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Remembrances of MSF Staff in Haiti During and After the Earthquake
July 29, 2010
This article is part of the Spring 2010 issue of the MSF Alert newsletter.
Credit: Haiti 2010 © Julie Remy/MSF
MSF staff recall how they responded to the January 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti.
I. On his fourth MSF mission, logistician Jordan Wiley was working at La Trinité hospital in Port-au-Prince when the quake hit.
Immediately after the shaking stopped it was deathly silent. You couldn’t hear anything. And then about three seconds or four seconds after that, the entire city erupted in screams.
The immediate thing was: Can we get people out of the building? What are our immediate resources? Phones immediately go down. Radios weren’t working. Electricity, of course, water—you’re thinking of all these logistics things, because you’re gonna need them right away. So, yeah, just in terms of what do we have on hand? What do we need to get here quickly? All of that swirling in your mind, while you’re thinking about how many people are still alive…
There was one staff in particular, he was a stretcher bearer, someone who normally carries patients in and out of the hospital, a very small guy but he had the wherewithal and the drive to search through every room he could get to inside the hospital. And he assisted countless numbers of people getting out of the hospital. There’s an adjacent building that doesn’t touch the hospital. It wasn’t damaged, so we put a ladder bridge from that building over to the hospital and he was crawling across that bridge [and] bringing more people out to the ladder so we could pull them out to the adjacent roof. Never asked him to do it. Never forced him, of course. If anything we wanted to stress caution about entering the building. But he was just action, totally on point for the rescue effort. He was phenomenal…
About 40 hours after the initial earthquake we were operating on our first patients outside. In this non-sterile environment, we did the best we could to cover everything and keep it as protected as possible. After that, more surgeons arrived and they said, “Let’s do another operating theater.” And we said, “No problem. How?” Which is always the big trick for logistics. In the back of the pharmacy we had three large containers, like a shipping container you see in the back of trucks. So we emptied that out and converted that into a second operating theater with salvaged equipment, salvaged wiring, salvaged light bulbs. But it worked …
This is a rare opportunity to affect people’s lives in their worst moment. You don’t want things to happen, but they’re gonna happen. You’re gonna have catastrophes. You’re gonna have these massive cataclysmic events. That’s why I joined MSF. I also know the world doesn’t work one disaster at a time. It doesn’t wait for one event to get fixed before it gives you another one.
Haiti 2010 © William Daniels/MSF
"Immediately after the shaking stopped it was deathly silent. And then about three seconds or four seconds after that the entire city erupted in screams."
—Jordan Wiley, MSF Logistician
II. Geraldine Augstin is a Haitian medical student who started working with MSF at Lycée Cent Cinquantenaire three weeks after the disaster.
I was headed to University for a class. Suddenly the earth started to shake and the next second all the houses were under the earth. There were dead and injured people everywhere. I was lucky enough not to get hurt, but mother was killed. The day after the earthquake, although I was still crying for my mum’s death, I took all the drugs I had, found someone who had a car, and went to treat people who needed help. There were many wounded everywhere. I treated, treated. I treated so many people.Then I came across MSF and they told me I could refer the most critical patients to them. Since me and MSF were doing the same thing, I thought we might as well join forces.
I am Haitian and I want to help my fellow citizens. As I haven’t graduated as a doctor yet, I am working as a nurse. I do all sorts of things and try to help where I’m needed. I see patients who have suffered so much, and most have a huge psychological trauma.
It’s very difficult for me because I lost my mum in the disaster and I don’t have a house anymore. We now live in open air and we’re trying to adapt to the situation, but I don’t think we will ever. There are still dead bodies under the rubble. There are no toilets. So it really stinks. Drinking water is also an issue but now MSF is delivering water in our area so it’s getting better…
The Haitian staff is very important in this project. Like the patients, we are victims of the earthquake so we can understand how they feel. Because we come from the same culture and speak the same language as the patients, we can help identify what is wrong with them. We are close to them.
Haiti 2010 © Mashid Mohadjerin/MSF
III. Having already been with MSF for five years, physiotherapist Paul Gerard began working at the Lycée site soon after it opened in early February.
I am 30 years old and I work for MSF as a physiotherapist. I help victims of the earthquake in their rehabilitation by providing manual treatment like massages or helping amputees with their mobility. Some will have to use crutches or walkers, and I make sure their recovery goes smoothly.
When [MSF] called me after the earthquake, I was available immediately. I am in charge of the “children’s tent” when it comes to physiotherapy. Despite the emotional shock and the fact that I live on the street, I have the ability and the skills to provide support to patients who, like all of us, are traumatized.
Compared to others I am relatively lucky, but I live in a tent and rely on food aid to survive. Of course, quite a few people I know have died. A guy who lives on my street lost nine members of his family including his daughter. When I compare to my situation, I feel blessed…
People are really scared of the rainy season. Yesterday we had a little bit of rain and people were suffering already. People are sleeping under bed sheets and on blankets. Many don’t even have any plastic above their heads.
People are very confused. It is true that a lot has been done, but there is still a lot of stuff that is stuck in warehouses and not getting distributed. I feel that as time goes by and with the arrival of the rainy season, people may lose patience. People will complain more and become more demanding. The atmosphere will change.
The earthquake has changed my conception of daily life. I don’t do medium or long term plan[ning] anymore but I try to see week after week where my life can go.
"I see patients who have suffered so much, and most have a huge psychological trauma"
—Geraldine Augustin, Haitian medical student and MSF staff
Haiti 2010 © William Daniels/MSF
IV. Anesthesiologist and MSF-USA Board member Deane Marchbein left for Haiti two days after the quake. Here, she recounts the end of her time in the country.
Today I began to feel the exhaustion among the staff. The international staff works for 15-plus hours/day, then we go to the Rose House, where food is waiting, and sometimes water is running. Our sheets are clean and the floor is swept between the mattresses scattered in the improvised dormitory. We are well-tended by a six-person staff. Once food was available, the staff, like secret Santas, left us with clean clothes and hot food…
Half of the surgeons [in our group] are beyond retirement age and with the exception of Florien and Hendrix, the anesthesia team isn’t much younger. As the adrenalin high, which allowed us to go full tilt for more than a week, passes, we are all feeling tired. The national staff doesn’t share our luxury. Some have lost family and homes, and food is so scarce that for some, the noon-time meal of rice and beans, purchased by MSF, is their only meal.
One of the nurses lost her right arm but was otherwise intact. Her husband and a nursing colleague have stayed by her side, sleeping on the adjacent pavement. Her colleagues cry and fuss over her as if she is the only injured person, and it makes sense. If they can do nothing else, at least they can take care of her…
In addition to tired nurses, I was starting to notice a change in some of the patients. For the past week, I’ve watched people who were too dazed to even appreciate what has happened to their lives. They have had a sort of stunned numbness. Perhaps the physical pain has been so great that they couldn’t think beyond the excruciating moment. Perhaps the overwhelming sadness about the people they have lost kept them from focusing on their own disastrous injuries. But today, I saw people who were finally absorbing the shock.
I tried to comfort a 23-year old man who lost a leg. He is probably one of 30 or more people at Trinité with at least one missing extremity. He was in pain and as I gave him an injection, I stupidly said, “it will be alright.” I think I meant that the pain would get better but his personal situation is grim and will never be “alright”…
I had a chance to talk to one of the logs that has been here since the start. Jeff is a Congolese expatriate log who because of visa difficulties couldn’t evacuate with the rest of the team. I asked him where he was when the earthquake hit. He was at Pacot [Rehabilitation Center]. While Pacot didn’t crumble, because of building’s old age, they were worried and quickly got out. They assumed that Trinité, the newer, bigger facility, would be standing. They tried to call or radio but all communication failed. They evacuated all of the patients and staff to the lawn and then used plastic sheeting to make a roof strung between out buildings. Unable to contact Trinité, Jeff and the medical director walked across town.
It is a 20-minute ride so the walk through the crumbled streets must have taken more than an hour. He said that people were hysterically trying to pull friends and family members from the ruins. Body parts and crushed bodies, along with collapsed cars and buildings, were in evidence along the route.
Seeing their MSF t-shirt, people pleaded them for help. Jeff has worked for MSF for 15 years, first as a local hire, then as a local supervisor and finally as an expat. He is experienced and competent, but even he was emotionally overwhelmed by the enormity of the disaster and the suffering.