Tuesday, January 26, 2010

So, I went on this trip, this one time. And it changed my life.

Bonjour, everyone! As you saw in my previous post, we are back, safe and sound. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to post after we got back. It’s really been a lot to process. Trying to figure a lot of things out within myself, as well as getting back into work, and “real life”. I’ll write more about that in a few minutes. I hadn’t actually written this out until this evening, when I returned an email to my friend Jamie. I’ve told the story a lot, especially when I returned to work, but never have written it out until now. Caution, its long, so make sure you have time to read!  Here’s our story:

Part of my team and I were in one of the operating rooms in the Hopital de Bienfaisance in the village of Pignon, Haiti, about 80 miles Northeast of Port-au-Prince. We were  just finishing up a case. The other part of the team had also just finished a case in the other OR, but the patient had already moved out into the recovery room. All of a sudden, I felt the floor start to move. At first, it felt like someone was maybe rolling a heavy cart outside or something. But the movement continued, and got worse. Pretty soon, the floor was literally bouncing. (The hospital is built with rebar and concrete- good thing, as it turns out.) We looked at each other- I don’t think any of us really knew what was going on. Either that or we didn’t want to believe it, which seems more likely :-) . I started to run out of the OR to see what was going on, and was met at the door by one of our other teammates who said, “It’s an earthquake- get out!”. Initially, I bolted- I was outta there. Then, I heard someone behind me say, “wait, we have to get the patients!”. Ok, now I don’t care what you’ve heard about people running into burning buildings or other dangerous situations and how they say that they never thought twice about going back in. This was simply not true, at least for me. I DID go back in, but not without thinking “Ok, this is it. I’m going to die”. That was the first time in my life that I had ever thought that it might be the end. And I realized something- I’m not ready. (That’s another discussion altogether.) Yes, all of these thoughts went through my head, all within about one-hundredth of a second. So, back in we went and evacuated all of the patients. We gathered everyone in the small courtyard outside the hospital.

One story that came from the evacuation- the previous day, Monday, we had done some skin grafting on a woman who had had a seizure about a month earlier while she was cooking, and had fallen into her fire. She had been in the hospital ever since. She had very bad burns over her upper right chest, her face, and her upper right arm. She was in an incredible amount of pain (since the burns, but especially after the surgery) and had not yet been out of bed after surgery. During the earthquake, the mobile patients simply evacuated themselves, no problem. This woman, however, could not. We stood at her bedside (at this point, the shaking had stopped) and tried to quickly decide the best way to get her out. Since the quake had stopped, we decided to leave her there and come back and carry her out if there was further quake activity. Her daughter was with her, and wanted to stay with her. Her grandson was also there- about 2 years old. I explained to them the best that I could that he needed to evacuate with me to the courtyard, but that I would bring him back as soon as it was safe. Out we went. We met as a team and talked about what to do next. Since there was no visible damage to the hospital or surrounding structures, we decided that everyone could go back in. As I was bringing the little guy back in to his grandmother’s bedside, she started talking to me. I know only a few words in Kreole, so I grabbed one of the english-speaking Haitian staff to translate for us. She was basically saying “If it happens again, please don’t forget about me”.  I can’t imagine how scared she was to be stuck there with no way out, and to watch me leave with her grandson. It broke my heart. She grabbed my hand and just kept repeating “please don’t forget about me”. I did my best to reassure her and her family that we would NOT forget about her, that we would come back for her.  That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to hear. “Please don’t forget about me”.

After everyone was back in safely, we met in the recovery room of the hospital to decide what was next. We ultimately decided to call it quits for the evening (the quake happened at about 5pm local time) and return to the dorm. We sat around the big table together, not realizing at that time how massive the devastation was elsewhere. We didn’t know if the quake was centered locally and was very mild as we had experienced, or if it was centered elsewhere and we only felt a small bit of it. Of course, we now know the outcome of that. We began slowly getting word of the massive devastation in Port au Prince (PaP) and surrounding areas. Looking back, I’m not quite sure how we got that information, as the cell phone towers had collapsed in and around PaP. One of my teammates had a local cell phone that she had purchased for the week, and was attempting to text another team member who was on his way to Haiti from the states and was in Miami at the time of the quake. She managed to get one text message to go through before cell service went completely down- “we’re safe”. He was able to get word back to our (very worried and scared) families and friends that we were ok in Pignon. That was one of the most reassuring things that happened all week.

Later in the evening, we found out that the satellite internet connection at the hospital may be functional, so a few of us walked over to try to contact our families via email, etc. It did work, and many of us were able to write emails to family or emergency contacts. It was also the first time that we saw some of the devastation in pictures. There were only one or two pictures on CNN.com at the time because of the limited connections. They were heartbreaking. We also read that there were very likely many, many dead and many, many more injured. We began to realize that we may begin to see some of these people as soon as the next day. Back at the dorm, we started to decide how we were going to handle the potential influx of injured, and came up with a plan. Ultimately, we decided to carry on with our original mission until we either began to receive patients from PaP or were needed elsewhere in the country. We could feel the aftershocks even as we were writing.

You might be asking, “Why didn’t the team go to Port-au-Prince to help out”? The answer to that didn’t come easily emotionally. Logistically we simply couldn’t make it happen safely or in an organized way- there was really nowhere to provide the care that we would be going to give since the largest hospitals had at least partially collapsed or were heavily damaged. So, although we had the staff and were more than willing to go if asked, it was the best decision for us to stay put and treat the injured that were brought to us.

The next day, we went on with selected easier cases that didn’t take a lot of time a) in case the ORs were needed urgently for the injured, and b) in case of another earthquake. Things went relatively smoothly, even when we had to evacuate the hospital again when we got word that there may be another large aftershock coming that morning. We got everyone out and did feel some very small aftershocks during that time, but were able to let everyone back in after about an hour. We did a few more cases that afternoon and went back to the dorm for the evening. If I remember right, all we did that evening was to just reiterate the plans and try to relax a little bit. :-)

On Thursday, we carried on. We did know that it was getting more likely that we would start getting patients from PaP. Our morning cases went as scheduled, using the same cautions that we had used the previous day.

One of the happiest things that happened all week happened on Thursday. One of the hardest things that happened all week also happened on Thursday. Let’s start with the happy. :-)

On Thursday, we got the honor of helping with a c-section. Our team, along with the Haitian staff, were so happy and so proud to be a part of such a wonderful event in the midst of all of the devastation in Haiti. New life for Haiti, one life at a time. Here’s a picture of the little guy:

Haiti 2010 069

Isn’t he beautiful? I can’t remember his name to save my life, though. We were very proud! :-)

The hardest part of Thursday is that we did indeed begin to receive injured patients from PaP. We received one via ambulance (the first ambulance I’ve ever seen in Haiti!)  in the early afternoon, who’s injuries couldn’t be repaired by our team. They were not immediately life threatening, but it was very difficult to know there was nothing we could do at that time. That’s a very hard adjustment to make. Here in the states, we are able to do everything we can for our patients- complex surgeries, consultations with experts, etc- and most of those things can happen very quickly. Its different in Haiti. We will absolutely provide the best care that we are capable of, but we are so very limited by resources. Its a very different frame of mind. We received 4 more patients in the late afternoon who had ridden 4ish hours in the back of a truck to seek care. A couple had very minor physical injuries and were treated by the clinic staff. The other two had more serious injuries. One of those patients rode the entire way on a wooden door that she had been carried out of her collapsed home on. We actually used it to transport her up to the treatment area where there was a cart to put her on. Both of those patients required surgery that we were fortunate enough to provide to them.

We found out late Thursday afternoon that we would be driven out of the country to the Dominican Republic early the next morning. It was heart-wrenching to leave a country that so desperately needed help, but help that we could not provide at that time. Like the decision not to go to Port-au-Prince, the reasons that we needed to go made perfect sense logically, but it was so very difficult emotionally. But, like before, our amazing leadership made the right decision for the most good. We stayed overnight in the Dominican Republic, flew to Miami the next day, and finally back home on Sunday the 17th.

I'm still trying to figure out the "why" of all of this for me. WHY wasn't it OUR building that collapsed on top of us? WHY the hospitals and missionaries in PaP instead of Pignon? WHY were WE the ones there- our one little trip out of so many that have taken place. WHY that week that we happened to be there? Along with that, I'm trying to figure out how to "flesh it out"... how is this supposed to change me and how I live out my life? How do I live daily life now, in light of where my heart IS in the world? What is the most appropriate way to work for and alongside the people of Haiti while still living my day to day life? All of these are questions that may not be answerable this side of Heaven, I do know that. Some answers may come with time as I gain more knowledge about how to help and actually participate in the country’s recovery in the next months and years.

As of now, I don’t have any “formal” plans to go back, but I’m hoping to return in the next several months if needed. I will most definitely be going back on the annual trip next year- and I can’t wait. My heart aches to be there with my Haitian friends.

Here is a picture of our team- we are now a family.

Haiti 2010 team


Lori Devier said...

Thank you for sharing your inspirational journey through your blog. You are such a blessing to our family and the people of Haiti. Many prayers go out to you and the people you touched and will touch in the future.

God Bless,
Lori Devier

Jamie H said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I can't imagine how difficult it was for you to triage patients knowing that some you would have to leave behind if things got worse. We are healers and can't stand it when we can't help people! I'm glad to know your team and hospital were safe. I pray for those who were not as fortunate as you.