HAITI — From the moment I saw news footage of the earthquake in Haiti, with those heart-wrenching images of death and devastation, I wanted to help in some way. When my employer sent an e-mail seeking volunteers to go on a relief mission with the U.S. Navy, I responded immediately.
Ever since medical school, I’ve wanted to go on a mission to help people in third-world countries. I never imagined it would be disaster relief, however, and I had no idea what I was getting into.
On Feb. 14, six UCLA nurses and I flew to Jacksonville for the first leg of our journey. We all wore UCLA Health System polo shirts, leading some people to think we were a women’s soccer team. Once they learned of our mission, they sang our praises and offered words of encouragement.
We left Jacksonville the next day with other NGOs (non-government organizations) on a naval flight into Port-au-Prince, where we were taken by military convoy to the shore and then by boat to the ship.
The images we saw as we drove through Port-au-Prince were stunning and grabbed at our heartstrings. This place, which had very little to begin with, now had even less. Every building was leveled and sidewalks were covered with trash. What seemed like an old water canal was now filled with garbage, and tin houses ran along its side. Skinny, sickly children played among the trash in the canal. Huge amounts of rubble from the earthquake were swept to certain areas, serving as a constant reminder of the destruction. Large fields of tents sprawled throughout the area to provide communal living.
Once we got onto the ship, I remember feeling excited. We ate dinner with what seemed like hundreds of other people. Then we were shown our sleeping quarters. They were triple bunks, spaced about two feet apart, and not for the claustrophobic! Any noise or movement would cause us to awaken and knock our heads on the bunk above, thereby waking others. I woke at 4:30 a.m. and could not go back to sleep.
Day two on the ship was orientation and credentialing. Orientation scared me because they talked about potential dangers, including the ship being attacked, sinking or catching fire.
Following orientation, I went to the ship’s operating rooms and met the lead anesthesiologist and surgeons. I walked into one of the operating rooms where they were starting a case. It was a young boy, age 6 or so, who had a large open wound on his thigh. The surgeon sighed and said, “another horrible injury.”
The third morning was equally challenging for me. At this point, I was severely sleep deprived and my entire body ached. I felt exhausted. In addition, the malaria pills were causing bad side effects. At breakfast, I started questioning myself. Didn’t I know what I was getting into? Will I be able to handle this? I had no idea it would be so challenging.
Someone sitting at the same table turned and asked me how I was doing? With hesitation, I stated how miserable I felt. Many volunteers at the table shared similar feelings. It was such a relief to realize that I was not alone in my thoughts.
I went to the OR and met my first patient, a 42-year-old male who needed revision of his foot amputation. His eyes were kind and full of grace. As poor and unfortunate as the Haitians are, they have so much pride. His only concern was not to lose more of his foot. After I talked with him via a translator about the anesthetic, he looked at me, put his hand gently on my forearm and said, “Thank you for coming to help us. We are very grateful.”
After hearing him, I felt re-energized. I realized that what I’ve experienced in the last three days is nothing compared to what these earthquake victims had endured. My ailments paled in comparison with their plight. From that moment on I had a constant flow of energy and felt renewed. Once he woke up, we told him we had saved his leg. Most of the staff in the recovery room cheered in support of him.
Haiti is not accommodating to the disabled. They don’t have paved sidewalks, let alone wheelchair ramps. Most Haitians make their living via manual labor and any disability, especially an amputation, hinders their chances of survival.
Amputations are tragic enough, but also a spiritual horror for the Haitians, who are primarily Catholic or Protestant, but still believe in voodoo. One common belief is that an amputation is the source for evil spirits to enter the body. I heard of a chilling, hair-raising event where a child was brought out of surgery into the recovery room, and when the parents noticed the child was now an amputee, they started beating on the child to remove the evil spirits.
One of my patients left an indelible mark on my memory. He was a 22 year old who was getting a second surgery to fix broken bones in his leg. When I asked via translator if he had any questions about the anesthesia, he replied, “Will I be awake for this surgery too?”
My heart fell, as I realized he had been given no anesthesia for his previous surgery. I gave him a full dose, and when he awoke, he was screaming violently: “Stop it already, I’ve had enough. Stop cutting me.” He was displaying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)-type behaviors. I can hear his violent screams to this day.
The first time I walked into the ship’s Intensive Care Unit, I just stopped and stared. There were about three patients in comas from various causes, including brain injury and catatonic state. One was a little boy, about 4 years old, who was in a large bed. He was connected to monitors, but no ventilator and no other life-supporting medication. He had a gastric tube to feed him. One of the nurses tried playing with him, and he attempted to smile, but could not.
Another teenage patient was sleeping with her arms over her head. Her grandmother was squatting on the floor at the foot of her bed. I watched the grandmother mumbling to herself while deep in thought. Then she started mumbling faster and faster, and the young woman opened her eyes wide to look around before closing them again. She started hitting herself in the head with both hands while shaking her head “no!”
I can only imagine her thoughts. Was she recalling her terror as the earthquake struck? It terrifies me to think about what she must have thought and felt during this violent ordeal.
Patients were allowed an escort, usually a family member, to stay with them on the ship, but most of them had no family members to accompany them. The patients, especially children, often came to the OR accompanied by a Red Cross volunteer. Some adults did not know their children’s whereabouts or if they were still alive. Many had lost daughters, sons, fathers, mothers, husbands or wives; some had lost everyone.
Almost all of the patients we treated were living on the streets. Most were severely malnourished and therefore very, very skinny. Nevertheless, the Haitians are humble, warm and prideful people who manage to maintain those traits even under the worst imaginable circumstances.
At breakfast, lunch and dinner, we shared stories about our patients’ amazing tales of survival and grace under stress. Many had been buried under a house or rubble for days before being rescued. One patient who had become a paraplegic from the earthquake said she lost her entire family, and all I could think about was who would take care of her?
One nurse was telling me about a patient of hers who had lost both arms. The nurse was concerned about how this patient would survive once she got off the USNS Comfort. How would she protect herself against rape? It was too painful to think about.
After almost two weeks, our mission had ended and we returned home. When I came back to Los Angeles, it took me a few weeks to absorb everything and to start talking and writing about it. I was emotionally drained!
Now, I appreciate everything I have a little more. I don’t sweat the small stuff as much and have become more grateful than ever for my comforts at home.