If ever I was proud to be an American, it was on Monday. Cherlie and I joined the team of Relief International in the airport at Fort Lauderdale. We flew a commercial flight to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic at 6am, then took a taxi to a nearby military base. There we met up with members of the US Customs and Border Patrol, who are under the Department of Homeland Security. We put our luggage and supplies into a hangar which had been taken over by the US soldiers as well as various members of non-government organizations like Friends for Health in Haiti and Relief International. They had drinking water and port-a-potties, so what more could we want? In a short while, we and our gear were loaded into a military helicopter and on our way to Port-au-Prince. It was at that time that I was so very glad our country was behind us. The soldiers were wonderful and helpful, happy to be able to assist in the crisis and proud of what we were all trying to do together for the people of Haiti.
As we got closer to Port-au-Prince, we began to see signs of earthquake damage, and we quickly landed at the US embassy base in the hills outside the city. We met up there with other members of the Relief International team, including team leader Dr. Hernando Garzon. He had arranged for us to stay in the home of a Haitian who was known by one of the team members. The hospitality that was extended to all 12 of us was amazing. We spread out on the floors, took turns with the showers and bathrooms and were just glad to have such a nice place to stay in!
Today, Tuesday, four of us headed out into the city to look for pockets of people who had been displaced by the earthquake damage. We also got our first look at the fallen buildings and saw first-hand the incredible destruction. A few weeks ago, we had driven past the palace and all the government buildings downtown. Today, the vast majority of them were reduced to rubble. An artisan shop where I had bought some crafts and paintings last month had fallen over the side of a hillside. We saw people camping out in makeshift shelters of sheets and tarps held up with sticks in the ground. – shelters that have now become their new homes. And, we passed signs that said “Help needed. Food, water, medicines”. Drivers of public transportation vehicles and motorcycles had their faces covered with masks and handkerchiefs, and we soon found out why. The smell of death was all around – a pungent reminder of what lay beneath the piles of rubble where once had been homes and schools and churches and businesses.
It’s not a cliché to say that one’s life can change in an instant. And for this country and this people, that instant came one week ago. The needs are so great and the destruction so vast, it boggles the mind. All I can think is, how can we best help and how will they (and we) rebuild?
The first question will begin to be answered tomorrow as we begin providing medical care in an area near the epicenter of the earthquake. We’ll be using Cherlie’s house as a home base and set up a tent clinic in the yard next door. Security for the team is a major concern and areas where large groups of people are congregated can be dangerous for aid groups. So, we’re letting larger organizations and the UN peacekeepers handle those areas. We have no idea what we’ll be confronting , but with 4 Emergency Physicians and several nurses and support people, we feel ready to dig in.
Thousands of people have left Port-au-Prince to go out to their families’ homes in the country. Many are going out to Jeremie by sailboat and are seeking medical care in the government hospital there. We are still unable to get out there ourselves, so we’ve committed to being here for the near future. We know that in the long term, our challenges will be significant, as we face increasing numbers of patients seeking care in our clinic and a scarcity of medications and supplies. Our own patients and communities are always on our minds and in our hearts and we want to be prepared to meet their needs when we return to them. So, we appreciate your prayers and your financial support in our time of need. We would not be able to be here without you. You truly are helping us make a difference.