My husband Jon was recently part of a team that went to Haiti to run clinics. Since many of this blog’s readers supported the trip financially and through prayers, I thought you might like to read about the trip in his words. Here’s his story:
I have no idea how to best convey what I saw and experienced in Haiti. Had this been my first experience in a 3rd world country, I believe I would have been balled up crying after the first day. I have seen dire poverty before, but nothing close to what I saw in Port-au-Prince. Really, unless you personally go there, it is impossible to get an idea of what is going on. But I will try to paint a picture.
The enormity of the problem and the reality of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Haitians hit home on our approach to the Port-au-Prince airport. Looking out over the city, as far as I could see were tiny tops of “houses.” By this I mean strung tarps mixed in with battered, rusted tin roofs. At that point, the discussing and planning mode instantly changed into a “oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into” mode. I was also afraid of what demands customs would make of us to get our medications through customs, but our translator Chris ended up finding a customs agent who knew one of the doctors he worked with in Haiti, and he allowed us to walk right through customs without even a peek into our bags. Hurdle number one jumped.
No matter where or when you drive in Port-au-Prince, the streets are overflowing with people walking, motorcycles zipping through tiny spaces, buses, tap-taps (any kind of large, brightly painted vehicles available for transportation, and you ask to get off by tapping, get it?), merchants and cars, making for a loud, exciting time. The one thing there isn’t a lot of is traffic laws. Who knows what the laws are, there are no lines on the roads, few stop signs and few lights. It’s a miracle there aren’t more accidents. Also, in the streets is all kinds of rubble. Yes, it has been over 18 months since the earthquake, but rubble is everywhere, and even the presidential palace and great cathedral remain in ruins. According to those who live there it is much better than after the earthquake, which I believe, but it was still overwhelming. There were even many partially collapsed buildings that were empty, and probably haven’t been searched for bodies due to the danger of collapse while searching.
On day 2, we finally got to run a “clinic.” We met with Dr. Jeudy, a friend of our hosts, who is in the process of building a new hospital/operating room. We met in his current office, with two crampeded exam rooms, a crowded waiting room, pharmacy and lab on the first floor, an operating room and two large rooms he’s using as inpatient wards on the second floor and living quarters for nurses, as well as a room he sometimes sleeps in on the third floor. He and I saw and admitted a woman with severe pneumonia and respiratory distress before heading to his new site that consisted of concrete floors and some walls where he’s building a new office. We hadn’t advertised the clinic, as he was afraid we didn’t have enough medication, so he told me, “we’ll see people as they come, they’ll probably trickle in, and we’ll start with a slower day.” Ha. As soon as we set up, we were flooded with patients, and between me, him, and a couple ofmedical students, we saw over 270 patients before we had to shut down and turn people away due to impending darkness.
Speaking of darkness, currently in Port-au-Prince, electricity is available for 12 hours a day, and I can only assume it’s some guy’s job to turn off the power. On about half the nights, about 30 minutes after the electricity went off (about 8pm), the power went back on for the night. When it came back on, a loud raucous roar could be heard throughout the city, celebrating a few more hours of light. Some early mornings (like 4am) also consisted of a loud singing/dancing/parade type thing that we were told was a voodoo celebration. Didn’t check it out, but we were all curious.
We ran 5 more busy days of clinic, 2 more in the city, and 3 on the outskirts of town. We mainly saw headaches, abdominal cramps, menstrual cramps, reflux, pneumonia, yeast infections, ear infections, colds, arthritis, high blood pressure…much like you would see in a primary care clinic in the States. However, nobody had glasses (probably accounted for many headaches) and they couldn’t afford to buy pain relievers, cough syrup or antacids. We gave all the kids tooth brushes and many of them vitamins, and presumptively treated worms, malaria (for anyone with high temps and flu-like symptoms) and cholera (all severe GI symptoms.) While running a clinic in the schools, I saw a child with epilepsy who had already seen a doctor, who had recommended seizure medicines, but she could not afford them. We didn’t have any medication for that either, so had to just give advice: don’t swim, drive cars, climb trees, etc. and support the airway when she had seizures. Very frustrating not to be able to treat, but we couldn’t take everything with us. We also saw several kids with mumps (I hadn’t seen that before), measles, and lots of tinea capitis (ringworm on the scalp). I sent one dehydrated, lethargic 11 day old to the hospital for care we couldn’t give, and kept one 4 month old in the clinic for a couple hours to hydrate orally when we found him to be lethargic with a >200 heart rate. He seemed to perk up after fluids! One older lady had stepped on a rusty nail, and was beginning to show signs of tetanus-I excised the wound, started her on Flagyl and told her to find a hospital for further care.
While brainstorming about ideas to help this poor country, we discussed different things people have tried, but lead to further problems, often due to the Haitians’ hand to mouth living situation, a situation created, nurtured, and sustained by the West since the colonial days. One example: Although there are chickens and goats roaming free everywhere, all the chicken, eggs and goat’s milk you buy in Haiti is imported from the US. When one group took small laying hens to the country to try and set up an egg farming operation, they explained that the people shouldn’t eat the hens, because they would provide many eggs, they returned the next week and found the hens were all eaten. This may sound crazy, but it’s understandable that people with no idea where their next meal is coming from might prioritize short term relief over a long term solution that may or may not work out. After the earthquake, many Non-governmental organizations came to town to provide free medical care. The people came in such numbers that many local hospitals could no longer stay open, as people no longer wanted to spend money on medical care because they could get free care from the NGO’s. Some aid creates more harm than good, because it prevents local, sustainable solutions from becoming viable.
Due to US trade embargoes placed on Haiti due to coup-de-etats, multiple factories shut down, leaving the workers jobless. It seems that no matter what is tried, there is an opposite reaction that minimizes or reverses the impact that you’re trying to achieve. It’s a very frustrating mind game for sure. The island is beautiful, it’s in the Caribbean, and would have lots to offer if things turned around some, but getting there is difficult.
So, the trip was gratifying, knowing we provided a small amount of medical care to those who would have gone without, but frustrating, seeing vast need going unmet for a majority of Haitians. It is going to take many smart people, lots of money and a long time to reverse both the damage done within a few minutes of time with the earthquake, and the problems created by generations of Haitians living day to day, not knowing where their next meal will be, nor where they will sleep that night. The only lasting solutions will be ones that empower and involve workers, not through hand-outs and band-aids, but through sustainable programs that allow Haitians an active role in the repair and renewal of their nation.