Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Surreal Experience

It's the end of day two here in Port Au Prince and already the experience has changed my life. We arrived here after a 12 hours through the night and were all exhausted from the long flight. However, no time to complain as the work here begins quickly, me with my camera and no medical experience; Dr. Gabriel, the amazing Plastic Surgeon; his wife, Cassie, anesthesiologist extraordinaire; and Shelby, an MA who is making her first trip outside of the US.

Driving through the city on the way to Hospital Adventiste was like a maze. Hundreds of people and cars form zig zags among loud diesel powered trucks and dusty sidewalks bustling with people either selling small fruits for penance or walking in groups to unknown destinations. Horns honk and people move out of the way. Straight lines and traffic signals do not exist and most roads if paved are cracked and filled with potholes. It is perfectly organized chaos. We are all glued to the window and cannot take in all of the scenes fast enough. Amongst the crowds of people the streets are littered with countless piles of debris and rubble amidst the thousands of plastic bottle and refuse. Each turn reveals a collapsed or partially collapsed building on the verge of crumbling. The damage is indescribable. I try not to think about how many bodies still remain inside, nor how many more will lose their lives to the remaining buildings. We arrive to the hospital after nearly an hour and unpack our things.

After a brief orientation, the medical team kicks into action. The method of care here is nothing like in the states. Patients line the hot non air-conditioned hallways waiting for preop and evaluation. They do not complain, nor do they exude any signs of suffering. They are incredibly resilient. Patient's family members, if they have them, are there with them sometimes for days on end. In Haiti, the family is the only source for post op care. Patients return again and again because of infection or further injury. The need for rehabilitation is immense as there are no physical therapists. We walk the floors and begin rounding.

Dr. Gabriel is amazing to watch as he interacts with the patients, all of which do not speak english. There are a host of Haitian translators who are here on a volunteer basis. I learn by talking to a couple of them that they were self-taught. After rounding, a host of patients are scheduled for surgery so we move down into the OR to set up shop.

It is a challenge to do the job of documenting and still remain helpful as a volunteer. Although I came down as a photographer, I realize that that is not the only skill that they can utilize. As Dr. Gabriel begins his first surgery of the evening I am asked to throw on some scrubs and provide assistance with the team. This is something that could never happen in the states and I jump at the prospect, not knowing exactly what that entails! The surgery was on a man who was electricuted and burned on his hands and buttocks while attempting to cut mangoes with a machete from a tree. Despite being in tremendous pain he waits patiently as Cassie administers anesthesia. Dr. Gabriel spends nearly an hour dibreiding the wound and I find myself absolutely fascinated. I felt proud for Shelby, who was given the opportunity to come to Haiti with the Gabriel's. She is having the time of her life and is fast discovering her passion for patient care in developing nations.

Day two begins with a call to Sam Claude, a Haitian who was in the CASS program at Mt. Hood Community College coordinated by friend Nikki Gillis. I was excited to learn that he would be showing me around Port Au Prince during my stay. After briefly exchanging some supplies we brought for him from the states I was whisked off into the heat of the day, excited to experience Port Au Prince with locals.

We left hardly any stone unturned in our journey through the city. As we walk along the main boulevard Sam points out that this was the street that most of the Haitians lost their lives. Every fourth building is completely collapsed or destroyed barely beyond recognition. People set up camp below the destruction and commerce flourishes despite the backdrop of debris. I snap pictures while Sam and his brother watch for traffic. We walk the length of the boulevard and zig zag through to the capital building. The temp approaches 100 degrees and i feel like a complete moron for forgetting sunblock. However, my whining is quickly forgotten as i look over at another of hundreds of tent camps set up in the city.

Throughout the day, I was on the lookout for reconstruction. As today marks four months since the earthquake, little has changed. According to Sam, things have actually gotten much worse. The feeling is that despite all the money that has been raised for reconstruction and aid for earthquake victims, it has not gone to the places where they need it. Tent cities are still there, buildings remain flattened and few things are being put in place for Haiti to prosper in the future. However, he views the situation with a cautious optimism and says that there just needs to be some leadership on the part of the government.

We continue our tour through the main hospital and back up past the cathedral building. As we get closer to the afternoon Sam suggests we get some food so we head to a local restaurant. We sit down inside a clearly damaged structure to enjoy our meal. The food is rich and delicious and I must confess, completely unexpected. We finish and head back to the hospital. We exchange goodbyes and I thank him for his incredible hospitality. Despite they're circumstances, the Haitian people are extremely generous and I was treated with the utmost respect and hospitality. They do not expect a thing in return.

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