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Haiti Medical Relief Trip, February 2010, Monica Rabanal

Part of the vision of the Arapahoe Peak Global Health Project involves attempting to send a response team or individual for world disasters, naturally the calling to respond to the Earthquake disaster in Haiti became a priority amongst us (Randy Sclar, James Hutcherson, and myself). January 12, 2010 brought the largest natural disaster to ever strike the western hemisphere in terms of death and destruction. An earthquake relatively moderate on the Richter scale, yet with an epicenter that couldn’t have hit a worse location. It centered near Port Au Prince, Haiti, where most of the city and country already live in poverty and poorly constructed homes and buildings. The impact was utter and complete destruction that is difficult to describe in words.

Less than a week after the disaster, and making the decision to go to Haiti, I found myself sitting in the airport leaving for a night flight to NYC to meet up with a team of 12 others-all with the same interest: travel together, pool our skills and training, and somehow form a team best able to provide care to victims of the disaster in some sort of organized manner. We were traveling independently, but assembled together through an organization called International Medical Relief (IMR). I am fond and somewhat experienced in travel and culture, but the addition of apprehension was a new feeling for me! Having only a convoluted “media influence” of what to expect is almost worse than the complete unknown- and I just kept telling myself to just step back and allow the true reality to unfold itself and dictate my experiences, rather than having any media predisposition going in. I didn’t know anyone else on the team, but as it turned out, magic must have been in the air because there couldn’t have been a more amazing group of individuals randomly assembled at the last minute, with such a broad mix of abilities, strengths, resources and positive energy. All meeting together for the first time and within 10 hours of leaving home, I was cramming into a hot, packed truck with 12 strangers and about 30 bags of food, medical supplies and camping gear. Finally, after about 20 hours of travel (stopping for sleep at the border crossing which had just closed), I will never forget driving into Port Au Prince with UN escort for safety, and how the whole city was darkening as the sun set: without electricity, fires springing up, and a distinct and different smell. Charcoal burning to cook food and tent cities made out of tarps and bed sheets covering every inch of flat, open space. Torrential rain off and on causing mud everywhere and draining sewage. Curious and sad faces with looks of bewilderment but also hope. Military tanks and trucks everywhere, along with endless piles of boulders, construction rubble, trash and decomposing flesh.

Walking in some of the streets and seeing the destruction firsthand is indescribable. Watching men without shoes or gloves trying to move around rubble one piece at a time is unbelievable, yet there is nothing else for them to do but try. Lines of homeless people miles long to get a scant amount of food and water or to receive medical care is heartbreaking. Having a tent or a tarp or even a sheet strung across a wire is a luxury in this place. Standing 2 feet away from a building that holds hundreds of trapped decomposing bodies is unsettling and certainly forced me to face some horrors I have never experienced. Working years in ER and Trauma centers did not even come close to preparing for the magnitude and range of emotions that Haiti evoked.

The mission of International Medical Relief was to develop teams capable of going into areas of the city that had not yet had care-or very little- and set up mobile clinics. This meant bringing in supplies, medications, and the ability to treat seriously ill people without clinic or hospital support. The need for this type of medical care was clear from the beginning. On the first day we arrived, I visited the University of Miami MASH hospital which was located on the outskirts of the city. Being almost 2 weeks out from the earthquake event, the makeshift hospital was already trying to close up and move out, and very few people had access to obtain care there, being far away from the center of town. The General Hospital downtown Port Au Prince was basically destroyed but was still operating very functionally out of tents, and seemed to be staffed fairly adequately with volunteers from around the world. The formulation of mobile clinic units to access various areas of the city was desperately needed, and definitely seemed to be the best use of our time and efforts. 14 hour days brought endless lines of patients, averaging 300-400 per day (and turning away thousands more) in unbelievable heat under a tarp, and illnesses that included Dengue fever, malaria, malarial meningitis, severe dehydration, diarrheal intestinal illnesses, Tuberculosis, Pertussis, wound infections, broken bones, stomach aches and worms- not to mention severe emotional trauma, extreme stress, and anxiety that the incredibly resilient Haitian people endure.

We were able to treat these people relatively well, with access to our own medications, wound supplies, IV’s, and an amazing pharmacist to help dispense and even provide printed instructions in Creole! But the many people with sadness, grief, loss, insomnia and general disbelief are most memorable. Their stories were endless and each of us heard them all day long, and then shared them over again together at our nightly meetings to de-brief. There was no medicine to offer these people. Only a hug, a touch, listening, and silent prayers, because even being there doesn’t come close to understanding how it must FEEL to be living their loss.

There is always going to be debate and questions of how one individual or group can provide the most help to others in need, and this is true particularly in disaster relief. For the millions of dollars collected and generously donated from around the world, it would seem that the basic needs and fundamental infrastructure of a city could be attainable, yet little progress has yet to be made. The money spent on travel, plane tickets, gas, and hours of time lends to the question of how much good is actually accomplished. Seeing hundreds of patients a day, yet turning away three times that was certainly frustrating and at times seemed pointless. It definitely grounds the notion that people who provide care and do mission work receive a personal gain that far outweighs what they are actually able to give, and this was unquestionably true for me. What an amazing opportunity to be able to look someone in the eye and hold their hand while saying “I am listening to your story and I am here because I care.” To both sides it is worth more than any money I could have sent in an envelope. There were definite times of fear and questioning my decision to leave behind my comfortable life here to basically enter a war-zone camping in the midst of death and destruction with no running water. But having come out of that experience, I wouldn’t have traded a minute. Each hardship brought me tenfold strengths: in respect for life, re-invigoration of my career, life goals, and keeping in perspective my complete gratefulness for our incredibly abundant blessings. And even as I write this a year later, those memories (both exhilarating and horrifying) are vivid, alive and crystal clear in my mind where I hope they will remain for the rest of my life.

P.S. On another note, along with the medical team I traveled with, there were 2 independent filmmakers filming and documenting our team. There is a preview/trailer of their film newly released, and the full documentary in progress possibly for completion this year. The link for the trailer is: http://vimeo.com/18670690 and I will post the information on the documentary as it becomes available.

Here are also links to 2 YouTube photo videos posted by several of my team members:

Haiti You Tube #1

Haiti You Tube #2