capacity of medical translator. It therefore took almost two days to complete a project that shouldn’t have taken more than a few hours.
Getting back to the original point… Despite the chaos, the international solidarity is unprecedented, and it is felt everywhere. One sees above all the US soldiers, as well as other soldiers, filling up the streets and corners of the city more and more, which gives hope that the question of security will soon be resolved. One sees more and more the flags and emblems of the USA, Canada, France, Switzerland, the UN, WHO, MSF, the Red Cross, Doctors of the World, etc. There is therefore reason to hope and believe that Haiti will recover.
I will not say much here about the losses sustained by my family - it suffices to say that some of our relatives are dead, missing, or homeless. The catastrophe has devastated us. We are nevertheless grateful for those who are still alive and we are all committed to recuperating, and to the reconstruction of our country.
As for me, I am happy to be back in New York, my other home – but it is certain that I won’t be able to stay here very long… Haiti needs me, and I need to get back over there soon.