Sunday, January 08, 2012

Remembering Haiti Part 2

Standing at the top of the hill of the golf course, overlooking what remains of Port au Prince.

Some of my memories of Haiti are still hard to talk about. Each day brought challenges and scenes out of a nightmare. Don't be fooled by the smiles in the pictures. Oftentimes we were smiling out of exhaustion, or out of nothing but love and faith. Or simply just because it is a habit- there's a camera, you smile.
One of the more other worldly experiences came on the day we were invited to go to a camp at a golf course. We had been hearing about a golf course that was providing shelter, food, and medical care to anywhere between 5,000 and 75,000 people. As with many things in Haiti, the reports were confusing and we had no idea what to expect. But off we went, to see what we could see, and serve who needed to be served.
Somewhere along the way I was either too tired to compute everything I was hearing, or maybe I was just never told the whole story. But after 2 weeks of hearing a lot of Creole and French, I was just fine hearing words that made no sense to me and going with it. To my ears, the golf course was being called the "jean penh camp" (say it with a French "jean"). I just assumed this was a French or Creole word and didn't ask. So when I walked up the hill to the golf clubhouse and this happened a minute later, you can understand my confusion-
Sean Penn meets Brig General Keen
Don't recognize him? That would be actor Sean Penn. He was directing and financing the golf course operation, providing shelter and food to the thousands of people there.
But before the entourage and paparazzi attacked him, he was just a guy walking next to me into the tennis courts area. (The tennis courts had high fences around them that could be locked. That was where all the food was being stored.) Maybe confusion isn't the right word for what I felt right then. It was more a blank stare, complete stupor of thought, and a shrug. It was Haiti, strange things happened all the time. A celebrity offering me his granola bar while we stood next to a tent full of orphans? That was just Haiti.
But on to what we actually saw at the golf course.
Meeting the general. Nice guy, nice troops. Didn't stop me from wanting to slip my bodyguards.
Thousands and thousands of people living in tents, built from bed sheets, sticks, and plastic tarps if they were lucky. The US Army was providing security, OxFam was providing the food and medical care, and several other organizations were helping out as well. They had suffered from some unfortunate violence and rape deep within the camp, and the volunteers, especially the females, were provided military security as we walked through the camp. For whatever reason, I was tired of having a bodyguard by my side and did my best to sneak away from the young 19 year old boys with their huge machine guns, and just walk around alone. The boys were enjoying having American female companionship and more than willing to keep a close eye on me. I'd give them the slip, but they'd find me a minute later. I'm thinking my blond hair didn't help me much.
The camp was crowded, but well organized. The tennis courts and club house were high on top of a hill, and the golf course itself down at the bottom. There were hundreds of acres, all covered by tent shelters. The occupants had managed to place their tents in lines, allowing for roads and intersections. There were even road signs and names, written on cardboard and hanging on the side of tents. Periodically you would find a small area where a clinic had been set up, or a small area for kids (or grown men) to play soccer in. Our people were sent to the clinic areas throughout the camp to provide medical care. (With armed escorts from the Army.) We sat on buckets (no chairs anywhere), and the patients lined up 20-50 deep, waiting for help. In so many cases there wasn't really anything we could do for them. They had been through a horrible trauma, and wanted help. They were sleeping in a crowded, disgusting area, sleeping on the ground. I have no doubt that they felt sick and miserable. They wanted someone to make them feel better. But with no real illness for us to treat, we would just take their temperatures and blood pressure, ask a few questions, determine who was really sick, and treat as necessary. Oftentimes we put bandaids on sore arms or knees, or dispensed Tylenol and Advil with a bottle of clean water. We'd hold the babies while their mothers were treated. The poor mothers hadn't been able to put their babies down for weeks. We were literally "lifting the load" for them. I remember watching the mother's arms drop down as I took a baby from her. They were so tired and exhausted and overwhelmed. They had lost their homes, livelihoods, and family members, forced to live in a makeshift tent with no privacy, unable to put their squirmy babies down. More than anything it is the mothers that I remember, and the looks on their faces when we would help them, or care for their babies. There were so many times where I would take a few steps away and turn my back to everyone, unable to keep my tears and sobs to myself. I would take a deep breath, regroup, and turn back around with a smile, and keep helping. If it was that hard for me to see, can you imagine what it was like to live in?

There was a picnic shelter at the top of the hill that was used as a hospital or clinic. I spent a few hours up there, treating patients the best that I could. I saw some awful injuries and illnesses in there. I remember there was a baby in a box. As long as he or she was in the box s/he didn't cry. But if anyone dared moved him/her, s/he would start bawling. So I sat there holding a blood pressure cuff, attempting to entertain the baby. (Even in the box there was crying.) After a few minutes I realized there was something else wrong. The baby was favoring one leg to lean on. I moved around so that the baby was forced to move as well. After another few minutes I realized that one of the baby's legs wasn't moving right. I risked the bawling, picked the baby up, and took it to a doctor. We realized the baby likely had a dislocated leg or hip, and it was taken away from me to fix. I don't remember why I didn't stay with the baby. I think I was pulled in another direction to go help with something else. The small incident stayed heavy on my heart for a long time. Where was the mother? How long would it have taken for someone else to figure out why the baby wanted to be left alone?
Things like that sadly happened a lot in Haiti. The walking wounded were everywhere. People were unable to get medical care until a doctor literally tripped over them and found them. People relying on food handouts from other nations. Can you even imagine what it must feel like to be dependent on a group of volunteers from the other side of the world, who held a yard sale, raised a few dollars, and flew to your little island country to share it?

1 comment:

  1. You're amazing!
    Wish I had gone... and glad I didn't.


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