Saturday, January 12, 2008

January 2008 Trip 11

For most outsiders, Haiti typifies a failed state of insurrections, poverty and social malaise. It has always stood out in the media as the dark side of Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the more laid-back Dominican Republic. But a look beyond the headlines reveals a kind and deeply spiritual people, who reach back to their African roots more than any other Caribbean nation.

Haiti’s difference lies in its history: after independence in 1804 the country was isolated from the full brunt of European colonial influences. Art, influenced by the fascinating Vodou culture, has dominated life ever since.

Although Haiti’s lack of infrastructure, grinding poverty and ravaged environment may leave even the most hardened traveler somewhat shell-shocked, it is still a very rewarding place to visit.

Lonely Planet – Caribbean Islands 2007

It took me several days to recover from this last trip. The week usually ends in physical fatigue and emotional overload. If the mere traveler is “somewhat shell-shocked” then visitors to northern Haiti’s government hospital have reason to be extremely shell-shocked. Fortunately all the patients and crew members of the voyage survived the record breaking trip, both parties being tested to the physical limits of the human body. Mentally and spiritually we were all transformed by the events of the week.

Several new team members accompanied us on the trip:

  • Cris Sherman DO – orthopaedic resident, Riverside, CA
  • Ed O’laughlin MD – anesthesiologist, Baltimore, MD
  • Terry Piper MD – orthopaedic surgeon, St. Louis, MO
  • Christy Piper – pre-med student, St. Louis, MO
  • Chuck McDonald – physical therapist, St. Louis, MO

In addition to myself the returning members were:

  • Maria Adrian MD – anesthesiologist, CURE Santo Domingo, DR
  • Lucia Hernandez – nurse, CURE Santo Domingo, DR
  • Bernhard Ahrens – architect and hotel owner, Santo Domingo, DR

A mob of Haitians on strike at the border caused some delays en route to Cap Haitian, but after some negotiations with group leaders we were able to convince them to let us pass. We had to leave our vehicle behind but were able to load ourselves and our equipment onto a truck on the other side of the border and complete the trip. Some of the new team members seemed to be somewhere between amusement and fear during the whole process.

Not until we arrived at Hospital Justinien did it become clear to our first time teammates what the motivation was behind the perseverance it took to transact the border crossing, assimilate our medical team, equipment, and travel the distance to Cap Haitian. The first day of the trip we saw over 140 patients including some follow up visits on some of our previous patients. We operated 37 patients some of whom had bilateral or multiple procedures. In between each case during the entire week we would evaluate more patients, change casts, and transfer patients amongst other things. Dr. Sherman commented that the time we were working least hard was when we were scrubbed in and operating. Although many of the traumatic injuries we saw had occurred in the weeks and months prior, we treat them as orthopaedic emergencies knowing that if we do not take care of them nobody will. Two nights during the week we operated until 4 am. Fortunately the inverter we installed last year gave us uninterrupted power throughout the week and allowed us to operate late into the night without delays and additional risk to our patients.

Another encouraging aspect of the trip was the progress made with our Ponseti clubfoot casting program. Our Haitian technician “Mano” has progressed very nicely with his techniques. He was able to participate in a refresher course in Port au Prince in November that was organized by Andy Mayo and Kaye Wilkins. His reputation is spreading and many children are now coming at earlier ages and the results have improved dramatically.

The week also allowed for a bit of time to meet with the hospital administration and some of the surgeons to better understand their needs and formalize some of our goals for the future of these trips. Bernhard played an essential role in these meetings. Not only is he a great help in improving the physical plant – water, electricity etc. but also is an expert at international communications, empowering the people, and breaking down the some of the barriers to progression.

We go to serve – without pay, but inevitably return with more than we give.

The angels of heaven join us in helping others. They are sent to minister to all who need and choose to be saved, and when we open our doors to help the poor and suffering, they join us, bringing a holy atmosphere of joy and peace. Every helpful act of mercy makes music in heaven.

Jerry D. Thomas, Messiah, Pacific Press 2005