Sunday, February 21, 2010

5 Weeks Out

It is 5 weeks and two days from the earthquake.

Today, Rosemond-- a 5 year old who lay in the rubble for 3 days next to his dead parents, with a skull fracture and crushed extremities --awoke and began to rock and sing softly in Haitian, "Mama, Papa, dead...Mama, Papa, dead..." I learned this when I took him to change his dressings. 5 weeks out, wounds and skin grafts are slowly healing. But, this normally amazingly bright and smiling child -- definitely the shining star of our hospital -- for the first time since I met him, failed to meet my eyes. 5 weeks proceeded into the next stage of grief. Through a translator, with a downward gaze, and uncharacteristic tears in his eyes, he whispered it again. "Mama, Papa, dead." His translator, a Haitian speaking American nurse, crouched down to meet his gaze, put her arms around him, and whispered reassurance. He then took my hand and came to the examining table. Rosemond is normally exquisitely curious, opening zippered pant pockets and plucking objects from my fanny pack with a grin. Today he does not engage. I pull my camera from my fanny pack and hand it to him. He normally pushes the buttons in fascination...small movements encouraged by our physical therapist to rehabilitate his partially paralyzed right arm. His gaze is lifeless. I squat down and take his photo. (I've attached it here. You don't know Rosemond, so you perhaps won't notice that the light is missing from his eyes.) I show him his photo and laugh. A small smile reluctantly curls one side of his mouth. I hand him back the camera and make a crazy face. With his partially paralyzed hand, he reluctantly takes my picture. We look at it and giggle. Then our pediatrician Brad turns around and makes another crazy face; Rosemond giggles, and takes another picture. He then proceeds with a photoshoot of our "emergency room", capturing picture after picture of our staff, and his smile reappears. Click...look at the photo. Click...look at the photo. He is smiling again. His spirit is transiently reignited. I give him a one armed hug, and change his dressing while he unzips the front of my fanny pack to explore inside.

Haiti slowly recovers, yet the depth of its wounds is truly unfathomable. Today our new staff took to the streets of the city in a truck driven by the head of the orphanage turned tent hospital. He is an American who has lived in Haiti for many years. This is his home. He gives us this tour intentionally, so that we can see the devastation and share the story. It is an education. We pass vast tent cities -- some of 40,000 or greater population. Port au Prince had a population of 2 million before the earthquake. There is an estimated 200,000+ dead. Many bodies remain in the partially collapsed buildings. The number of injured are innumerable. Many residents fear returning to their buildings. As far as people here are aware, there is no government program to evaluate the integrity of the structures. So, buildings and walls hang sideways and precarious, many looming dangerously over sidewalks now once again populated by pedestrians and street vendors. People are seen climbing on the tops of partially collapsed structures, sitting on teetering balconies, sitting in plastic lawnchairs on piles of rubble, clawing through crumbled walls to retrieve possessions. At 20 to 30 miles per hour with my small handheld camera, I snapped photo after photo. In a one hour tour of the city, I began to many photos can I take of partially collapsed buildings? The fact that it has become monotonous is insane. We pass the National Palace, which has partially caved in, and stands lopsided, Haitian flag still flying at full-mast. It is a metaphor and horrific reminder, and is contrasted by the large tent city which has been erected across the street.

Our host stops the car and rolls down the windows in front of the tent city. "Stop and breathe that in," he says of the humid, tropical air, nauseatingly saturated with the scent of human waste, garbage, and possibly more morbid substances. "Now, imagine living there." The plan for deconstructing and rebuilding is unknown. The monsoon season is 3 to 4 weeks away. Followed later by hurricane season. And the plan for long term, safe housing is unknown.

Of the tens of thousands injured, we have 30 in our hospital. And see many more each day in walk in clinic. And even more in our drives in our mobile clinic around the worst parts of the city, inaccessible to public transportation. We are only scratching the surface. Included in our tour today, was a collapsed nursing school, in which many of its students lost their lives, a collapsed medical school, a collapsed hospital, and a collapsed dental clinic -- the past and future of Haiti's medical system.

Today I discovered one of our translators -- a bright and incredibly positive young man -- was a second year medical student. His medical school was destroyed. I asked him what will happen now to his educational plans. With downcast eyes, he said quietly, "I do not know." Another bright presence in our hospital. An amazing spirit. Another extinguished spark. He stared at his shoes.

"Would you like to learn how to start an IV?" I asked him. His eyes shot up and met mine. The spark returned.

"I would love that," he said.

"We will teach you while we're here," I said. "For now, let us be your medical school."

He smiled and said, "Okay."


If you would like to make a donation to Haiti relief, consider Heartline Ministries, with whom I am volunteering -- a well established, well connected local non-governmental organization with strong ties and strong respect for the Haitian community.


  1. Hi Barbie,

    I love how you are not only making a difference with your medical skills, but also with your ability to bring the spark back to people's eyes with such simple means as giving your camera to play with or teaching someone how to insert an IV.
    Thank you.
    Michiel Gitzels

  2. just donated. infnite thanks to you for bringing the *realness* of it to us in the states. please post the link again, in a more recent post (or permanently on a left or right column) so readers who may have missed this are able to see it...

    in gratitude
    daniela hess scholl