My First Trip to Haiti: Day 1

29 01 2010

[Fri. Jan. 15, 2010]

Originally I hadn’t planned to go to Haiti. It was a last minute decision.

As many of you know, my brother is a doctor. He organized a team of physicians, nurses, anesthesiologists and support staff to go down. I helped with coordinating efforts; getting medical supplies together, arranging for tents, cots, generators, etc.

Once everything was set to go there was a personnel shortage. A couple people would have to come later leaving set up and logistics (i.e. schlepping and grunt work) to the medical staff. My brother insisted that I go along and act as coordinator. I insisted that I could do more by staying in NYC and coordinating resupply efforts from home. Then he promised I would be relieved as soon as the rest of the crew arrived. But the clincher was when my brother said, “Deep inside I know you really want to do this, you’re just afraid.”

He was right. I did want to go and I was scared shitless. The tragedy in Haiti was beyond comprehension to me. My tendency in situations like this was to send a check to the Red Cross and help out behind the scenes in whatever capacity I could. I give good phone.

My bother on the other hand, is one of those people who is always on the front line. He worked with Doctors Without Borders for years. He was there for Katrina and the Tsunami. He forges into remote jungle villages and fights disease outbreaks in places I’ve never heard of. Needless to say, I’m very proud of him, but I’m not him and I had never been in the front lines of any disaster.

I grabbed my backpack and quickly stuffed some clean clothes in it. An hour later I was on the plane and hoping I had remembered to pack a toothbrush in my haste. I was excited to be going and scared to death at the same time. The entire flight was surreal. I was intoxicated with fear and self doubt. “What if I fucked up?” “What if I couldn’t pull my weight?” “What if I couldn’t handle the blood, the smells, the horror?” “What if I made things worse, not better?”

[Sat. Jan. 16, 2010]

As soon as I landed the fears went away. There is nothing more sobering than stepping out of the plane at Port-au-Prince. There were dozens of relief organizations already there. Some large, some small. Some well organized and well structured. Some make shift and very impromptu. We were obviously among the latter.

Being small had its advantages. First was that we were able to keep all our equipment and supplies together. Many groups weren’t operational for a day or two because their equipment and/or supplies had been lost, rerouted or hijacked.

Luckily my brother took care of finding a staging area and coordinating things with what local officials there were. I would never have known where to start. But once we got positioned the medical staff focused on their thing and the rest was left to me. Or so it seemed.

In an ideal world we would have had the tents set up, the generators working, the cots laid out in neat rows, and all the supplies in place for easy access. In the real world we had broken bodies coming to us before the first rib of our tent was erected. The medical staff took on what they could as fast as they could. I was left to coordinate the rest.

The first two days were complete chaos. It seems like a blur as I try to remember everything that happened and in what order. My first task was to get the tent together. We had ladder to help with assembling the ribs and stretching the roof and walls, but we gave it to a search and rescue crew who needed it more.

I continued working on the tent by stacking up supply crates and climbing up make shift arrangements of boxes and luggage. I found I was good at improvising as was everyone else.

Later I hired a couple local guys to help me set things up. Luckily they spoke enough English for us to communicate the basics. They were wonderful but they couldn’t stay for very long. Other locals pitched in. People would bring us their injured family members and help in whatever way they could while they waited. Most of it was done without a single word being spoken.

In middle of trying to run power cords where needed I was handed a dead body. It was a young girl. I’m guessing she was six or seven. A teenage boy just handed her to me and ran away before I could ask any questions. I took the body to one of our nurses who quickly reminded me that the medical staff only had time to deal with people who had the possibility of survival. The words I remember her saying is, “Get used to it. There will be lots more before the day is through.”

She was right.

People started bringing us their dead. Some people were alive when they started but died before they could reach help. Others had been dead from the beginning and people just brought them to us because they didn’t know where is to take them.

I found a shaded area outside of the tent to place the bodies. It was among the rubble but out of the path of traffic. I tried to lay each both out properly with respect. I covered the first three or four of them in sheets, but soon realized the effort was futile. The sick and wounded needed the sheets more.

By evening there were dozens of bodies and I was stacking them two and three deep. I kept hoping someone would come by to claim the dead, but no one did. Most of the bodies were without identification of any kind. I put toe tags on the few that had ID.

I collected their valuables; wallets, jewelry, etc., and put them in individual zip lock bags. I listed their names on a clip board and used an empty crate to file everything. I tried to be a meticulous as possible hoping that it would make a difference to someone at some point in the future.

In between the mounting corpses I was running around trying to assist in whatever way I could. Moping, cleaning, etc. I found the more mundane and mindless the job was, the more relaxing. It gave me a break from the nightmare going on around me.

But as the night went on, the nightmare continued. The crying screams echoed from every direction. I hadn’t notice it as much in the day, but the later it got the more the sounds intensified.

Around midnight it occurred to me that I would have to move the bodies. It was hot and humid. When the sun came up in the morning the bodies would be another day older, a little more decayed. I headed out with a flashlight to find a more appropriate place.

I started moving the bodies one by one. The children were manageable to move. The adults were much more difficult to carry. Sometimes I’d get some help, but most of the crew was exhausted and by 3 am they were all trying to get a catnap.

People tried to get me to stop what I was doing and get some rest too, but I couldn’t stop. I knew that if I stopped for even a minute I would break down in tears. My brother tried to get me to at least sit down and take a breather. He said something about how a rested body could help so much more than an exhausted person. He was right in a physical sense, but I needed to purge all the emotions that had built up inside. Physical exercise was my way of doing it. I was sweating and I stunk and felt like I was detoxifying every impurity from the pit of my soul.

Maybe I was just insane. Besides the bodies there was so much more going on that I can’t possibly recount here. Every moment was filled with something more shocking than the moment before.

Around 5 a. m. I was still moving the last of the bodies. My brother had slept for a while and was attending to patients. He was upset to find that I was still trudging away. Again he tried to get me to stop, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t a matter of not wanting to, I just couldn’t.

There was an impending feeling of urgency. Time mattered. I couldn’t help thinking that if just one of the many bodies had been brought to us sooner, they might have lived. Maybe. Maybe not. I had no way of knowing but I was driven by the thought that I wanted to be on top of the situation before the new day began. And I certainly didn’t want new patients seeing those who had expired.

Doing an all-nighter wasn’t new to me. I had done it many times in college and more times than I care to remember as a business owner. But those were times when I was doing it for me, for my own benefit, for my own personal reward. Now I was doing it for something greater than me, something more important than my self-centered little world.

By sunrise the bodies had all been moved. All of the patients on cots had made it through the night. The screaming had subsided. The terror in the pit of my stomach had gone away.

I sat outside the tent and watched the sun come up. It was a new day and I was a new person.

[I wanted to write this for the people who asked. There is so much more to recount and I hope to have the time to do justice to all I witnessed. I did take some photos but it will probably be a while before I get them posted. I’m getting ready to go back down so if I don’t get them uploaded this time I’ll do it when I get back.]




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