I write this as I return from two weeks behind the scenes travelling and working in the earthquake damaged city of Port-au-Prince. When I left Miami on Janurary 17th I had already quit watching CNN for 2 days because it just depressed me. Things in the city were heartbreaking, I found, but not dangerous, not panicked, and not hopeless. I found a hospital that was open and working and pitched in and started doing amputations of dead limbs right away. There were already teams of American and Canadian and French, Israeli, Russian, Korean, etc. etc. and most of all Haitian doctors and nurses working in every hospital in the city that wasn’t crippled fatally, who had been working for 5 days attending to a massively wounded population, all displaced from their worldly belongings. Many in the Haitian medical community had also suddenly found themselves homeless, some having lost family members. They continued to do what medical professionals do, attend to the patients in front of them. Some of these colleagues I had already known from previous visits to the country. All are trained to high standards of medical practice, many in France, Canada, and the US. Many Haitian doctors and nurses who now live and practice in the United States and elsewhere were rushing to get there, as I was, to pitch in and help. We were all in one boat, together, and you’ve never seen such a spirit of cooperation and such genuine appreciation for the flood of assistance coming to their aid in the helpless situation into which they had been dropped, in the space of 30 seconds…their entire lives changed on a dime!
I found myself rapidly transitioning from surgeon to a finder and recruiter of surgeons and medical teams as it became clear that the doctors who were there when I arrived were already ready to ‘rotate out’. Many more teams were arriving all the time, but most of them were piling up at the airport, some being whisked off by NGO groups with previous ties to certain hospitals and others just milling around for hours getting frustrated at the barrier they had run into keeping them from rushing to the scene of the injured, i.e. outside of the airport, in the city itself. There was no system in place to identify who was leaving, when they were leaving, who would replace them, when, and how they would know which hospital needed them in a city where communication was largely limited to face-to-face contact.
I had a conduit to the Minister of Health through my good friend and colleague Dr. Roger R. Jean-Charles, who retired from his medical nephrology and research career in Boston in 2005 to return to Haiti full time to help them improve their medical and educational systems. I thus got to view the whole situation also through the eyes of the Haitian medical profession, through Roger. During this hectic 2 weeks a lot of time was spent in the car trying to navigate around the rubble strewn city, major boulevards often down to one lane in places or blocked altogether. In the beginning the traffic flowed comparatively smoothly, but as the days passed more and more vehicles gained access to the city, and the traffic became more and more snarled. We had a lot of time in the car to philosophize and strategize about the future.
Many many people in this densely overpopulated capital city had fled out to the non-damaged areas of the country, having no home in the city anymore, and having a great fear of further quakes wreaking even more havoc and loss of life. This is effectively reversing the overpopulation density problem affecting Port-au-Prince since Papa Doc bused them all into the city for his speeches 40 years ago, stranding them there.
…I will continue later. Jim