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Published: February 2nd 2010
AS PART OF MERLIN'S EMERGENCY RESPONSE TEAM, I SPENT TWO WEEKS IN HAITI, FOLLOWING A DEVASTATING 7.0 EARTHQUAKE THAT RAVAGED THE ISLAND ON JANUARY 12TH. THE FOLLOWING IS A RECAP OF MY PERIODICAL UPDATES FROM THE FIELD.
(The first few days)
Just wrapping up my day at the office when a New York Times Alert pops in to my inbox, indicating that Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere had been ravaged by a 7.0 Earthquake. I could only imagine how devastating that was for such a precarious island. CNN was already fearing that the death toll would be astronomically high. Surely, Merlin would be responding. It had to! Hard to say exactly what we would do given that the London team was well into the night. Despite the uncertainty, I tried to wrap up my normal activities and finished the day as best I could...
Just as we had all feared, the situation in Haiti is dire. The UN calls it a catastrophe. Merlin mobilizes and decides, unequivocally, to send in an emergency response team to assess the medical needs and to see where it would be best positioned to
help medically. As for us in the US, it's full on fundraising for the quake appeal - we would try (and still are trying) to secure $500,000 in relief funds for Haiti. Each new photo, each new testimonial and each new statistic only reaffirms the need. We've dropped everything else and have gone in full emergency appeal mode. It was a long day at the office, but deep down, I was relieved that Merlin was acting so fast and felt proud to be working for such a responsive organization. My job feels somewhat rewarding; though I can only imagine what the island of Haiti is going through!
I wake up to what appears to be a UK number flashing on my cell phone at 6 in the morning. Who could this be? I asked myself in a daze... Half asleep and confused, I answer in somewhat of a professional manner... "Alex speaking." Merlin's Director of Communications subsequently prefaces the call by insisting that she has "an interesting plan." Right away, my heart races and as I turn on the news to get the latest update, this "plan" becomes obvious... "How would you like to head down
to Haiti with the Emergency Response Team" to help with the initial assessment? The fact that I am a francophone, compounded by the geographical proximity somewhat made sense as to why she would think of me... But before I could actually process the implications and give it some serious thinking, I responded with an emphatic: YES! Of course I'll go... This is precisely why I work in this sector... Next thing I know, later that night (after shifting a few things around), I was on the red eye to Fort Lauderdale, where I would then hop on a flight a few hours later to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to meet the rest of the assessment team and eventually cross over to Haiti by air, land or sea... and that's how it all started - I was off on my first emergency response mission!
Got to DR late that night, met up with the rest of the team, which consists of our trusty team leader, Laurent, our logistics chief, Andrew, Micaela, our lovely medical assessor and Richard, Surgical team leader... I decide to shamefully order a beer(which would surely be my last for a while),
eagerly awaiting what the next day will bring about... Scared, excited, nervous, anxious... you name it! Though the night before, I was told that all air traffic to Haiti was halted, things are uncertain on that front now... The clock is ticking and the air traffic control seems to be filtering some flights - including Humanitarian charters - due to low airport capacity in Port au Prince ("PAP"). Humanitarian teams and equipments all ready and waiting to go on... It seems that it's "standby" for all flights other than Hilary Clinton's who is expected to fly into PaP the next day... Despite my attempts to get her on the phone to coordinate a joint flight, I decide to leave it to fate to see whether or not we go airborne tomorrow...
Leaving for Port au Prince today... It's on! Early start - all equipment and a full team ready. Spirit is high as we reach the airport. All was fixed for us by Laurent's contacts on the inside. Our 5 names are on the flight roster... Everything seems perfect and we're ready to go!. We check in, pass through customs, get on board the 19-seater, the
turbo props are on... only to find out that air traffic control has cancelled the flight! It was too good a start but it is only 09:30 am and we may be able to bounce back! A few calls and emails later, we manage to get clearance and eventually take off for PoP, this time more anxious than ever! Surprisingly from the plane, the landscape looks untouched and only on the ground do we realise the true state of emergency - not from infrastructure damages as the airport was un-scattered but from the human chaos starting on the airstrip and parkways. Civilians, journalists and military everywhere... It's, as the UN calls it, a true 'catastrophe.' Helicopters and planes crossing strips in absolute mayhem, increasing the likeliness for more accidents. That day, the US military started evacuating its civilians, we were told. As Richard adequately puts it: we are walking against the flow of traffic! yet, we somehow (again, thanks to Laurent's endless hookups), we somehow secured a bumpy ride from MSF-Fr at the airport and headed for the UN base. Some confusion in the streets but no hostility. People, idle and clueless, are asking for medicines and medical referral. And
this all happens within barely one mile of the base!
We wake in tents after setting up our small camp on the UN logistics compound. We then get together the information and plans for the day. After such a quick and efficient start yesterday afternoon, the spirit is indeed high and the team feels confident. I set off with Richard and a local surgeon to assess the possibility of setting up a Merlin medical base in a town named “Fond Parisien,” about 20 miles south east of PaP while the rest of the team take care of the medical and logistical assessment and coordination in order to ensure a smooth arrival for the 4.5 tons of cargo that is set to be delivered on Monday at 4 pm. What Richard and I both agreed on was that the facility was indeed perfect for a Merlin operation (great medical infrastructure, security and plenty of space) but could pose a problem given the distance from the capital, which, as it turns out, is where the great majority of the casualties lie (more on that later). The team reunites around 3:30 pm to get organized for the rest of
the day. At this point, I head off to CNN to drop off some film and photos and to discuss media opportunities. While at the CNN hotel, Richard had an opportunity to put on his “medic hat” as a severely ill woman, with a broken pelvis and internal complications was “dumped” on the steps of the CNN hotel... After a quick check up, it was clear that the woman did not have much time to survive and needed to be taken to a hospital ASAP! Per our recommendation, her daughters managed to find one nearby, where she would be admitted and given the necessary attention. At this point, Richard has already had a successful live interview on “the 6 oclock” news - BBC. It should be noted that just before the interview, Richard and I had an interesting experience whereby, on our way back to PoP, we came across a bridge that had just collapsed about 2 minutes before! The incident set the tone quite nicely for Richard’s subsequent interview! Now, we’ve all reconvened at the UN cafeteria to discuss our impressions, assessment and opinions, plan for the next day, all while trying desperately to assemble what one might consider
a respectable supper - a luxury compared to the “instant meals” that have had to due on several occasions thus far... I think I'll treat myself to a few gummy bears before shaking up with my tent-mate Andrew for the night...
TOMORROW, WE'VE GOT THE REST OF OUR MEDICAL STAFF LANDING (12) ALONG WITH 4.5 TONS OF MEDICAL SUPPLIES! THINGS ARE MOST CERTAINLY MOVING ALONG, YET THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO DO....
19 Jan. (the hardest day)
Amputations, dead bodies piled up on the streets, a decayed leg found on the ground, the pungent smell of infection and death, crying children in severe pain… To put it simply, today was a very long and hard day!
Despite the overall upbeat spirit of the team, there are times when your idealism is unfortunately overshadowed by the grim reality. So contrary to my normal perpetual optimism, I will be blunt: the situation in Haiti is indeed catastrophic… Scratch that, it is apocalyptical!
So pardon me if this journal entry is not consistent with my usual writing style… The truth is, I’m exhausted, running on pure adrenaline at this point… And yet so much work
has yet to be done…I’ll try to be as realistic as possible because in the end, these stories, photos and personal anecdotes will hopefully help to depict just how grave the situation really is!
After what felt like an eventful and productive day, I woke up eager to get started this morning to make some serious progress on setting up our clinic at Delmas 33, one of the worst hit areas of Port au Prince. Surely, our input would be most beneficial there. The rest of the surgical team, along with close to 5 tons of medical supplies were scheduled to arrive later that day which would give us plenty of time to not only prepare for their arrival by securing the logistics but would also give Richard, our surgical team leader, an opportunity to get stationed there for the day to help some of the many injured who most desperately need medical attention. As he accurately put it, the medical focus, at this point, has shifted from mostly lower limb trauma to dealing with infected wounds - a complication that is, under normal circumstances, so easily treatable - or preventable for that matter!
I was really excited
to support Richard today and ensure that he would be able to perform his job to the best of his ability… Unfortunately, it’s not that simple - it never is in an emergency! With an assessment team of five of us for the time being, there are so many tasks to be done and so many different hats to wear. So this morning, after dropping off Richard at the Merlin site in Delmas 33, I was en route, with our trusty driver, Gerard to the CNN hotel to drop off some of our video footage, as requested by one of their production crew in the US. As I entered the seemingly luxurious hotel compound (anything seems luxurious I suppose after camping out on an uneven rocky patch of dirt in the far end of the UN compound while sharing a filthy bathroom with about 500 people!), I was reminded that even the big guys (i.e. CNN) were dealing with pure chaos! No one seemed to be able to point me in the right direction, not even Anderson or Sanjay! So after bouncing around from one clueless segment producer to the next, I eventually gave up and just transferred all the
video material I had on someone, anyone’s computer… I had to get back to Delmas to support Richard - it was, dare I say, slightly more important than waiting around for indignant press officers!
On the way back to Delmas, Gerard shared a story with me, which I will never forget. As I asked him about the Earthquake, where he was at the time, if everyone in his family was ok, etc… , he told me that his Father had to amputate his wife’s leg with a machete as he was confronted with the existential conundrum that no husband should ever have to face: to cut off your loved one’s limb or to let her die… This brave man courageously did what most would never dare to do: he saved her life. This poignant testimony, compounded by the dead and injured bodies on the streets added yet another component of “realism” to the situation… I simply cannot, nor will I ever be able to put into words the visual magnitude of this devastation. This vision was only reinforced by my time spent with Richard at Delmas 33, giving medical attention to everyone from a young boy who had had
both of his tiny feet amputated to an elder man whose hand had been crushed so badly that his hanging, bleeding, infected fingers were the size of a baby’s forearm!
I spent the rest of the day assisting Richard and Andrew, our logistics leader, ensuring that everything would be set up for our team’s arrival. In the end, we all put in that extra bit of steam to make sure that everything was set in place. We charged our satellite phones, ran franticly in so many different directions(got lost a few times), used whatever contacts we had at this point… all to ensure that in the end, Merlin is ready to do what it does … TO SAVE LIVES.
So here I am now, under a rainy Haitian sky, plugged in to the only outlet in site, huddled under a flickering light bulb with my friend, the neighborhood rooster, awaiting the rest of the team. Naturally, every hotel was booked up; but I managed to convince this incredibly kind manager (who lost her house in the quake) to let us pitch tents in the hotel’s terrace! It may not be the Ritz Carlton, but it’s secured and close
to our medical site. I can’t wait to see the guests’ faces when they get up to get a cup of coffee outside, only to see 10 tents erected by the breakfast tables! Would you like milk and sugar? Or perhaps 4.8 tons of medical supplies?! I guess one positive thing about this dire situation is that I’ve fully come to realize and appreciate the fact that in times of crisis, people DO come together in solidarity. “We’re all in this together,” I was reminded by this sweet woman… Yes, we are, YES WE ARE!
20 Jan. (The many faces of medicine)
What initially started out as a rather slow day turned out to be one of the most eventful, adrenaline-filled and introspective experience of my life! Oh, and I witnessed a few lives being saved too!
After a rather mundane morning filled with many administrative chores, I found myself in the back of a motorcycle, speaking to the head of our logistics in London, blitzing through the heaviest and most erratic traffic I have ever seen, while signaling to the blue-helmet,UN peace-keeping troops along the way to let us through and hanging on for
my dear life! “We have a situation” Tim’s voice echoed through the satellite phone that was dangling from my left ear. Of course we do… You see, as I’ve come to appreciate through this whirlwind of a project, in Haiti, though “everything is possible, nothing is sure!” So, the situation, as Tim went on to explain was that the 3 trucks, filled with 5 tons of medical supplies, had not arrived at the warehouse and that the drivers were actually lost! “There is also talk of looting going on, so we need someone to head towards the airport ASAP, locate the trucks and secure them!”
So, after a quick assessment of the situation at hand (oh boy, barely 5 days of sharing a tent with the logistics leader and I’m already starting to speak like a “Loggie”), I ask the UN guard to recommend a safe driver and vehicle to get me to the airport quickly and safely! I’m not sure if it was the inherent sense of urgency or a pure feeling of disillusionment, but hopping on the back of a passing-by motorcycle seemed to make sense at the time. Off, I went, flying though the dusty streets of
Port au Prince, looking for these elusive trucks, as if they were the holy grail! For as long as I’m alive, I will never, ever forget what transpired over the following 20 minutes. With an influx of cars, bikes and pedestrians coming at us the opposite way, we zig -zagged through the convoluted streets of this crazy town, while slapping away pick pocketers and pleading with UN security to let us through closed off streets.
Miraculously, with a great deal of coordination through London, we managed to track down the trucks and secure the cargo, which meant that , in the end, 5 tons of medical supplies would indeed get to the people of Haiti… Now, who says aid is not getting to Haiti!!!
Aid is getting in - make no mistake!; and Merlin is doing all it can to expedite the process. To paraphrase Golda Meir, “Never doubt the ability of a small, dedicated group of people to change the world… Indeed, it is the only people who ever have!” Though I’ve been quoting this iconic leader for a while now, I’ve never truly understood the meaning of this powerful phrase until recently - until I had
the honor of being part of Merlin’s team on the ground in Haiti. Looking back over the past few days and realizing just how much we’ve been able to do - from partnering up with local organizations to finding a suitable, secured area to operate in the midst of one of the worst hit areas, to actually saving life after life, I am truly amazed by how much we’ve accomplished!
Here’s another useful phrase that may not be as inspiring and moving as Golda’s words, but equally relevant…“What exactly happened to you?” - If you ever need to learn French as part of a medical emergency relief effort after a natural disaster, this is precisely the phrase that you must learn… “Qu’est=ce qui vous etes arrivé?” Bouncing from patient to patient in our newly established “field hospital,” I found myself translating this very query in order to assist Merlin’s medical staff and to help make light of the origins of many complex fractures and various trauma injuries. And though I must confess that my initial tolerance for trauma, blood and severe injuries rivaled my medical knowledge, I’ve surprised myself, lately, with my increasing threshold for such things…
wish I could recite the names and stories of each patient I met today. What I will never forget however is the opportunity I had to be able to assist Merlin’s medical staff this afternoon. I don’t profess to know a single bit of medical expertise, but I’ve realized, lately, that there is so much more to “medicine” than pure science. The human condition, i.e. connecting with each patient on as much of a personal level as possible, I feel, is truly paramount to making one feel “better.” Perhaps it’s just my way of justifying my medical ineptitude, but I know that in the end, we all did our part today… We all helped as many people as possible, in whatever way we could. And that satisfaction was only heightened by the fact that we managed to get 5 tons of medical supplies through safely!
With every “success story” however, it seems that there are so many glimpses of reality that ground us back to the gravity of the situation. In this particular case, I met a wonderful little girl, Makenle (who’s turning 2 tomorrow) whose mother had been crushed and died during the Earthquake and, as a result,
had fallen on top of her and had broken her arm. Just sit back and think about this for a minute… Seeing your own mother dying is one thing, but imagine witnessing such an atrocity in those conditions… a week shy of your second birthday! Makenle also had a pretty bad gash on her head, but we assured her father that in the end, she would be ok. I fought hard to hold back the tears to translate to her brave dad that for now, all she needed was to get her cut disinfected and that we would put her arm in a cast… At this point, the father uneasily mentioned to me that he didn’t have any money to pay for the cast. I assured him that Merlin would take care of her, free of charge, at which point, I couldn’t hold it anymore…I had to leave and broke down in a corner… Not just because of Makenle but also because of the dignity of her father who, despite having lost his wife and being left alone to take care of his 2 year old daughter, had waited in the blistering sun for hours to explore every option to
get Makenle better. And Merlin would provide such services in the end… Again, I couldn’t be prouder!
I’ll never forget Makenle. I hope to come back to Haiti one day and visit her and her father, at which point, maybe I’ll mention to both of them how much they’ve affected me!
21 Jan. (Paradise lost)
It’s funny how much you start appreciating the little things when you’re exposed to so much pain and injustice. A passing smile, a communal home-cooked meal, unrivaled hospitably and the overall feeling of gratefulness seems to permeate all genders, races and creed in times of crisis. And no other time, as far as I’m concerned, has this been more demonstrably apparent than now.
I apologize if this is starting to sound like a broken record, but having bounced around from place to place and having, as a result, developed an uncanny appreciation for the impact of human interactions, it still amazes me, to this day that all too often, the people that have the least are the people that give the most! Though I try not to generalize, it seems that in this culturally and socially heterogeneous world, this
adage has become a universal truth!
In this particular case, I’m referring to Margarette, my wonderful host this evening…
Last night, after a long day which culminated in an even longer struggle to catch up on emails to make sure that the London team would be caught up to speed before walking up the following day, I can’t tell you how elated I was to discover that I would have my own tent for the night (no offense Andrew), as two of the assessment team members returned back to the UK. Adding to this feeling of elation, I was somehow wirelessly connected when I woke up this morning, which enabled me to check my email from inside my OWN tent… Maybe the 6.1 aftershock quake that rattled that same tent earlier that day had something to do with it!
This particular quake is one of the reasons I, along with Sean, an Emergency Doctor on the Merlin team, set off on the road this morning to go to Jacmel, a coastal city located on the South East of the island, close to the epicenter of the most recent aftershock. The damage in that city, we were told,
was colossal which meant that the medical need was just as large. The plan was to drive there, have a couple of hours to visit whatever was left of the health centers in the region, speak to various people who would be best suited to tell us what the most pressing medical needs in the region might be and head back to the capital before dark, for security reasons. However, as is the case with most things lately, we had to call an audible halfway through. The first clear manifestation of our transportation challenges stemmed from a seemingly massive gas shortage which, (along with other, dare I say “indispensable” commodities such as water and food) has become a big problem on the island. Yet, thanks to our trustworthy driver, Gerard, we eventually managed to find some gas, paid an exorbitant price for it and off we went. Not so far! Over the course of the next hour and a half, we manage to cover a whopping 3 miles and felt yet another aftershock (speaking of which, I should also add that while writing this very paragraph, we experienced another seismic shock…. When will it end?!)
After a couple hours
of battling awful traffic, having to take a number of detours as a result of the UN blocking the roads to land their aircrafts, it was clear that we would not have enough time to make it all the way to Jacmel and get back before dark… We had 3 options: turn around now and forget about Jacmel; go there and head back right away, which would mean doing a poor, sub-par assessment, or get there, find safe accommodation and head back the following day. After clearing it with London, we chose the 3rd option - made the most sense really. With this welcomed peace of mind, which was paired nicely with the decongestion of the road, we left Port au Prince behind and headed for the hills. What a beautiful island this is! Having been limited to the polluted, chaotic streets of Port au Prince for the past week , I hadn’t begun to think, much less appreciate, the beauty that lies outside of this frenzied town. Gradually sharper and higher S turns gave way to some stunning scenery which provided a nice escape from the grim clouded mess that lied beneath us. Yet before we could get too
comfortable with this luxuriously pleasant drive, we were brought back down to reality on several occasions after confronting several road blocks due to massive landslides stemming from the quake.
We finally got to Jacmel around 4 pm, at which point, our priority was to find a secure, single story hotel for the night. A couple miles away from the center of town, we stumbled upon this unassuming, yet secure looking hotel on the water… Passing the security gate, it became clear that this would be the perfect place to stay - small, evenly spaced one story bungalows. Yet, it seemed that other people had the same idea, as we were told that the hotel was full. However, after introducing ourselves and talking to the lovely family in charge of this place, the matriarch of this charming establishment informed us that the hotel was not “actually” full but that she didn’t want anyone staying in any of the rooms as she insisted that it was not safe to do so in light of all the many aftershocks. Fair enough. She had clearly not gotten over the psychological trauma of the quake and made it clear that she would take every
bit of caution to avoid any further damage. “I’ve seen enough” she told us; had lost too many friends to this tragedy and needed not to remind herself of that fateful 12th of January 2010. Not wanting to add any extra stress to this poor woman’s life, we slowly and politely got right back in the car and began to drive away… However, before the engine was even on, she knocked on our window and told us that she would take mattresses out of the rooms and set us up in the yard, provide us with blankets, pillow, towels, etc… We would also have access to the showers (at our own risk, we assured her) and would be provided with a “family style” dinner and breakfast.
And that is precisely what I mean by giving when it appears that everything has been taken from you… After having gone through all that she has, I would expect this woman to rightly be jaded, mad and hysterical, but instead she goes out of her way to not only welcome us, but to make us feel as though we were at home, safe.
Jacmel is a beautiful town - at least
what is left of it. The structural damage from the Earthquake is most certainly tangible as evidenced by the overwhelming number of dilapidated homes, store fronts, gas stations and (as we feared) health centers. We spoke to the main hospital administrator to ask him what his biggest medical needs were in order rebuild the hospital…He simply, yet assertively answered: “everything!” Not sure we’ll be able to get there just yet, but there is certainly some help that Merlin can provide to this hospital and, more largely speaking, to this beautiful city. We plan to come back to speak to him tomorrow morning as well as explore other health centers and speak to medical staff around the region to get a clear judgment of where Merlin might be best positioned to save lives and rehabilitate the health centers in the region.
The contrast is striking in Jacmel… Beautiful white sand beaches, turquoise blue waters and lush vegetation can almost easily make you forget that less than 10 days ago, this glorious place would be completely ravaged! Alas, contrary to the unenthusiastic title, this paradise is NOT lost. It will, undoubtedly, take months/years for it to get over the damage, but
if the warmth and generosity of its people is any indication of its resilience, Jacmel will bounce back...
24 Jan. (Makeshift)
God gives you lemons, you make lemonade right?! So what happens when you find yourself in a makeshift field hospital and hundreds of patients are flocking in with all kinds of injuries, begging to be treated? Well, as I’ve come to realize over the past few days, you do what you can!
And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing…
This weekend has been, to say the least, busy! Over the all-too familiar plate of fried goat, at dinner tonight, I glanced around the large table and I couldn’t help but notice the battered faces. However, it only took a few more seconds to understand that behind those weary eyes, was an immense sentiment of pride, honor and accomplishment - a feeling that I, not even remotely qualified to resemble anything close to a medical professional, shared as well. Simply put, it’s the feeling of knowing that we’ve been saving lives despite the challenging conditions, in a time when nothing else really matters… All hands on deck!
As I looked around our newly
established field hospital in Delmas 33 this evening, right as the surgical team was performing its last operation for the day, I was quite simply overwhelmed by how far along we’ve come and how much we’ve built as a team: a reception area for patients to sign in, a nursing station, a fully equipped, fully working surgical theater, a post-opp. area for patients to rest, a storage unit for our medical supplies, food and water and we’re in the process of building latrines and a kitchen! Oh, and to top it all off, a couple of make shift wheel chairs and a soccer ball made out of bubble wrap added just an extra needed sprinkle of makeshift home-made goodness!
With the medical staff in full swing, I spent the past couple of days supporting them in anyway I could. From handling interview requests and other media-related issues, to translating to patients to helping unloading supplies… I got a nice well-rounded taste of Merlin’s emergency response modus operati. And I’ve enjoyed every moment of it - well most of them!
Truth be told, it’s been hard at times, very hard - not just physically draining, but also emotionally and
psychologically tormenting as I realize more and more just how unfair this whole situation is. The people of Haiti have got to be some of the kindest and most charming, and yet they have absolutely nothing - whatever they had, is gone, vanished and so many of them have unfairly been subjected to so much pain and suffering. It’s excruciating, at times just to witness this injustice (imagine living it!) So I’ve tried to balance it with a dose of innocuous laughs, smiles and fleeting moments of escape. For example, I gladly took up Gerard, our driver who’s become a close friend, on his offer to take me around to his home to meet his family. And what a lovely family it is! His entire home was destroyed during the Earthquake, and some of his family badly injured as a result. Yet despite it all, they’ve managed to become even closer, having set up a makeshift outdoor home built under tarps assembled from various materials. Gerard proudly introduced me to his mother, his children, his nieces and nephews and many others who were all bundled up next to each other, some severely wounded, but all genuinely happy, it seemed, to
meet a new friend of Gerard. This really made my day!
I’ve come to really appreciate the people of Haiti - most of whom, I’ll never forget.
This afternoon, after many hours of laborious work and many successful operations, a few of us decided to scrounge up whatever bubble wrap we could find and made a soccer ball out of it. This was a huge hit amongst the staff and the patients, particularly two little girls who had been operated on the day before -Dianne (8 years old), whose right hand was badly crushed and Kerry (4 ½ years old), who suffered a severe head wound after her mother collapsed on top of her. From the looks of them running around and kicking the ball fervently, you’d think they were the healthiest kids on the planet… And soon, they may just be! I had a blast playing with Dianne and Kerry, and for whatever it’s worth, I hope I was able to provide some ephemeral distraction for them - a tiny escape from reality.
I certainly won’t forget this weekend, nor will I ever look back at the past 10 days and think that any of it
was not worth it or could have been done any better. Sure, there is a TON of work still to do and sure there are errors of judgment, mistakes, and moments of despair, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s an absolute honor to be here and to be working with such a great team who is appreciated by so many. We’ve had to “make it up as we go along” many times thus far, and I’m pretty sure we’ll continue to make do with whatever we’ve got to continue to push forward, to ultimately save more lives…but it’s precisely for those reasons that I love this job so much!
27 Jan. (Aftershock)
I’ve felt a lot of aftershocks in the past few days- many geological ones, but also a number of defining psychological ones. And, now, on my way home, as we reach cruising altitude and as I think back over what I’ve seen, done and experienced over the past two weeks, I truly feel that I’ve gone through a seismic transformation… And what’s transpired is an emotional aftershock (at 30,000 feet!)
Coming “home” has always felt a bit strange to me. I’m
sure a lot of it stems from the fact that I’ve never truly been able to ascertain what this notional concept truly entails. The question, I’ve come to realize, is not “where” home is, but “what” home means.
No matter where in the world this elusive feeling of belonging draws me to, there is, no doubt, something to be said and appreciated about coming back to familiar territory - to friends, family and the numerous things that have, over time, constituted a sentiment of normalcy and stability.
Tonight, I’m headed “home.” As I write this, high in the sky, enjoying extra leg room at the front of the plane (having been kindly and unexpectedly upgraded), I feel conflicted. I would be blatantly lying if I said that I wasn’t happy to be returning to the comforts of a bed, a hot shower and a home cooked meal. However, as I get closer to all these wonderful perks, I’m also reminded of what I’m leaving behind - a country in desperate need, where so many have had their “homes” destroyed - unfortunately, for the people in Haiti, this means having lost both the “where” and the “what.”
often say that the hardest part about spending a considerable amount of time in fragile states is coming back to the western world and re-integrating to the life you left behind - to the old ways that have, over time, shaped our lives. Having experienced these challenges on many different occasions, I can certainly empathize with this feeling of dislodgment. But this time around, the “shock” value of coming home is different - much more acute, raw…intense! A few hours ago, I was in chaos - fighting the relentless traffic of Port-au Prince, breathing its toxic polluted air, in the thick of what many would indisputably categorize as one of the most severe humanitarian crisis. And then, the second that UN World Food Program plane on which I was kindly offered a seat to get back to the Dominican Republic for free, took off, it was all behind me… Or was it?
On the way to the airport, I gave Gerard whatever was left of my “ready to eat” meals, said goodbye and walked directly on the airstrip to find this obscure WFP plane, which would be my ticket back home. A couple hours later, the plane eventually showed
up and thankfully, my name was still on the list - I was going home. As the plane took off, I was able to get a good view of the UN compound, my little patch of dirt which was my “home” for the past two weeks and, as climbed higher, an aerial perspective of Port au Prince, 15 days after that fateful day… Despite a quick, passing moment of detachment, that view brought me right back down to reality and reminded me of just how much work has yet to be done!
Let me be clear here: Yes, aid is unquestionably getting in to Haiti, but I cannot stress enough how much has still to be done, especially with regard to coordinating that aid. Coordination, I’ve learned, is absolutely paramount for Haiti. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many dollars are raised, or how many people volunteer to come out and help, progress cannot be achieved unless countries, international organizations, NGOs, individuals and all other entities involved in this response, coordinate their efforts to ensure the best outcome for Haiti… and this will take time, make no mistake about that!
Frankly, I think the media exposure in
Haiti has been a great tool and has been remarkably efficient in stressing the gravity of the situation there. However, I fear that inevitably, this attention will slowly fade and people will subsequently shift their focus away and, over time, this event will be placed in the annals of history, along with many other devastating natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina or the Tsunami of 2004. And though I will never underestimate the severity of these catastrophes, I will do my best to ensure, however meager my efforts may be, that Haiti continues to receive the attention it deserves… today, tomorrow and in years to come!
The media is, without a doubt, an incredibly powerful vehicle which has the power to bring people from all over the world in solidarity and give the visual impetus needed to act in times of crisis. But what happens when the camera is gone?
It seems like so many people are fixated on the number of dead. But what about the ones still living? How about the 200,000 severely wounded or the half a million orphans left behind? What will happen to these people when the press is out of their face; when
the news channels decide to deem the next politician’s infidelity scandal as a more “newsworthy” story?
I’m truly humbled by the amount of support I’ve received over the past few weeks, from colleagues, friends and family who have all demonstrated their appreciation for what Merlin is doing in Haiti. I, too, as I’ve shown, have an incredible amount admiration for this organization. But truth be told, I’m somewhat ashamed to be recognized for a mere two weeks in comparison to the millions of Haitians whose timeless sense of courage, resilience and unyielding selflessness is often times overshadowed by our insatiable appetite for photos and footage of western intervention. Maybe I’m just cynical - I hope so.
Either way, let me get straight to the point… We must never forget about Haiti!
Thousands of people have given up their 9 to 5 to be on the ground rebuilding and rehabilitating the island - some were there before Earthquake, some came in the day after and some will come in later - some won’t even make it there but will dedicate a great deal of time and energy to helping the country to get back on its feet. Admittedly,
our individual efforts may sometime feel like a tiny drop in the bucket - a bucket overflowing with suffering and injustice. I assure you that this drop is making a difference!
I am so proud of what Merlin has accomplished in a mere 2 weeks but I’m even more proud to know that we will continue to work with local partners and local health workers, to ensure that the country grows in a sustainable way.
I’m really looking forward to going back to Haiti soon to see the progress of our field hospital in Delmas 33, to check up on Makenle, Dianna and Kerry and to visit Gerard and his family. In the meantime, I’ll treasure my time spent there, because, in the end, it is precisely these memories, however fleeting they may be, that gives me the perspective needed to accept and appreciate life’s uncertainties and the amorphous concept of “home,” wherever and whatever that may be…
Here's a link
to the complete photo gallery.
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