Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Week in Haiti

Guest Blogger! Susie's summary of her incredible week in Haiti with the Help Haiti-Santiam Mission is below (written with the help of her ghost writer, me).
First of all, I need to give a heartfelt “Thank You” to everyone who has offered their support (financial and otherwise) and interest in my trip. The range of physical and emotional experiences in only a single week was like nothing I’ve ever gone through. I’m still adjusting to my starkly contrasting life and medical practice here and trying to process all that happened. (Not to mention, I’m still trying to catch up on some sleep, too). Everyone has asked me how things went, and my response has typically just been one word: “crazy.” Below is my attempt to provide a little more detail and a glimpse into my experience in one tiny piece of Haiti.

Like everyone, I was horrified by the news and images from Haiti when the earthquake struck in January 2010. I knew the situation was desperate before the disaster, but I didn’t realize until I looked it up that Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. (For a fascinating explanation of why things are the way they are in Haiti, and especially why they’re so much worse than the other half of the island (the Dominican Republic), I recommend the Haiti chapter from Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse.) However, no pictures or news reports could have ever prepared me for what it was like to be there, interact with the Haitian people and to be a care provider. It seemed almost as if the earthquake was last week, not 5 months ago. Rubble, debris and trash are everywhere and even the President’s palace is still in ruins.
Millions have been moved into tent cities, but there didn’t seem to be any progress towards rebuilding.

So this spring, when my friend Paul Neumann from the Fort Collins residency invited me to join their Stayton, Oregon based team on a mission trip I jumped at the chance without hesitation. Paul has a partner who is Haitian who had been to the mission even before the earthquake and their hospital sent a team in January as well. My kids are now old enough and can understand my desire to do this.

Many of you helped me to raise the almost $3000 for medical supplies that we carried down stuffed into our maximum weight-limit checked baggage. Four of us Coloradoans joined the Oregon team: Steve Tippin (an office partner of mine), Brooke Tippin (Steve’s daughter and a nurse at Children's in Denver) and J Gottino, (a massage therapist who is about to start nursing school).
(L to R:J, Susie, Mrs. Betty Prophete, who started HCM, Brooke and Steve)

We spent the week at the Haitian Christian Mission in Fond-Parisien (they have several other sites, too). (Fond-Parisien is about 20 miles east of Port-au-Prince near the Dominican border). This organization was set up in 1974 by the Prophet family. Now in Fond-Parisien there is a small hospital (one open room with 6 beds and an OR and a delivery room), a clinic with living quarters for visitors above, a school and a church.

There is a tent city like this one on the Mission grounds now too after the earthquake.

Monday through Friday we ran urgent care first-come, first-serve clinics and saw almost 200 patients per day (I’m estimating well over a thousand patients for the week, but no records to verify). The patients would begin to line up outside starting at 3:30 in the morning!

We saw the entire spectrum of horrible human ailments including things I’ve never seen in my 15-years of practicing medicine. Many untreated chronic medical issues, skin infections from the living conditions and malnourished and dehydrated children were common examples.
But we also spent a day trying to help a man who was crushed by a sausage box (!) falling off a passing Tap-Tap (the colorful, overloaded buses named for the “tap-taping” of passengers to get on or off). This was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences for the whole team as the problems of getting a backboard (we used a church pew!), “ambulance,” an x-ray machine, etc. were nearly impossible and he ended up paralyzed below the neck. Difficult medicine in the best of circumstances, but with limited resources and no referral sources, we were often left shaking our heads or in tears, helpless.

Example of the colorful and ubiquitous "Tap-Tap" buses.

The "best" hospital in all of Haiti where our cervical spinal injury patient was finally taken.

Some of my most rewarding experiences come through creating lasting relationships with many folks working at the Mission (the Haitian translators and “administrators”) my fellow team members, and many of the patients we interacted with.
My "clinic" for the week and my awesome Creol translators, Zachary, VJ, and Figgins.

Steve's "clinic."

My new lifetime friends, Sabine and J.

Much of the “medicine” we did was just the most basic things: hydration, treatment for parasites, or basic pain meds. Since these things are so lacking they can make a huge difference. The Haitian people were beautiful, gracious and a joy to be around, despite their seemingly hopeless circumstance.
Sweet Brooke. The children loved to see their images on our cameras.

Did I make a difference? I honestly don’t know. The scale of the existing problems in Haiti coupled with a horrific natural disaster seems overwhelming. But like all big problems, you do whatever bit you can do and certainly there were hundreds of people who’s lives were improved (if only temporarily, in some cases) by our visit. The Mission, as modest as it was, seemed an island of hope, too. Focusing on feeding and educating children as a path forward, they’ll continue to get my support. And, of course, the week has made me examine my own life, to be thankful for the little things (clean running water, yay!) and it feels extra nice to give my kids and hubby those long squeezes.

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