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Another Account: From a Volunteer Nurse (early March)

April 17, 2010

The destruction and collective trauma in Haiti is unimaginable.  Arriving at the airport in Port-Au-Prince felt like I was entering a war zone. The ground was strewn with army tents and Military personnel in the back of Hummers holding guns. Driving from the airport to our base, the destruction unfolded. As far as you can see there are tent cities. The luckiest have tarp tents while others have sheets, and most just sleep on the street with nothing above their head but the stars and the fears of another tremble. Buildings collapsed like pancakes all around, leaving mass cemeteries everywhere, with no time line in sight for when it will all be cleaned up.

I was one of seven medical providers in the group I traveled with. We set up a makeshift clinic out of a church in Port-Au-Prince.  We saw about 200 to 250 patients a day. Thankfully large amounts of medications were donated for our service.  I thought I would be delivering babies but the need was elsewhere, and I was honored to be a part of the relief work in any capacity. I did a lot of primary care for infants, toddlers, children, women, and men. By mid-week, word got out that there was someone who took care of pregnant women and I soon had rows of pregnant women, many of whom have not had any prenatal care.  A company based out of Florida called Stork Radio, sent me a box full of fetal dopplers to bring to Haiti in addition to an ultra-sound machine. I felt moved by the spirit of humanity before I even left for Haiti. The donations and offers of help were amazing and heartfelt. To see the look of happiness on these women faces after hearing their baby’s heartbeat for the first time was like magic. To provide even a moment of happiness, of removal of their present day trauma was a gift, one that I could never have provided alone. It was through the help of donations that I was able to bring over supplies.

It was impossible to meet anyone that did not lose someone. Patient after patient sat at my table telling me of their symptoms, “I can’t eat, loud noises startle me, my heart is beating too fast, I can’t sleep.” All of these symptoms most likely related to post-traumatic stress disorder. I could give them prescriptions for their infections and bodily ailments but after only one day I realized that those were the smallest and easiest problems to heal. The most I could do was give love. To look someone in the eyes, truly connect with them, and love them, really see them was the most profound healing I could do. I had ten-year old children coming in off the street alone for ear infections or wound care with their Mom missing under the rubble somewhere. What can you say to a child like this? I found myself hugging and holding many because that is all I could do.  I saw women with their children gripping on to them as they told me they were pregnant and their husband died in the quake. When I gave their children lollipops they smiled for a moment and kissed me on the cheek and giggled. I soon realized that these small moments of happiness for the Haitians are more potent than the most powerful medicines. Despite the sorrow and collective trauma, I felt immense love, strength, and dignity from the Haitians. They were so grateful, most moved to tears when they said thank you and left my table. It was I who was so thankful, so thankful to witness the strength of the human spirit. I had no idea people could be so strong and so beautiful but, as I said, I began to witness the dignity and beauty of people even before I left through all the support, love, and encouragement I received from Friends and family.

On a more personal note, I must also admit it is hard for me to fall asleep at night since my return. I close my eyes and all I see are images. I see the 86 year-old woman sitting by my table telling me her heart hurts and she can’t eat. She tells me she loves me right away and her eyes tear up. I ask her, “do you have access to food?”  “Sometimes but my stomach is closed. My body hurts too, the bones hurt. A part of the ceiling fell on me and I am sleeping on the street,” she answers.  What can I do for her? Yes, I can give her pain medicine for her body aches but that is the only “prescription” I can give her. I hold her hands, look into her eyes and see immense light and love. I tell her this. I tell her that her love is so strong she needs to share it, and eat when she can so she can show this light to all the Haitians. She smiles and tells me that she loves me again. It is I who love her, her strength, her courage, and her faith. I fret about the stress of work and this and that and the unknowns but really do I have unknowns? The unknowns I have are those of luxury not survival. I send this beautiful woman off with her prescription of pain medicine for three days. Holding her hands and telling her that I loved her seemed to work miraculously, more miraculously than ibuprofen three times a day for pain.

On the first Sunday we were there, the day we started seeing patients, I had an experience that stayed with me, like a snapshot image in my brain.  The medical providers had tables where we saw patients in the front of the church. The patients sat in the pews patiently, waiting to be seen. A beautiful woman comes to my table with her four month old daughter in a peach-colored dress. Her daughter’s eyes are so large, staring at me as if asking me to explain all this. The mom tells me of the child’s fever and cough. I feel her forehead with the back of my hand, because we have no thermometer. She is clearly febrile. I listen to her lungs and hear wheezing throughout. As I hold this beautiful baby on my lap, listening to her ill lungs the church trembles. Everyone in the pews stands up with fear in their eyes as they look for the nearest exit.  The translator I am working with that day, Emmanuel, was a Haitian as were all the translators. Emmanuel is a young boy  of 14. He looks at me with fear too. I hold the baby on my lap, one arm on the mother, one arm on the translator saying, “we are safe, we are safe, we are safe” not sure what compels me to say that but I feel it. The tremble passes. I hug the mom and the baby. I give the infant antibiotics to clear her lungs, children’s Tylenol to bring down the fever, but what about everything else? What about the entire trauma? No prescription can be written for the collective trauma of the Haitians.  Yet, their spirit remains strong and proud.

In addition to experience seeing patients out of our makeshift clinic I also was able to visit the General hospital in Port-Au –Prince a number of times. The general hospital in Port-Au-Prince is a nightmare. The hospital is now make shift tents as the majority of the actual building lies in rubble and most people are too afraid to work inside, fearful of another tremor or aftershocks. As you enter the hospital gates you see the American military leaning against the walls with their big guns. I was unsure of what they were doing there, as most people were too sick and injured in the hospital to cause any unrest. The first building you see entering the hospital is the nursing school now reduced to rubble. Buried in the rubble are over 150 nursing students who are now more than ever desperately needed In Haiti.

I went to the hospital to hand out baby clothes and baby blankets that were generously donated. An amazing woman donated over two suitcases full of beautiful baby clothes, brand new receiving blankets, hats, and onesies. In addition to this donation, I was able to bring it all into Haiti through the support of family and friends who generously donated to have all these items shipped to Haiti.

Handing out the new infant and toddler clothes was humbling and amazing. Most babies were wearing dirty clothes and looked as though they had not been changed in days. I wish you could have seen the smiles on their parents’ faces as they received new clothes and blankets for their babies. There was one tent that especially moved me. The tent was for the malnourished children.  I walked in with a bag of distributions when this tiny one year old reached out his arms to me. I picked him up and he felt like a delicate bag of bones. I felt his heart beating so fast against my chest. I started to breathe slowly and chanted gently, “you are safe, you are safe, you are safe.” As I said these words I felt this beautiful child’s heart slow down against my chest as he fell asleep. I went to the next crib and the same thing happened, a little girl reached out to me and I put her to sleep in my arms. They all just wanted to be held and to feel secure, a basic human need that is universal. I learned so much from the Haitians; I learned so much of love and kindness. I feel humbled by the fact that I think I received more than I gave. My heart remains in Haiti. It was so hard to leave, to leave the beautiful people who changed my life in such a short amount of time, so hard for me to go on with my day as flashes of all the sorrow and devastation appear in my mind.  All we can do is give love, send continuous, pure love.

Thank you to all of you who made this possible. Thank you for all the love and continuous support that I felt was able to emanate through me to beautiful people of Haiti.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Stories From Darfur permalink
    April 17, 2010 5:01 pm

    Thank you for sharing these stories and your amazing spirit with us. May Ayiti receive all of our blessings and love through your hands. Stay strong sister and let us know how we can support you! love nisrin

  2. April 26, 2010 6:49 pm

    Your account of your experience in Haiti resonates with me, as we felt many of the same fierce reactions to the beautiful people there. They are strong, even when they are vulnerable, and were comforted by simply being held and having someone loving so near. I admire you for what you gave and pray that your dreams of Haiti will continue – it is proof that God has used us and will again. How else can we respond to so strong and enduring a pull?

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