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Updates from Haiti
by Dr. Tom Holmes
May 9, 2010
The leaves rustle, followed by a muffled "thump". In the quiet moments of the day and throughout the calm of the night, that same rustle and "thump" repeats itself every few minutes outside my window. It's a gentle reminder of what a very special oasis St. Charles Seminary is among the turmoil and destruction of the Port-au-Prince area. The earthquake shook the ground here, just as it did in the rest of the city nearly four months ago, yet the well-built, picturesque single-storey buildings withstood the waves of the "tremblement de terre" that wreaked so much havoc elsewhere. Rather than the unbroken piles of rubble, I see the deeply shaded courtyard outside my window and hear the quiet rustle of the leaves and that familiar "thump" each time another fruit falls off the huge mango tree. I've discovered that it must be one of life's greater pleasures to sit under such a tree and eat the fresh, juicy fruit as it nearly falls into my lap. In the past, I have wondered how people climbed them to pick the mangoes hanging from the very tips of the branches so high in the air. Now I've discovered that it's not necessary to risk life and limb to reach for that seemingly unobtainable fruit; rather, like manna falling from heaven, while just sitting under the tree the fruit comes to me. Also, like that first manna, if it's not eaten within a day or so, the mangoes quickly rot away. It certainly feels as though sometimes God's blessings come to us fresh each day.
There's more than a little air of unreality about it as I enjoy the campus of the seminary where I'm spending the last few days of my time in Haiti working in an outpatient clinic. As they designed and built it, the priests obviously brought their love of plants and nature and space with them when they came from Italy; it's what makes this place so very different from the parched earth and rocky soil that surround its walls. Though it lacks the vibrance of the world around it, in some fairy tale-type setting, it somehow feels as though this is the way that Haiti was meant to be. Sadly, however, it has not turned out that way.
The tent camp clinic in which I was previously working closed a couple of weeks ago to make room for the school, which the neighborhood camp committee felt they needed more than the clinic. Subsequently, I began to look for another setting in which to contribute my efforts. This seminary is not what I expected when my wife first sent me the internet add for a physician to work in a clinic near Port-au-Prince. Though the medical problems that the neighboring community bring each day are usually very familiar, the setting is so very unlike the tent camp clinics and General Hospital where I was working earlier. My only other time in this suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets had been spent working under a sweltering tarp in a church with makeshift walls and a floor of broken cinder blocks, so the green tranquility of the seminary came as quite a surprise.
Yet, Haiti has always been a country of contrasts, great poverty in a land of great beauty, a country that for generations has been exploited by multiple people, both those within the country, as well as those outside it. On one hand, despite the trauma of the earthquake, the long-standing power structure of the local economy seems to have held fast. And on the other hand, there is an oft-repeated story that Haiti used to produce much of its own rice until the U.S. farm subsidies for rice production were readjusted during Bill Clinton's Administration to benefit the farmers in his home state of Arkansas. Now, virtually every Haitian every day consumes rice sold in the markets with "Product of the USA" stamped on each bag, and the local production of rice is almost non-existent.
Since the earthquake, there has been a broad discussion of the need to develop new approaches to third-world development. In one fashion or another, Haiti exemplifies the places where that development has failed over the last half-century or more. There are undoubtedly multiple explanations for that failure, but one reason is certainly not the lack of serious effort by many people and many organizations to help over many years. Haiti is widely reported to have more international non-governmental organizations (NGO's) per capita than any other nation in the world.
It is truly amazing how many people from multiple parts of the world are contributing to the effort to stabilize and rebuild Haiti. The United Nations alone has military personnel here from Brazil, Nepal, Japan, Peru, Nigeria, Uruguay, Pakistan, China, Peru, Korea, and probably other nations. In addition to that, there have been multiple Catholic orders and parishes, United Methodists, Baptists, Adventists, Jewish, Muslim and other religious traditions who have been working in Haiti over many years. More over, there are multiple secular NGO's who have brought tremendous resources into Haiti, both before and after the earthquake. Among the more easily recognized include the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, Doctors Without Borders, Partners in Health, tents from the Lions clubs, and Rotary-sponsored Pure Water for Haiti and their unique "Shelters in a Box", which are found in multiple tent camps throughout Port-au-Prince. Then there are many smaller NGO's ranging all the way from Sherburne, NY-based SOIL, focusing on sanitation issues, to multiple medical teams from throughout the world, and even a Palestinian aid organization.
In short, Haiti's ongoing problems do not relate to a lack of effort to effect constructive changes. Many people talk and write about the need to develop a new Haiti that focuses on truly meeting the stated needs of the people being served, those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder as well as the emerging middle class, rather than focusing on the needs of the ruling oligarchy or the needs of the overseas donors. What would be the true impact of that change in perspective?
We know that hundreds of thousands of identified and unidentifed victims died in the rubble of Port-au-Prince, many of whom are yet to be discovered. The crisis that existed before the January 12th earthquake has only been made worse subsequent to it. Despite all of the external assistance that Haiti has received, it is apparent that the major changes in Haitian society will have to be made from within, hopefully with constructive support from the outside. For instance, the standard figure most frequently cited is that 80% of the college graduates leave the country to find better opportunities elsewhere. Most of them then remit significant sums of money to family members living in Haiti. What would be the impact if over the next decade that figure was reversed, such that 80% of those graduates remained within the country? What would be the impact if the large educated Haitian diaspora was inspired that there are new opportunities for them to return to their native country? How then might Haiti really remake itself?
However, one of the major tragedies of the recent earthquake was the heavy toll that it took upon the educational process within the country. Higher education in Haiti has long been concentrated in the Port-au-Prince area. In addition to the many thousands of students that perished in the quake, many of the colleges and universities were destroyed, along with the immediate hopes and dreams of many young adults and their families.
Henry Acliche is a young man who helped to translate for me when I was living and working at Matthew 25 House. He had built a small business, renting space in a building to operate an internet cafe, and using the income to pay for his university education. In the rubble of the earthquake, he lost family members, his home, his business, his life savings, the university in which he studied, and all of the records that documented what he had accomplished so far. He asked me, "What is my future here?" What should my answer be?
As I prepare to return home soon, I have begun to reflect upon the couple of months that I have spent in Haiti. Though I believe that I have had a positive impact in some individual lives, I have no illusions about how I may have affected many others. People were sick and living in horrible circumstances before I arrived, and there has been little improvement since then. I realize that the situation remains much the same, not for lack of effort by many people of good will, but due to the sheer enormity of the problems affecting the whole society. Yet, in the process I know that I certainly have a better understanding of the challenges of creating positive changes in an unfamiliar culture, even with the very best of intentions. And I better appreciate how I have also been changed in the process.
April 21, 2010
Looking up, the clouds hang low over the mountains, obscuring the large homes on the ridge top above Petionville, with the vast expanse of the city spread out before them. The warm breezes, clouds, and relative quiet make this my favorite time of the day, especially when I'm able to spend time sitting on the flat roof, enjoying the peacefulness of the day before the sun comes up, and while the streets remain rather calm. Thankfully, the preacher with the megaphone must have been saving souls along some other street in Port-au-Prince at 4 o'clock this morning, though the one without the amplification was at work at a much more decent hour, awakening the tent camp at 5 AM, only a few moments behind the roosters. All too soon, the opressive heat and humidity will envelop the busy populace and piles of rubble in Haiti's capital city.
The clouds remind us that the rainy season is here, but the short bursts of rain showers have been mercifully light during the last couple of weeks, much less disruptive to the lives of so many hundreds of thousands of people living in the tent camps that are beginning to take on the trappings of the new normal. Many people are talking about the emergency of the earthquake quietly subsiding, while the disaster that preceded it has only become more severe. The immense needs persist, but Haitians have been adjusting to that for generations. This is only the latest tragedy, and as always, Haitians work at accommodating life's changing circumstances with great equanimity.
Resilience is the word most commonly used to describe this aspect of the national character. Indeed Haitians seem to be incredibly resilient to whatever life deals them, accepting horrible circumstances without complaint, and just moving on with the parts of their lives over which they do have some control.
While recently riding to a clinic set up in a home on the western side of Port-au-Prince, along with a steady stream of other vehicles, we were forced to take a detour for about a kilometer along what appeared to be a rather unusually situated creek bed. It shortly became apparent that this strange creek was actually formed by a buried pipe spurting water to clean the underbellies of the passing vehicles, and it was also apparent that this phenomenon had been going on for a number of days or weeks.
Further along, we turned into a narrow alley leading to the clinic site. On one side were portions of a four storey building still standing, with its rubble gradually sloping into the alley, concealing for the past three months whatever lies buried beneath it. Elsewhere in the city, the rubble is gradually disappearing one shovelful at a time, but here it has remained untouched since the earthquake. Rather than tackling the seemingly impossible task of removing the fallen remains of this huge concrete structure, a narrow path has been cleared so that vehicles may drive over it. It has become a part of the new background in which this part of the community is continuing to live their lives.
For me this slow and arduous drive from one side of the city to the other seems to illustrate the incredible resilience of the Haitian people, accepting life as it comes, without complaining, and then moving on. With each of these problems, rather than expecting the government to fix it, people appear to have just made the necessary adjustments to accommodate to them. Yet, unfortunately, as has happened for decades, it appears that the people do not hold their government accountable for doing anything positive in their lives.
This past week, while driving to the General Hospital, the city's largest medical center, we passed the site of the Ministry of Health, still lying in a pile of ruins, not far from the National Palace, which met a similar fate. They represent very apt metaphors for so much of life in present day Haiti.
During the first couple of nights that I worked in the ICU, it was located in a military-style tent with the only running water being the rain water which flowed freely across the floor between the patient beds and among the electric cables. During several 14-hour night shifts, along with a number of very hard-working young physicians and nurses associated with the medical organization, Partners in Health, we cared for a patients with typhoid fever, tetanus, and cerebral malaria, which many of us had only read about previously.
One night we received Claude, a 15-year old boy who ten days earlier had sustained a puncture wound of his foot, not unlike many thousands of other people laboring among the ruins of the city. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way he and his foot met up with the Clostridium tetani bacteria, and he presented to the ER with a one-day history of "lock jaw" and the intense muscle spasms that characterize tetanus. However, he was extremely fortunate that he was brought to the General Hospital where there were sufficient supplies of immunoglobulin and appropriate antibiotics, all available for free. That first night, I was presented with the only two bottles of IV Valium that we had available and told that I needed to make it last all night, while trying to keep him comfortable. Fortunately, the next day he got what he really needed which was a pediatric intensive care specialist from Burlington, Vt. who had a portable ventilator and the expertise to successfully intubate him. Knowing this problem is reversible and that he could probably not be successfully maintained in Haiti, a number of people pulled a lot of strings, and arrangements were made for an emergency transfer by private plane to a hospital in Miami before the end of the day. I was told that was the first emergency medical transfer to the States in many weeks.
During that night in the ICU, at about 5 AM one of the older men started to hum a tune familiar to many of the patients. Soon other people joined the humming, then began to sing along in beautiful three-part harmony, while Claude continued with his painful tetanic contractions. The hymn grew in volume and passion until it seemed that all of the patients who were able had joined, along with most of the family members sleeping on the floor beneath their beds, in raising their voices to heaven in a chorus that truly sounded angelic.
Not all of life here seems quite so momentous, however. Several days ago we also had an exciting evening when Sherburne-native, Sasha Kramer, and her organization, SOIL, innaugurated a new dry composting toilet as a semi-permanent addition to our tent camp. It was quite an occasion, including a very nice concert on the basketball court with a couple of locally well-known singers. This was followed by a profusely illustrated G-rated pantomime of how to most appropriately use the new facility. I am sure that many people are familiar with a variety of 12-step programs, but I doubt that many Americans are familiar with the intricate 11-step program for using a dry composting toilet, which was boisterously received by several hundred active participants. All of this was followed by hours of vigorous singing and dancing ranging from the three-year olds to the geriatric set. I must admit that I'm impressed with any DJ who can pump up a crowd of hundreds for an exciting game of musical chairs by flashlight.
Despite all of the seemingly overwhelming problems surrounding them, the people of Port-au-Prince and throughout Haiti are remarkably able to carry on living their lives with joy and enthusiasm. What a great way to illustrate the kitchen sticker which reads, "Life is much too important to just be lived; it must be celebrated."
April 4, 2010
I wonder if they got the day mixed up. My co-workers had assured me that there would be no clinic. After all, it was Good Friday, a Haitian national holiday, and no one would show up for the clinic. I guess that they were partially correct, for there was only about half of the crowd and half of the staff. Yet, it was a good day, the humidity was lower, and there was a breeze. Fortunately, most of the rain showers have only been short downpours, not the drenching all night rain and ankle deep mud of a couple of weeks ago, which made life so miserable for the young fellow with cerebral palsy in a wheel chair, and the two young girls, Reginet and Mita, with leg amputations following the January 12th earthquake.
Despite her 78 years, Sr. Mary keeps things running well here at Matthew 25 House. Yet she’s insistent that the activities in the tent camp next door are independently run by the Haitian committee. Before the quake, the committee of young men was busy running their community sports program on the Parc Antoine Izmery soccer field and basketball court. However, with the subsequent breakdown in government function after the quake, they are now administering a tent camp for hundreds of their neighbors on that same soccer field. This is a scenario that is being replicated by similar organizations throughout Port-au-Prince, all with amazingly peaceful results.
Despite living very closely together, with tent after tent right next to each other, people are consistently calm, pleasant, and courteous. The only sign of real anger which I have seen has been following a disputed call on the basketball court a few feet away from our clinic.
With the average age in Haiti being less than twenty, there are smiling, happy, and playful children running all over the tent camp. Each morning after helping to prepare the powdered milk, I am always amazed when we arrive at the central camp area to find that the children have lined themselves up by height in a very orderly fashion, boys in one line and girls in the other. There’s a common understanding that the shortest and youngest children with their outstretched cups are always at the front of the line being served first, while the taller and older children quietly wait for their turn, hoping that the milk does not run out before they get theirs. I frequently think that the way these children treat each other must have a larger moral for the rest of us.
In response to a request from a pastor in a semi-rural area on the northern outskirts of Port-au-Prince, one of the nurses, Eileen, and Sr. Mary arranged for us to conduct a clinic several days ago in a tiny independent Pentecostal church. For obvious reasons, the pastor and board members of that church have been concerned that the children in their part of Croix des Bouquets have not had any schooling or medical care since the quake. They share a dream that someday they can do better, and rather incredibly, we discovered that we were part of that dream.
The loosely hung sign draped above the church entrance, and across the road from the pig wallowing in the sewer, proclaimed this to be the “Tabernacle De La Victoire”. Rather than push open the wired entry way, most people found it easier to simply step over the loosely stacked cinder block walls along the sides, and then sit in the shade of the tarps fluttering in the breeze atop several strategically placed poles. In anticipation of our arrival, half a dozen children were quietly waiting on the boards and chairs neatly arranged in the sanctuary. Soon several sheets, tables and chairs appeared; and within a few minutes the altar had been transformed into a busy medical clinic and pharmacy. It appeared as though the church sexton had not yet swept up the stones and broken cement blocks strewn over the church floor, yet I was probably the only person who noticed.
The next several hours were hot and hectic. My colleagues at home, who snicker when they call me “Speedy”, may be a bit skeptical, but our incomplete medical records suggest that the nurse and I saw over 50 children in 5 hours that day. We might have been able to see more, but among the extenuating circumstances, we found that we had not brought enough drinking water for ourselves and for mixing the pediatric antibiotic solutions. We also discovered that our thermometer registered 102 degrees while lying on the table, so we had to insert it under the childrens’ arms to cool it off.
After deciding that we could not possibly see all of the people who came, we ended the clinic session and walked to the home of the woman who is the head of the church board. Along the way, as we stepped over mounds of rubble from former walls and homes now used to fill the mud holes along the street, I stopped to greet and take a family photo of a woman and her laughing children who I had seen as patients just a short time earlier. She was preparing dinner over the stove between the two walls and the tarp of their current home. This community has yet to receive any tents. As we left, Eileen shared a generous donation from Sr. Mary to help support this church’s dream of a better day. Now that’s ecumenism in action!
That day helped to remind me of just how hard and uncomfortable it can be, even with the best of intentions, to be in service with the poor.
Last week our traveling clinic went to a camp built on a site that in pre-earthquake days was planned as an upscale housing development not far from where we are living. I doubt that the developer envisioned tents for 18,000 people pitched on that 20 acre site. We had three very busy days there in an open structure built of upright 2”X4” poles with a corrugated tin roof, which is soon to be an open air school for the children of that camp, one of the few to be functioning in this city of 2 million. Unfortunately, while there, I also saw my first case of kwashiorkor, or protein malnutrition, with the characteristic distended belly and reddish hair.
Among the surprises for me so far, is the observation that we have had very little problem with most infectious diseases. One of our colleagues, Meagan, who is an infectious disease specialist at the General Hospital, cares for many people with TB and HIV infections, but most other infectious problems have been mercifully uncommon. We are all rather dreading what will happen when the really heavy rains come. Only time will tell.
Fortunately, most of the trauma of the early days after the earthquake has ended. Now days the trauma comes from either auto accidents or people falling off unstable buildings or piles of rubble.
Several days ago word came that Roseline, a woman of (36) years with several children at home, had delivered a premature baby the previous day, and was experiencing considerable pain and fever. A couple of men went to her home and returned with the mother and baby on a stretcher, which they carried between them. Both Roseline and her tiny baby, Loudjina, were running fevers, indicating major problems for both of them. Despite having no ability to do any laboratory testing, we do have a good supply of intravenous fluids and medications, which we were able to put to good use, and we turned one of the lawn tents into one of the most comfortable post-partum hospital rooms in Port-au-Prince.
However, among various concerns, we had no idea of just how much Loudjina weighed. Since she was only one day old, I asked her parents what she weighed in the hospital when she was born. They had no idea, indicating that the baby had not been weighed in the hospital, which I suspect was because there was probably no pediatric scales. Subsequently, we made a calculated guess of one and a half kilograms and started the baby on an appropriate injectable antibiotic. The next morning I was mumbling to Vivian, one of the Matthew 25 staff, that we had no way to accurately measure the baby’s weight. She suddenly dragged me off to the deepest recesses of one of the storerooms where, buried under a large pile of boxes, was a very well-functioning mechanical baby scale. It felt like Christmas.
It turned out that the baby’s weight of 3 pounds and 10 ounces was only a couple of ounces more that we had estimated. Rather surprisingly during the first couple of days when Roseline was feeling so poor, we also found a supply of frozen breast milk in the kitchen freezer for her baby. It was from a woman who had stayed at Matthew 25 House when she had to make an emergency trip to Haiti from the States, even though she had to leave her nursing baby at home. Over the subsequent days Loudjina gained 3 ounces in just two days, and was doing very well by the time that she left. Her parents will bring her back for daily antibiotic injections for the next several days.
Last evening was perhaps the most comfortable time that I’ve had since being in Haiti; the temperature was very mild, and the humidity was low. I was told that the neighborhood Catholic church was badly damaged in the quake, so I accompanied Sr. Mary and Sr. Fran to the Saturday evening Easter Vigil. Carrying several of the ubiquitous white plastic chairs, we walked down the street a few houses to the front yard of a large home, which appeared to be quite intact. We opened the front gate, walked in, and set up our chairs in the late afternoon shade, shortly before the rumored 5 PM mass. We were essentially all alone. Soon several other people began drifting in with more chairs, one table and then another, flowers, and potted plants. Shortly someone arrived to drive the dump truck out of the sanctuary-in-the-making, only to reveal an old, trashed Peugeot with flattened tires, big dents in the body, and no windows; it had obviously been resting in that same spot for a very long time.
Over the next little while a variety of folding chairs and more plastic chairs began to appear, followed soon afterwards by Fr. Andre. Then a couple of men arrived carrying a portable electric generator, and the church lady began to set up a table, covered with an immaculate white cloth, around which she arranged the flowers and potted palms, while two young men were out under the trees furiously fanning the fire to get the incense burner going. By shortly after 6 PM the church service was slowly beginning, while one of the men continued to tie yet another upside down lamp stand to the side of a tree to further enlighten the assembled parishioners.
Amidst the whine of the generator, the creaking of the huge water truck and the sputtering of the tap-taps with their noisy passengers passing along the rough road on the other side of the fence, the electric lights and candles seemed to have transformed the otherwise dark night into holy ground. Over the next four hours church gradually happened in front of that abandoned Peugeot. For me it was a magical moment, a time when the church went to the people, rather than the people going to church.
March 20, 2010
It’s only been a week since I arrived, yet the rubble and confusion of the city have already settled into a strange kind of normality. Since the Haiti earthquake of January 12th, it’s just the way life is these days in Port-au-Prince.
As we got off our flight from JFK, I was quite surprised to find a brand new jetway and a local band welcoming us to the Toussaint Louverture Airport. Rather remarkably the jetway survived the earthquake quite intact, and provided a most welcome sight, except that we had to wait for about a half-hour in the baking metal tunnel as people slowly walked down the non-functioning escalator at the end of the jetway. Fortunately, I rather easily found my 50 pound bags of tents and medical supplies among those spread out on the terminal floor, and I made it through immigration and customs without problems. I also easily met my local contact, Patrick Tortora, waiting for me at the exit from the temporary terminal.
As we drove from the airport, the tumbled down walls along the roadside actually looked strangely similar to the last time I was along this road just two months before the earthquake – only, in addition to the previous piles of construction materials, there are now acres of UNICEF/FEMA blue tarps, and new piles of former homes, schools, stores, churches, representing many broken lives.
Patrick gave me a running dialogue as we traveled along the rough and rutted roads of Port-au-Prince. Fortunately, the sunlight maked it easier to spot the unannounced piles of rubble, open sewers, and chaotic traffic merging from all angles.
On arrival at my new home-away-from-home, Sr. Mary greeted me warmly and immediately took me on a tour of the guesthouse and adjoining tent camp, commenting that the camp of about 1,600 people living in roughly 3–4 acres of land is one of the best run in the city. Following that brief introduction, it seemed like a good time to set up my old Eureka backpacking tent while it was still light. Several of the local fellows from the camp came over to help me. They did not seem too impressed with the old guy planning to sleep in the tent; but having become very familiar with tents in the last few months, they were quite impressed when I told them that mine was over 30 years old.
Matthew 25 House is operated by the Parish Twinning Program of the Americas, which has matched many Catholic parishes in the U.S. and Haiti over many years. Its traditional role has been to provide a place of hospitality near the airport in the capital city for visitors coming and going to various parts of Haiti. Since the earthquake, Sr. Mary Finnick, Patrick and Vivian Tortora, and many other Haitians and Americans have worked very hard to see to it that this place has lived up to the message of its namesake, the 25th chapter of the Book of Matthew, in which Jesus’ parable says, “As you have done to one of the least of these, you have also done unto me.” That’s one tough standard, but one that is motivating an incredible number of people in present-day Haiti.
The house itself is a rather large, pleasant place with 10 rooms on the first floor, and previously had guest rooms on the second. However, the second floor collapsed during the quake, and the debris was shoveled off to help protect the main floor. There’s still a functioning sink up there, just no walls surrounding it. Despite its rather truncated appearance, the house continues to host 20 to 30 people most nights, with more people from many parts of the world continually coming and going on a regular basis, all with just two bathrooms.
For many people who lived through the quake, rather than representing shelter and security, homes and other large structures now seem to represent a threat. Therefore, out of fear of further aftershocks, along with nearly everyone else in the city, we all sleep outside in our own tents. It rather feels like camping out with two million of your closest friends, scattered among more than a thousand recognized camps, and many more small clusters. However, in Port-au-Prince we are among the fortunate ones, fortunate to have a place to congregate and eat, and a safe place to pitch our tents, especially fortunate when it rains.
Last Sunday, I tagged along with a couple of other people who have been working on various water projects. I went with them to visit a Methodist Church on the northeast edge of the city, a few miles further from the epicenter of the earthquake. The single room church with a metal truss roof came through the quake with only very minimal damage, while across the road a huge section of barbed wire-topped wall had collapsed. When I asked what was behind the wall, which is being rebuilt, I was told that it surrounds a ranch owned by the family of the former dictator, “Baby Doc” Duvalier. There must be just a tiny bit of justice in that broken wall.
Early each morning I have been helping a member of the Portuguese medical team living at Matthew 25 House, as he has been mixing and distributing about 25 liters of powdered milk to children in the tent camp. The kids are really great, always smiling and cheerful, even the three year olds, walking through the mud with no pants, carefully carrying their glasses of milk. After breakfast, I have been spending much of the rest of each day working with a Haitian physician colleague, Dr. Bellfort, at a medical clinic set up in several tents next to the basketball court, which often functions as a small soccer field. In addition to the crying babies and cell phones ringing in the middle of the exam, there are also the less expected distractions of dogs barking under my chair, a convoy of helicopters roaring overhead, soccer balls bounding through the exam room, a rooster loudly claiming the exam table for himself, and the much-appreciated breeze distributing our medical records at random throughout the camp.
Each day has been a new adventure for me, and one that is hopefully significant for the people with whom we are working. Sometimes my medical training has been my most important asset, and at other times it has been my Boy Scout camping experience or the French that I studied many years ago. My high school French teacher frequently told me that some day I would use it, and she was obviously right.
March 11, 2010
On January 12, 2010 a severe earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people and severely damaged the already inadequate infrastructure of the country of Haiti. Beyond the deaths, the survivors have been seriously traumatized, the government nearly demolished, and much of the rest of the world shocked by the magnitude of the disaster.
Like many others, our family has been profoundly affected by the stories and images coming out of Port-au-Prince after the earthquake. What is an appropriate response in the face of such a tragedy?
In the aftermath of the quake there was a tremendous outpouring of goods, services, and money, which many of us participated in. Yet, for me having just recently been in Haiti with a United Methodist Haiti Partnership work team, and having recently experienced the difficulties and the charms of that country and its people, the tragedy took on a much greater significance.
For a number of years the adult Sunday School class at the Broad Street UM Church in Norwich has been a very important part of my life. Along with other participants in that class, we have struggled for a long time with how best to take the ideas that we have discussed and put our faith into action. How do we demonstrate that faith? How do we “walk the talk?” For me, as a family physician, it means participating in the ongoing efforts to provide medical care to victims of Haiti’s national tragedy.
After numerous attempts to work with some of the larger relief organizations, I was able to re-establish ties with SOIL, a small non-governmental organization (NGO) with which my daughter and I had connected during our visit to Haiti in November of last year. At that time we were able to visit with Sasha Kramer, the co-founder of a small NGO in the northern city of Cap Haitien. Sasha is the daughter of fellow Norwich physician, Dr. Jeffery Kramer and his wife, Pat, who runs the office of SOIL in Sherburne, N.Y. (www.oursoil.org). Immediately after the earthquake Sasha and a number of her SOIL colleagues moved to Port-au-Prince, where they have been working in relief efforts since then, initially helping to distribute water and food, facilitating emergency medical care, and providing temporary shelter. More recently, they have begun to return to their core mission, which is to provide ecologically sound and sustainable sanitation in the turmoil of post-earthquake Port-au-Prince.
Since the earthquake, Sasha has been living on the grounds of Matthew 25 House, which previously had been a Catholic hospitality house in Port-au-Prince, run by Sr. Mary Finnick. After the earthquake that facility was transformed into an emergency “field hospital,” neighborhood clinic, and a displaced persons tent camp for about 1,600 people. At Sr. Mary’s invitation, on March 12th I am planning to travel to Port-au-Prince to live in the tent camp and work in this clinic. It is presently unclear to me just how badly the structures were damaged in the earthquake, but essentially everyone in Port-au-Prince is sleeping outdoors in over a thousand tent camps. With the onset of the rainy season and hundreds of thousands of people living outside with inadequate housing, food, water, and sanitation, the health concerns are obviously monumental.
Fortunately, with the support of my colleagues at Bassett Healthcare, and with the addition of several new physicians, I was able to arrange a leave of absence from my usual responsibilities for a couple of months. With the help of Bassett Healthcare and the medical community in Norwich, as well as the prayers and support of so many other people within our community, together we hope to provide much-needed medical care to some of the people of Haiti.
Thank you.Tom Holmes, M.D.