It seems like yesterday that I arrived in Haiti, but nearly three weeks later a lot of water has gone under the bridge. By all accounts the initial phase before I arrived was absolute chaos, as people struggled to escape from under the rubble and to understand what had happened to the world around them.
Haiti is not famed for its earthquakes. It has had the odd tremor like many places in the world, but this disaster came like a bolt from the blue. The buildings were not designed to resist an earthquake. There was no contingency plan if one did occur.
But quite literally, within hours, the media were here in Haiti. Reporters are always ready. They are professionals whose bags are packed ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Some of them have at their disposal the resources of multi-national news agencies, that know how to get an airline ticket when the plane is full, and how to charter a helicopter which is already assigned to go elsewhere. Quite literally their cameras are running before their feet touch the ground.
Behind-the-scenes in a rescue operation
It is a little unfair but within hours of arriving they are demanding to know why the medical assistance still has not arrived. After all they have been here for what feels like ages in news time.
Well, we medical workers are all volunteers with day jobs. Our bags are not packed and we have to be invited by a Non-Government Organisation to help. They can hardly ask us to help until they know what is needed. Then they have to put together the team and equipment to support that job.
Perhaps it would give a more realistic picture if the media interspersed the pictures of people being rescued from the rubble with pictures of the Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde) offices in Paris, London, Montreal, Madrid etc with their lights on all night as the staff work flat out to prepare and equip an emergency team?
Then they might want to come into some of our homes to film the conversations that we were having with our partners about whether we could/should go? That might give a more balanced picture of what was going on behind the scenes in those first days.
At first the surgeons coming in and the local surgeons who had survived, were often amputating ruined limbs (about 10% of the surgery we made) as well as trying to relieve the terrible pressure that develops in limbs which have been crushed.
However, within ten days we were able to start reconstructing people’s limbs. In a few weeks from now the long slog will start of fitting artificial limbs and getting people mobile again so that they can start living their lives as independent individuals once more.
The battle for one young patient
It is a sad time. Yesterday we finally lost the battle for another young patient. The muscle death was slowly creeping up the limb poisoning his kidneys. Up till then I had tried to be optimistic with him as he struggled with the pain and the hallucinations produced by the anaesthetics.
I had to sit down and tell him what I had known in my heart for several days. He is only 22 years old and must lose his leg above the knee. The family are heart broken and asked if one of them could be present when we did the final assessment under anaesthetic, just to be sure that it was absolutely necessary.
They sent his 16 year cousin. Brave girl, she had to stand there as I explained and showed her what we were fighting. In my halting French I tried to tell enough but not too much. When she bowed her head, I knew that she had seen as much as she could take, and a nurse led her away.
We now need to start running down our surgical initiative, not because the demand for surgery has vanished - it certainly has not - but because a surgical team was put in place to deal with a special need i.e. to help with the injuries caused by the earthquake. That task is now finishing.
We are now handing all our patients back to the Haitian orthopaedic surgeons and very good surgeons they are too. Their problem is that even without an earthquake, there is far too much work for them.
What is the future for Haiti?
The big question for all of us is what the future holds for Haiti. Is this earthquake going to be a further nail in a coffin already riddled with problems, or could it be used to be the catalyst for some kind of radical change, which would start Haiti on the road to becoming a developed country? Great idea.
Great sentiments, but what could the earthquake catalyse?
Photos by Giorgos Moutafis