The first thing to hit us was the smell. Warm, fresh, bubbling blood. It came from everywhere; arms, legs, chests, faces, the very ground we walked on. Standing bewildered right outside our vehicle we watched as family after family trudged up the hospital driveway carrying injured loved ones. No waiting for an ambulance since there were no ambulances. No calling for help since there were no phones, or help for that matter. There were only Haitians carrying their kin towards one of the last standing hospitals in the city.
Our guide, Surpris Cherazard, born in Haiti now planted in Houston, TX, immediately scooped his hands under an unconscious man’s body and helped carry him up the driveway to the vast lawn in front of the hospital.
Shaken out of shock, we finally moved up the driveway with everyone else towards the hospital entrance, where Emille, the hospital administrator, stood waiting for us.
“God is good!” she exclaimed with a smile. I was perplexed. Was it the hundreds of injured sprawled before us that was evidence of God’s goodness? Our presence perhaps? Maybe she was just communicating in the only true common language between us: faith. The hospital had been evacuated for fear of collapse, but the lights from within cast a glow on to the grim scene outside. Suddenly the dark seemed like a blessing.
No sooner did I have latex gloves on than did a wave of requests for help wash over me.“Miss! Miss! Please, my sister, my brother!” And so it went. I went from person to person laying in the dark grass, trying not to step on the endless amount of broken ankles and legs on the ground.
Every time I had to explain with ridiculous hand motions and made up French words that I wasn’t a doctor, my heart ached. They saw an American with latex gloves on and thought doctor, how I wish I had been. I knelt over gashes, bones protruding from the skin, entire limbs that had been torn from the body, as if by looking over the problem I was helping to solve it. I felt sick, not from the gore, but from the utter helplessness. Even if I had been a doctor, there were no supplies, not even bandages. There was no disinfectant or water to rinse off wounds.
Eventually the medical director surfaced and said the only thing we could do was to go from family to family, lay our hands on them, sound reassuring and pray with them if they so desired.
Feeling moronic and disabled, I resumed my futile trek from one injury to the next. People were dying all around us. One man gently walked me over to his daughter who had a six-inch gash in her forehead, but more importantly, was gasping for air. I frantically searched for a deeper wound in her chest or her abdomen, whatever was causing her breathing problems. But there was nothing. I kept exclaiming desperately “Ou est il probleme?!” Another French concoction meant to ask, “Where is the problem?” Then I realized that she had an internal injury that was drowning her from the inside out. She was maybe 14 years old, pretty, terrified. Her gasping increased it’s pace as her eyes widened. She started choking out her last breaths, and passed away with my ignorant hands on her stomach.
There was no time to process. I went to wherever I felt a touch on my arm or leg, someone begging for help. At one point three different hands were urging me in three different directions, always gently. Everyone had a reason for hysteria and pushiness and yet there was none. Just soft touches that pulled at the heart more than anything I’ve ever experienced.
The moans of pain in the air were intermixed with spiritual songs to help usher those dying into Heaven. The idea of faith ceased to be some cerebral concept discussed in Sunday school, and had become a moving illustration in front of me. So this is what it meant to really trust God, so much so that you could still be kind and gentle to a useless foreigner when you know you may not make it through the night. I saw a family of five gathered around what looked like a mother figure. Her eyes were slowly rolling back into her head. Hugging each other they circled her, placed their hands on her shoulders and sang in Creole. She finally went to sleep.
I started to develop a strategy of focusing on the positives of those I examined. I use the word examine loosely as I’ve never even had first aide training. “See how the bump on the head is protruding instead of caving inward, that’s a good thing,” I could hear how stupid I sounded, but I didn’t know what else to say. “I know your broken leg hurts but you are going to survive this I promise, just concentrate on breathing.” I would look into their eyes and demonstrate slow, deep breaths, as if we were in some kind of Lamaze class.
I had long lost my companions. I was ready to accept that I may not find them until morning. With a slight feeling of panic, fueled by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness in not being able to treat any of the wounds shown to me, I made my way to the hospital for a moment’s reprieve.
That’s when I saw a group of three in the driveway trying to carry a woman wrapped up in a blanket. They obviously needed another set of arms to carry her legs. I rushed over and scooped the bottom half of her body in my arms. The blanket was warm and soaked through. We gently laid her down near the steps leading up to the hospital door. I pulled my arms out from under her to see that blood had smeared all over my arms, from finger tips to elbows. The woman’s caretakers opened up the blanket for me to see a mangled leg that was practically stripped of all skin below the knee. I signaled with my hands, “just one minute,” and stumbled inside the deserted hospital.
I was running around looking for any water source with which I could rinse all the blood off me. I had long since abandoned my latex gloves. They seemed pointless. I finally found an abandoned bottle of water sitting on a non-functioning water fountain. I poured what I could on my arms to wash away the poor woman’s blood.
I suddenly remembered that I had come on this trip to document, and that perhaps I should film the scene outside, but my heart couldn’t get there. There was so little to offer the suffering, shoving a camera in the faces of the dying seemed like an addition to their already great deficit. So as a compromise I ducked into an empty room and made a quick video journal entry. If I couldn’t bring myself to grab the images outside, I could at least show the raw emotion of the moment in my face and in my voice. You can still hear the screams outside.
I took some deep breaths and steeled myself to exit the hospital. That’s when I saw my mother walking precariously in my direction. “I’m blacking out,” she said. She too had seen the now one-legged woman.
It was soon after that our guide demanded we go to where we would be sleeping. One of our group members had broken down into tears on the hospital steps, and the exhaustion had finally resurfaced in all of us, whether we wanted to admit it or not.
We climbed back into our car and made our way to a dorm-style compound known as Ormisseau, or ‘The Villa’ as locals call it. Famous for housing missionaries of every different religious persuasion, it stood within walking distance from the hospital. We later found out that the Villa, the hospital and other institutions near by were all part of a Seven Day Adventist campus.
We were safe and clean at the Villa. There were showers, comfortable beds, even a room with a soda machine. In missionary fashion the girls departed from the boys as we made our way to our rooms.
Sleep that night, and every other night, was troubled at best. Aftershocks continued to intermittently shake our room and threaten our safety. I knew the next day what I was going to do. A seed had been planted in me at the hospital that night, and the need to return and help would grow ever stronger as our journey progressed. Diquini Hospital to this day has never eased its hold on me, calling me back to the darkness and the dust.