May 12th, 2010
So how am I … the altered sense of reality is at times a little overwhelming but manageable. It is funny how things here at home, with no relation to Haiti, give me the feeling of being on the streets of Port-au-Prince. The most surprising of these things so far has been the snow. The mounds that are jutting into the small side streets that cause one car to pause and allow another car to pass first are much like the road conditions getting around PaP.
Places to put the rubble from the fallen buildings are also in short supply down there and we often came to partially blocked roads full of vehicles trying to pass. It was jarring to feel transported back to Haiti by snow! That and the empty grocery store down the street from my house. Seriously, how could there not be one single onion left in the whole store?! What were people cooking this week?
I did manage to contract Dengue Fever while I was down there. (Note to self: reapply bug spray several times a day) I seem to have a penchant for tropical diseases! We all need our hobbies I guess. But as with all things, it could have been much worse so I feel a bit lucky that it was just Dengue.
“So how was it?” is the question I have gotten from most people I have seen so far at work. It is a fair and valid question, but there is no easy answer. Both better and worse than you could imagine is really the only thing I can say. People are living in makeshift tents, so our accommodations were the Plaza in comparison.
We stayed at what had been, and I’m sure will be again, an elementary school. The 82nd airborne as well as a group from the Navy had set up supply depots and were also camped on the grounds. The “girls” were upstairs in the 6th grade classroom and the “boys” were downstairs in first grade. When our team got larger, and the heat too much to bear, several camped outside.
Days started at 5 am (and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 thanks to a very vocal rooster) …and lots to do all day long. My main role was to set up management, supply chain and fiscal structures to support our team. While challenging, they are now in place for the most part. The hardest thing for me I think was finding a way to make a use of myself at the hospital when the need was overwhelmingly clinical…so I passed out water to the patients and their families (it was a good 95 degrees) and emptied bed pans (hospital sanitation was a bit sketchy to say the least).
The flies were untenable at times and the smell quite honestly, everywhere, was horrid. But I didn’t “hurl” once so I’m pretty happy about that. The teams from Maryland Shock Trauma and from here at IHV are amazing and I know that the work they did, and that the new team continues to do, is making a difference.
The city looks as you might imagine, although the news did not capture the actual experience of being there. There is concrete dust everywhere, the leaves on the trees are white in most places and breathing can be a challenge when the cars and slight breeze stir it all up. In many places there are houses and buildings seemingly untouched while the one that had been between them is a pile of dust and concrete.
The death toll is around 200,000 so far, and unfortunately there will be more…both from the catastrophic injuries sustained as well as the overwhelming potential for disease outbreak (cholera and typhoid being two of our primary concerns). I met a woman at the hospital that spoke no English but described to me her experience during the earthquake…the gist (which I got clearly) was that it was horrific, she is grateful to be alive, and I am grateful that I was not there.
Of course, I saw things best left un-described…things a non-clinician would normally not encounter and that completely reaffirm the fact that it is probably best I did not pursue medicine as a career. Like my colleague Anthony described in his first dispatch after arriving stateside, the words “blunt crush injury” and “soft tissue damage” will stay with me forever.
Humor got us through for the most part. And the resiliency of the Haitian people. Street life has resumed and people are trying as best they can to go about their lives amid the rubble. Children laugh, people embrace, and the world continues to turn. These kids had daily wheelchair races at the hospital.
The feelings I have being home are a mix of gratitude and uselessness. Having been there and seen, I know what is going on day to day and how much work there is left to do. I am hoping to get healthy and rested and get back down to do whatever small part I can. In the meantime, I am so thankful to be home and that I have a home to go to.
On the plane trip to the States from the DR, a woman that had been there as well asked one of my colleagues how you go back to your day to day life after being in Haiti and seeing the things we saw. While it brought a tear to my eye, the answer is…the people of Haiti have, so it is the least I can do.
Kristen A. Stafford, MPH