I came to Haiti as an ambassador for the International Medical Corps, an organization that I have been working with for over a year. Their teams arrived 22 hours after the devastating earthquake of 12th January and have been a powerful and leading medical presence ever since.I arrived in the Dominican Republic from London on the night of March 18th, and met up with my friends Margaret Aguirre from International Medical Corps, and David Serota, a talented filmmaker who has come to document the long-term health care needs that lie ahead for Haiti.
We flew the following morning to Port-au-Prince and were met in the chaos by Andy Gleadle, our operations director, (the kind of ‘man mountain’ that you hope to be around in disaster zones like this one) and were briefed on the security issues we potentially faced. For starters, the local jail was destroyed in the quake, and as a result, 5,000 prisoners are free and roaming the streets. There were serious security problems in Haiti before the earthquake, but of course everything has now intensified. Three NGO workers were kidnapped the previous week, so Andy told us what to expect and how we would be protected (a two-car convoy at all times, watchmen by the tents etc). Afterward we drove to the guesthouse to meet the team, drop our bags and then head out to start the day.
Our first stop was St Louis, a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, to visit Dr. Joseline Marhone. I sat with her in the shade of a tree, her patients surrounding us on beds in tents nearby, and asked her to share her experiences with us. Her house was destroyed in the quake, but thankfully she and her son were in the basement at the time and survived. Her two cousins upstairs did not survive. I found it so difficult to ask the questions that I suspected would be hard for her to answer. Journalism of this sort does not come naturally to me, but she explained that it helped her to talk about it. So she speaks, with a resilience and strength far superior to mine upon hearing her. She was the director of nutrition for the Ministry of Health in Haiti. The nursing school where she taught collapsed, killing every one of her students. She told us that she had found that the best thing for her to deal with her enormous pain was to keep busy and carry on doing what she does so well. To date, on the grounds of the ruined church where she once worshipped, she has treated over 4,000 people. International Medical Corps has provided her with the medical supplies and volunteers that she needs in order to do this. She is so beautiful and open, walking around with a smile that melts, wearing the same long blue cotton skirt that she was wearing on January 12th when the earthquake struck.
My role here as ambassador is simple: we need to raise awareness of the road ahead for Haiti – and raise a significant amount of new funding through appeals to the public. Most people just don’t realize that the problems Haiti faces are really only beginning. This country was in desperate need before the earthquake hit. The problems they are now facing are tenfold. The onset of the rainy season, which is imminent, means that the temporary camps that are housing hundreds of thousands of people will be washed away. Water-borne diseases will be rife, nutritional needs will become even more prevalent and there is inevitably a massive increase in sexual and gender-based violence within the camps. Donors have been incredibly generous, but as always, much, much more is needed.
After a fitful night’s sleep in a tent with Marge, (gunshots, roosters, crying babies, the works) we have a cup of coffee and set off at the crack of dawn to visit some of the mobile clinics and projects set up in those early days after the earthquake by the stunningly beautiful and clever Dina Prior, who heads International Medical Corps’ Emergency Response Team. We drove to Petit Goave, three hours outside of Port-au-Prince. The coastal regions are far more difficult to access, and it takes an hour by boat to reach the small beach community of Platon. It looks like heaven to me. The kind of untouched postcard paradise we westerners are constantly searching for. White sand so fine it feels like flour, azure blue sea and old handmade fishing nets thrown haphazardly over the ancient palm trees. We are greeted with smiles and cheers by a beautiful group of men, women and children, so grateful for the work that is being done. However, they are hungry, incredibly poor, and virtually cut off from the essentials they need. Until International Medical Corps arrived here, they faced a two-hour journey just to receive any medical attention at all.
The following day, we went to the General Hospital in downtown Port-au-Prince, and spent the morning being shown around by Dr Gabriel Novelo, who is overseeing operations for International Medical Corps, and Megan Coffee, an infectious diseases specialist who is handling the TB ward and patients with everything from HIV to typhoid. They were warm and generous, taking the time to explain to my untrained ears the many facets of their work. I was amazed to see that despite the sheer number of patients – sometimes 800 a day – they are on first-name terms with almost all of them.
Our last stop was at the intensive care unit tent. Everywhere I looked, there were doctors and nurses from around the globe. They all work incredibly long hours, as volunteers, helping the relief effort out of the goodness of their own hearts. I saw a woman die two meters from where I was standing. A team of doctors then spent ten minutes doing intense revival work, giving her CPR, adrenaline shots to the heart and defibrillation, basically demonstrating the relentless commitment that goes toward saving a life. I stood and watched, hoping and praying for a miracle, as her pulse was checked again and again without a murmur. Every ER doctor has experienced this hundreds of times, but I am a woman, in a tent in Haiti, watching something I never thought I would witness. They fought and fought, and miraculously, revived her. I saw a life lost and saved by the medical teams International Medical Corps has working here. I watched this woman fight for her life. I saw her husband crying, not only for himself, but for their two children, and marveled at the simple fact that these volunteer doctors have the ability to bring mothers like her back into the world.
Later that day we headed to Petionville, an enormous displacement camp, to visit a new facility we have within the compounds. These people, like most, are living in tents, except that this camp (or rather city) is in a giant basin-like valley. When the rains come, and they already have started, this and its 60,000 inhabitants could be washed away. Logistically moving that many people, with the imminent monsoon and hurricane season lingering like a time bomb, is a terrifying reality that they are all facing. We met up with my friend Sean Penn, who is doing incredible work here through his organization, the Jenkins-Penn Foundation. They are providing medical care and devoting their energies toward the protection of these vulnerable people. We discussed ways of collaborating and were taken on a tour of the camp by Sean and Pastor St. Cyr (who is holding daily services for those living here, a vital task for a devoutly religious population). There is an area where tents balance precariously on the edge of a ditch that drops 10 feet into what is now a dry riverbed. When the rains fell a week ago, that ditch became a raging river and two children very nearly lost their lives. International Medical Corps is bringing in floodlights to try and prevent disasters like these from becoming a reality.
The following morning, we headed back to the General Hospital, where I spent a few hours with two fabulous psychiatrists, Dr. Lynne Jones and Dr. Peter Hughes. Obviously there are massive psychological repercussions to a traumatic event like this, and previous mental illnesses have been exacerbated in many cases. They are treating patients in the general hospital suffering from a range of illnesses from psychosis to epilepsy. The care being given here is a vast contrast to what is happening at the old mental hospital next door we visited later. It is beyond anything I could imagine. This being the poorest country in the western hemisphere, education is not at the standard that we are fortunate to have in the developed world. The treatment here is archaic, the conditions inhumane. The people I saw were obviously seriously unwell. Some were screaming, some blissfully happy, very few are clothed and during my visit, most stood in tiny rooms, naked and covered in excrement. They push their heads through sharp and rusting holes in the iron doors to have a look at us, screaming for help. A mental institution is an intimidating thing to see for someone with no experience in this area like myself, but this made “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” look like The Ritz. It was shocking and like everywhere in Haiti, desperately in need of funding.
The amazing thing is that this country has a spirit that very quickly gets under your skin. The people are friendly and welcoming, and everywhere I look, I witness examples of human courage beyond imagination. They are sticking together through what has been the most devastating earthquake in a hundred years and it is vital for the various NGO groups to do the same.
I suppose what I am attempting to do is use whatever means I have to generate some sort of attention for a country I feel utterly passionate about. I am not a writer, but one thing I have always somehow managed to do is garner press attention. I am now hoping to exploit that for a very good cause.