A team of CIR physicians is volunteering in Haiti this week and CIR Communications Coordinator Erin Malone will be reporting back, sharing photos and reflections. Check here daily through August 24 for updates. Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5
I sat in Miami International Airport at 4am, awaiting my 6:55 am flight to Port-Au-Prince. I was heading to Haiti to document the largest envoy of physicians CIR had funded since the earthquake in 2010. Four doctors would be arriving on the same day to provide much needed medical assistance at the Bernard Mevs/Project Medishare Hospital.
As I sat at the gate waiting to board, I noticed a roller board pass me with a red ribbon tied to its handle—the color all volunteers used to identify their luggage. The bag belonged to one of two pathologists from Washington University going to Haiti to help establish a stronger diagnostic system. The lead on the project, Sarah Brown, had visited Haiti numerous times and twice with Project Medishare. For her resident, Michael, it would be his first time in the country.
Sarah tells me there is a group of volunteers and she’ll be sure to look for me when we arrive in Port-Au-Prince to guide me toward the team. I lose track of her until we get off of the plane. I find her again in customs where she and Michael are with a group of volunteers.
We make our way through customs, which is merely a formality as there is little infrastructure to enforce any customs regulations. The volunteers pitch in to get luggage and bags of supplies out to the waiting van. I am asked for the baggage claim tags for the 4 large bags I am carrying but I only have the one for my own. The security personnel shrugs and lets me pass.
We pass the many independent porters offering to carry bags in exchange for a small tip, engaging the services of a few along the way. We load our bags and the donated supplies into the back of a van and pile into two separate covered pickup trucks for our 20 minute ride to the hospital.
The ride to the hospital is a bonding experience. Of the six volunteers in my truck, there have previously visited Haiti. Sarah, comes about every two months, and her trips predated the earthquake. Another physician, Heather from California, first came right after the earthquake and has continued to make trips since. For Jennifer, a volunteer nurse from Arizona, this would be her first trip back since she came to pitch in a couple of months after the earthquake.
One volunteer encourages us to enjoy the ride because it was about as much of Haiti as we would see during the weeklong deployment. The hospital strongly discourages volunteers from leaving hospital grounds due to safety concerns. At this, the rookie volunteers take out their cameras and began snapping photos of street scenes—vendors, the colorful tap taps (minibuses) weaving along the unmarked streets, the areas where tent cities had been recently cleared in an attempt restore some visual order (and some say to sweep the still acute housing crisis out of view).
We turn down a narrow street lined with vendors and busy with public life—the street on which Bernard Mevs Hospital is located.
We arrive at a peach-colored gate with a dozen people hanging around outside. I later learn that these are people waiting for treatment, for whom the hospital doesn’t have enough beds to admit. Inside the gate, we quickly exit our trucks and are immediately ushered into the small room that serves as the ortho clinic for orientation.
In the room, I get to speak with Drs. Patricia Loo and Ariana Dillman, two former CIR members from Harbor UCLA who arrived on the same flight. We briefly discuss setting up video interviews and settle in.
Once we’re settled, Scott, the volunteer coordinator/long term volunteer/spinal cord therapist who met us at the airport, launches right into his no-nonsense orientation. He tells the volunteers that their experience will be both challenging and rewarding. And he emphasizes that the hospital’s mission is to train and empower the Haitian healthcare professionals based there. He informs us that the hospital is no longer operating in crisis and rescue mode and has transitioned to charging for a few services in an effort to become self-sustaining; however, no one is refused treatment due to inability to pay.
Dr. Theodore, a Haitian physician, explains the scheduling and the equipment and medications at the volunteers’ disposal. Kim, the chief nursing officer, offers some of the hospital policies (like how patients pay for their treatments and how blood donations work) and information for the volunteer nursing staff. A pharmacist explains the process of requesting medication.
Scott then gives us a full tour of the hospital. The hospital facilities include a triage area, an ER, three med/surg areas, an operating room, an ICU, a pediatric area, multiple outpatient clinics, and a spinal cord therapy room. Scott also tells of some of the hospital successes: Med Surg C (an HIV wing) and the spinal cord rehabilitation services are now self-sufficient and don’t require any volunteer assistance. He also explains a patient sewing program that provides a new skill set to paraplegics who are no longer able to continue working their trade due to the loss of their limbs.
After the tour volunteers are able to select one of four dorm rooms, each of which holds four sets of bunk beds with an ensuite bathroom. The room teems with signs of the presence of past volunteers: signs on how to use the sink so as not to flood the bathroom, left over bottles of hand sanitizer, hooks from where mosquito nets have hung. All small gestures of comfort to help a new batch of volunteers acclimate more quickly.
The volunteers hit the ground running, some barely have time to put their things down before assuming their duties. Others who will be on night shift settle in to catch up on as much rest as they can, most having been awake since 3 am to catch their flights to Haiti, and many having worked full days before.
I took the time to acquaint myself with as many Haitian staff working in the different services as I could. The nurses in Med Surge A were welcoming and open to answering my questions. I spoke with several EMTs who all seemed to fill multiple roles—translator, triage, maintenance and a host of other activities. I learned that to be true of most of the staff and volunteers—each person taking on whatever roles they can to keep the hospital functioning.
In the evening, volunteers are able to leave the hospital for the UN compound for dinner (only breakfast and lunch are provided—and that’s if you get there fast enough to claim one.) Four volunteers and I headed over, the others still immersed in patient care duties or trying to get much rest
We wait in the courtyard of the hospital as ominous looking clouds start to gather overhead. Mac, one of the EMTs, reminds us that it is still hurricane season. The combination of the foreboding weather and the wait for the driver makes us rethink how hungry we are. I see that Dr. Natalie Mathieu, a CIR member from Kings County Hospital, has arrived and we chat briefly. She missed her flight and lost her luggage on the way here and then she jumped right into the ER upon arrival. She doesn’t have much time to chat as she’s just started on her first night shift. Patricia (Patty) is in the process of signing out to her as a new crop of trauma appears. They and some other volunteers struggle to get the situation under control.
The driver arrives as a lightning storm starts to pick up speed. We head over in the same pickup trucks that brought us to the hospital in the morning. (We all note that it’s difficult to believe that it is still the same day that we left Miami.) Arriving at the UN compound, we are forewarned that we’d have to go through a cumbersome security process to enter due to recent thefts. The security proves to be another formality as we all pass through and set off metal detectors with no guard attempting to stop us. We ate a pleasant meal, each volunteer sharing their experience from the day and the two veteran volunteers comparing how the hospital has continued to develop in their absence.
After another wait for the driver to return to bring us back to the hospital, I enter the room and meet Kristen, the CIR member from UNM who arrived a bit later. As a family physician, she’ll be serving in multiple capacities, the first begin the NICU. It’s past 10 pm and we’re all ready to put the long day to bed. READ DAY 2
-Erin Malone, CIR Communications Coordinator