Walking The Line

Debra A Cohen, MD

Winter 2011 - Volume 15 Number 1

I arrived in Haiti in February, almost five weeks after the earthquake. As a physician, I treated medical illnesses in several of Relief International’s Port-au-Prince clinics. Our stationary clinic, situated next to the house where we stayed, opened about 8:30 am, but adults, children, and infants started gathering in the dark up to five hours earlier. We could often hear the murmuring of their voices outside the walls of our compound before daybreak. We were told that the gathering showed that the neighborhood had confidence in our clinic, which was staffed by Americans and Haitians. If the people did not show up, the clinic was in trouble.

Each day at 8:00 am sharp, a cadre of physicians, nurses, security personnel, and translators were expected to "walk the line" and review the people who were waiting to be seen. The purpose was to prioritize the patients according to the acuity of their illnesses, and we gave numbers to the sickest, indicating the order in which they would be seen. Most days, we were able to see everyone in the line at some point, but sometimes we had to turn people away if the numbers were too great. We saw people who were ill (some seriously), tired, and under stress, but who also must have been hungry, thirsty, and sore from sitting or standing for hours. The heat and humidity were constant. People were malnourished, and clearly few had received regular medical care. But what I noticed most was their patience while waiting in line. No pushing or shoving, no shouting or anger. The line was a model of acceptance and courtesy. That astonished me. How could that be in a small country that had just lost 230,000 of its own only a month before? What does that mean? For me, it means that I will go back. I’ll walk the line again so that maybe a few people will feel better, will know they haven’t been forgotten, and will wait a little less time in line again.


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