During our first days assisting at a rural health clinic, where we were helping a local Haitian medical team, a pregnant woman walked up to us, supporting her heaving stomach with her hand, saying, ‘I cannot hold anymore.’
It was her 42nd week of pregnancy when the 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck on August 14 and she had no place to deliver her baby. Her house was completely destroyed, but she had walked three miles to seek help from us.
By the time we arrived, we found that the clinic director had not left the facility since the day of the earthquake, five days prior. He was still wearing the same clothes and his mother would arrive with food for him every day.
As part of Project HOPE, our role was to relieve local health workers with a group of reinforcement doctors, nurses, and psychologists.
When the pregnant woman arrived, there was only one nurse and one doctor for the community of 13,000 people, and nine other patients were already waiting for urgent care.
Then, another young woman arrived who had suffered a traumatic blow by a falling concrete block to her hips that was preventing her from urinating.
Another patient had been declared missing under rocks since the day of the earthquake before being discovered and dragged out by his friend.
The only way to save these patients was through medical evacuation. Fortunately, our team arranged for the US Coast Guard to help, so we were able to meet the helicopter at a makeshift landing pad on a football field about 10 minutes away.
Yet, just as the helicopter landed, a crowd of more than 100 people showed up, assuming that the aircraft had food and water for distribution. Navigating this crowd while trying to ensure safety and priority care is just one of the many challenges we faced post-disaster.
Eventually, and thankfully, those patients were transported safely to a nearby hospital. We later learned that they were in a stable condition and received the care needed. However, there are many more in the rural communities who have yet to make the difficult journey to see a doctor.
We arrived in the Dominican Republic the day after the earthquake to begin the staging for the Haiti response and the purchasing of medications. We made it to Haiti four days after the earthquake to set up our emergency clinic surge support.
Many people are still coming to this clinic and others like it. The patients are no longer arriving with broken or crushed limbs – instead, they are coming with intestinal diseases and malnutrition, both normal after a disaster of this size.
While the urgent medical needs from houses falling on people have passed, there are other more deadly medical needs that will continue to emerge in the next few months, due to the disruption to the healthcare system and supply chain for Haiti.
About 800,000 people were affected by the earthquake, and at least 12,200 were injured. This number is likely to be an undercount as many will discover internal injuries in a few days, weeks, and even months.
Sadly, more than 2,200 people have already died. Survivors continue to fight for their lives, battling hunger, desperation, and unrest.
As emergency responders, coping with these conditions is humbling and simply part of our jobs. We have clean water and two meals a day at the compound where we are sleeping. We don’t eat lunch or at all during the day, as everyone around us is hungry, and we barely have time to take a break.
To get medical care, some people are walking for hours. Some come on the back of motorcycles. One man with severe crush injuries to his limbs was carried down the mountainside by a family member and then brought in the back of a pickup truck.
When people do get to a clinic, they hope that it is not one of the 32 health facilities that were completely damaged or destroyed. If the clinic is operational, they still may have to face shortages of medical supplies and personnel to treat them. If it isn’t, they are being tended to outside amidst challenging weather, heat, mosquitoes and potential violence from crowds.
People are at risk of infectious diseases like cholera, acute respiratory infection, diarrhoea and malaria. Over 119,000 people are in need of clean drinking water, while 130,000 are trying to figure out where they will sleep with their children since their homes were destroyed.
With so many people gathering in temporary camps and shelters, concerns about the potential spread of coronavirus is yet another source of stress for these communities.
Witnessing devastation and suffering on a large scale, even as a professional, there are moments where it overwhelms you. You feel powerless because you can’t help everyone. Then we try to remember to focus on helping the person in front of us.
When disasters like this strike, it is hard to make the numbers and statistics humanised in ways that prompt people worldwide to care.
How can we fully communicate the suffering and loss that is occurring in another country? How can a person ever comprehend the magnitude of sorrow? Even as we write this, we recognise that we have not even begun to process what the earthquake has done to the communities we serve.
It is common practice to try to humanise the statistics – to put names and faces to each of the people we meet that make up the ‘totals.’ It’s like viewing the disaster through a sort of telescope. With the naked eye, our human brains cannot comprehend the universe, but a telescope allows us to become familiar with a single pinpoint of light.
There are many moments of light among the darkness. For example, a small girl was brought into the OFATMA Hospital in Les Cayes with an asthma emergency, but there was no oxygen, let alone a nebulizer.
Fortunately, I was able to craft one with available tape, tubing and bag-valve-mask (BVM) ventilation. The first hours and days following a disaster are critical and having trained emergency first responders can make a difference. Happily, she survived.
But health facilities are completely overwhelmed. There aren’t enough resources like medication, medical supplies or even doctors and nurses. The health care infrastructures are so damaged that one nurse who lives across from the health clinic opened her home to do triage, receive patients, as well as for a doctor to see pregnant women, children, geriatrics, and trauma patients alike.
From right there in her living room, they are all going to the same doctor for care.
The main hospitals in Les Cayes and smaller clinics in rural areas continue to report ongoing medicine and supply shortages. They are in dire need of wound care supplies and antibiotics as people are still coming in with earthquake-sustained injuries.
Three weeks after the earthquake, hopes of finding all of those still missing are fading. Landslides and huge cracks along the surface of the main inland mountain road between Les Cayes and Jeremie to its northwest, two of the hardest-hit urban areas, make it even harder to dispatch aid.
On top of the physical trauma being attended to, only a few doctors in Haiti are trained to provide mental health support. So Project HOPE is working to roll out mental health programming that will train doctors on how to provide low-level, immediate support and medicines for those in distress.
We will also offer free mental health and resiliency training for health care workers to combat the burnout from working for days and weeks on end with such limited resources.
Our team of international emergency response experts together with local Haitian doctors and nurses are able to identify and provide care to patients most in need, in their own language, with access to medications and supplies needed to save lives.
Coordination of resources is essential, and the international community must continue to work together with local leaders to ensure quality care and humanitarian aid are delivered to those affected by this most recent earthquake.
We must remain committed to supporting recovery and rebuilding the capacity of this country beyond when the cameras leave, and the news coverage ends.
To support and donate towards Project HOPE’s Haiti response, visit www.projecthope.org/haiti
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