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Blog, Media, Politics, World

Messages From Haiti: Behind the Scenes of the Disaster


This post originally ran on Mediaite and The Huffington Post

Each generation has its history-changing, world-altering moment. Over the past decade, my generation has been faced with some pretty heavy moments. September 11th. Hurricane Katrina. The Tsunami. And now, Haiti. If actions define who we are as individuals, then our collective responses to these moments are what define generations. Now is the moment for us to respond and help those who have fallen rise from tragedy.

Tragedy brings us together, and mass tragedy can unite us in ways that are so primal, we question why we don’t always feel this way, why we don’t always help. Sure, we text and donate for a bit, sending supplies and money, but soon enough, we’re going to get distracted or forget that a nation in our hemisphere lost close to .5% of its population. For a sense of scale, .5% of America’s population is 1.5 million — or the population of Philadelphia or half of Los Angeles.

Our generation has the ability to affect change. We can recognize the moment, because we’ve seen more than our fair share, grab it by the horns and make society better, stronger. We can do this because people like Dr. Scott Sundick and organizations like CRUDEM are leading the charge.

*****

On January 14, 48 hours after the decimating earthquake in Haiti, I was sitting in my nook of an office inside my apartment in Brooklyn, reading through my friends’ Facebook Status Updates when I saw this:

Scott Sundick: Going to Haiti saturday am as planned, but not elective surgery this time. – Jan. 14, 12:27 p.m.

I’ve peripherally known Scott for a few years – he went to college with one my friends from high school – and like many of my friends’ friends, we get along and are buddies on Facebook.

Scott is a general surgeon at Saint Barnabus Medical Center in Livingston, NJ, a long way from a nation where 14% of children die before the age of two; where the per-capita annual income is $330; where unemployment hovers 70%; where potable water is rare. As of 2006, Haiti ranks 149th of 182 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index.

Scott Sundick: The poverty here is worse [than] national geographic, and the people are sicker [than] the tv dramas. Its like MASH. – Jan. 16, 5:11 p.m.

In an email correspondence, Scott tells me how he went from the suburban sprawl of New Jersey to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (I did not edit Scott’s emails for content, but added brackets for context and slightly edited for grammar. He was typing on a Blackberry, so predictive text was working in all its splendor):
A senior attending from my hospital plans a trip to operate here [in Haiti]. Our trip this year just happened to be this week, and we arrived on Saturday [January 17]. We flew into Cap Haitian and are staying at the Crudem compound, which services, and basically runs the Hospital Sacre Coeur.
Scott and his fellow volunteers, Dr. Stephen Fletcher, who is the attending, and Dr. Melissa Alvarez, another 5th year resident, are with an organization called CRUDEM. According to their web site, CRUDEM, an acronym for Center for the Rural Development of Milot, was founded in 1968 by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart of the Montreal Province.

Hôpital Sacré Coeur is the largest private hospital in the North of Haiti. Located in the town of Milot, this Haitian healthcare facility, with 73 beds “has provided uninterrupted service for 23 years.

Taken from CRUDEM’s blog:
Hopital Sacre Coeur is located in the town of Milot, about 70 miles north of Port au Prince. Although the distance seems short, it is a 7 hour trip by car – even before the earthquake made so many roads impassible. The hospital remains operational and is just now starting to receive patients who are being transported there by US Coast Guard helicopters.
70 miles. Less than the distance from New York City to Philadelphia. This distance posed a slight problem immediately after the quake.

Scott Sundick: In haiti. Awaiting a US Navy helicopter bringing patients directly to our hospital. – Jan. 16, 3:54 p.m.

From Scott:
When we first arrived, they were not bringing patients here, and [for] over 2 days we basically communicated that we were sitting I’m [sic: in] an empty hospital with a trauma team while people needing surgery to save their limbs or their lives were dying in the street.
Scott Sundick: People are being shot in the street in port au prince because they are not receiving surgical treatment. We are here with empty operating rooms and trauma teams waiting for patients. Just get them here. – Jan. 17, 7:10 a.m.

“Eventually the US coast guard, and then the Navy began transporting patients to us from Port Au Prince for care. Now we are working non stop in 3 OR’s and doing what we can with limited equipment and dwindling supplies.”

A day later, these status updates trickled in:

Scott Sundick: Now they are flying patients in non-stop and transferring them from other hospitals. I guess they finally realized we are here. – Jan. 18, 2:12 p.m.

Scott Sundick: The UN has officially sent troops to our hospital, and the US navy stopped by via helicopter with injured patients. – Jan. 18, 5:18 p.m.

Scott Sundick: We now have a steady flow of helicopters, 2 an hour, coming to us. Exhausting. – Jan. 19, 1:50 p.m.

*****

There are many reasons doctors spend 8 years beyond undergraduate school. They are not only being trained to save lives, but how to react to tense, pressure filled situations that the rest of us — e.g., communications majors — will never see.

Scott Sundick: We just got a patient who was injured, and Haitian doctors had done an amputation in the street, with no anesthesia – Jan. 18, 5:21 p.m.

Doctors and rescue workers, as we all know from the reporting we’ve seen, are working in the dark. Lack of supplies, lack of communication and lack of order add up to chaos. Chaos leads to panic and those emergency workers on the ground in Haiti are crisis experts, calming and soothing patients as they line up for life-saving operations that, in a different nation, could have been prevented by simply cleaning the initial wound.

Haiti is becoming a nation of amputees. The images coming out of the country are harrowing, to say the least. But more disheartening is that many of the images of amputees are of children.

From Scott:
So far the biggest problem now is that we are running low on supplies.

The word is out, and people are being brought in the back of pickup trucks and busses.

The major problem was with the delay in caring for people. At this point, and at the point when we have been getting people, it is too late to save the limbs. We are forced to amputate to save the patients life.
Scott Sundick: It is getting harder and harder to work as the number of kids younger [than] 3 are requiring amputations – Jan. 19, 1:43 p.m.

Scott Sundick: Children are arriving by helicopter with tape on their foreheads saying their parents were killed. – Jan. 19, 9:57 a.m.

*****

Scott and his colleagues at CRUDEM are saving lives and are working around the clock. Others on the ground in Haiti and millions around the world have their attention focused on this ravaged island. At least for now. It is our responsibility to do what we can – whether it’s texting donations or putting together care packages of basic supplies: band-aids, Neosporin, aspirin, water.

Again, from CRUDEM’s blog:
The CRUDEM Foundation has been working in Haiti for a long time; it will be there for a long time to come. Even for a stable, respected organization such as this, the road ahead will be increasingly challenging – both for the hospital and for those who receive its services. The high number of amputations is creating a need for crutches and prostheses – items that are not typically stocked in large numbers. As patients are able to be released from the hospital, they will need a place to stay. Many will need to remain in the area in order to receive follow up care. There are few houses in Milot – most people live in shelters constructed of tin. But they are committed to share what they have. The hospital and the community will do what needs to be done. But they will need help.
Scott Sundick: Now its getting hard. people are dying in the hospital from their injuries. You don’t check labs because they take too long, and you could not give blood anyway, but you can’t delay surgery because they will die from waiting. – Jan. 20

CRUDEM and other thinly stretched organizations are proving that “hope” is not a four-letter word. Let’s stare down tragedy and death and effect change. We can use this disaster as an opportunity to rebuild a nation, but also to rebuild what it means to be human. There is no color; there is no class distinction; there is no gender inequality; there is no politics. There’s just people. People who need help. Let’s use this tragedy to sustain the inherent goodness of the human race.

 

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.

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