Lessons from Haiti


Sai Praveen Haranath, MBBS, MPH, FCCP


Winter 2011 - Volume 15 Number 1

Haiti was and remains an enigma. How can so much suffering affect so many people so many times? Despite this recurrent tragedy, the resilience of this Atlantic island is difficult to explain. My one-week trip to post-earthquake Haiti in February 2010 has redefined my life into pre-Haiti and post-Haiti. What was once an abstract concept of poverty and lack of resources despite growing up in India, took on new meaning. Our group had a mix of physicians and a pharmacist as well as supporting nonmedical youth who helped with arranging the supplies and with interacting with patients and their children among other chores. We stayed in a home that had survived and the owner was gracious to accommodate the large volunteer groups that kept coming through. We made friends; we took care of injured and sick children and adults in homes nearby. I can say that the most useful tool was a headlamp with LED lights that did a great job at night. The pain was there to see but it was masked by a sense of realism as well as the trademark Haitian smile. Of the hundreds of patients we provided primary care for in a makeshift clinic in a still-standing church, only one woman broke down and that too only for moments. My 12-year-old interpreter was a very smart kid. He instituted a time management system. He would tell the patients they had four minutes to tell their story and hurry them up. Patients obliged when he would call out "Swiwon," obviously misspelled, but he told me that was Creole for next. "Next," that is the operative word that Haiti is defined by now. What is the next disaster, where is the next meal from, who is the next victim. However, as I have heard before from Joel Osteen in his sermons, Haitians will probably transition to being victors and not victims. Life must go on. We saw fruit vendors, kids playing, well-dressed adults possibly going to work or perhaps to church. There were groups of men and women wearing blue overalls trying to clean the streets. The ruins were everywhere; surprisingly it appeared the hillside homes were intact in places. The views were amazing from higher up. We could see the USNS Comfort in the ocean not too far from the coast. The magnitude of the response was clearly juxtaposed as we raced to the airport on our way back to catch the last scheduled relief flight by the US Embassy to Santo Domingo from Port-au-Prince. The United Nations and varied aid agencies had their trucks milling about near the airport and the traffic was bad. In the bed of our pickup, we had an elderly woman we were trying to get to one of the field hospitals. She had shown up at our doorstep in severe pain, possibly malignancy related and with urinary retention. We found a nurse in the group staying at home who did an urgent Foley insertion and IV hydration. We were moved from one hospital to the next to get her relief. We had to leave because our flight was taking off really soon. The concept of Haiti came to a head at that point. How could we leave our jobs incomplete, how could we see this suffering and not be a part of it, and how could we return to our tree-lined, paved, sterile existence back home. Like the movies where some have to stay behind on the sinking ship, we felt we were the ones being asked to get on the lifeboats. Haiti is a country in dire need of help at every level. Human relationships manifest at their best when love is shared and that is what Haiti needs. Money and materials are important but we need to show Haiti that we recognize, truly understand that we have the same aspirations, dreams, and tribulations, and we truly are on the same boat. It is time to remake Haiti and the youth in Haiti are the key to this rebirth. I am grateful to Kaiser Permanente, The Permanente Medical Group, and other volunteer groups for making sure that our mission to help the sick is available where it is needed most and for documenting these experiences.

A hundred years from now, we can say that humanity cared when God challenged us. In the meantime, I would urge everybody to think of helping the Haiti in your own neighborhood. There are people all around who need assistance; we just have to look. We also need to conserve water and electricity. I was surprised at my own ability to use just about half a bucket of water a day for a week. It has been hard to duplicate that back home but the awareness has enhanced. Haiti truly gave me back more than what we contributed. I hope to be able to return some day. A recent text message from Ely, my friend the 12-year-old interpreter, summarizes what many are now feeling: "I miss you and keep you in my heart" and "Big shakehand."


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