Saturday, February 27, 2010

'Gus' looks back toward Haiti

Gyslain Auguste was one of the most beloved members of the Charlotte team of relief workers. Members of the Haitian Heritage and Friends of Haiti described "Gus" as the "big brother" of the group. The one with the jolly laugh who was always calm and never got upset. 

Over breakfast this morning in the Dominican Republic, I asked him to reflect on his two weeks providing earthquake relief in Haiti.

Why did you come to Haiti?
I came to respond to the calamity of the earthquake that affected so many people. I’m a native Haitian and it was fitting for me to respond in the way that I did so I could help in some small way.

Something I learned a long time ago is you need to give back some of what you've amassed.

What was your job?
My job was to manage one of the tents that housed 40 patients with various degrees of injuries. They had depressed skull fractures. Some of them had lost limbs. Some of them had neurological problems. Emotional problems.

What was your goal?
My goal was to touch at least one person’s life and help them through their suffering. And to share with them some of the resources that I had professionally and emotionally.

Do you feel you had an impact?
I certainly do.

What touched you the most?
The response. The acceptance that my patients had. Haitians normally do not hug, especially men. And they were hugging me, pulling me, shaking my hand, smiling, and voicing their appreciation for what I did. It touched me very deeply.

What frustrated you?
The lack of supplies when you most needed them. And seeing people being deprived of simple things like toiletries and things that they really need for daily living.

What will you remember?
The smiles. I will remember the positive response. The people that I met of different backgrounds. And the sheer goodness that I have seen among other people who came to help their fellow human beings.

What will you try to forget?
I’d like to forget that this earthquake ever happened. But that can’t happen… I think I have more to remember than forget. I don’t think I’ll forget anything because it's just a film that you can play over and over. It keeps bringing back memories. 

Friday, February 26, 2010

The children: Sad and inspiring

The young victims of this horrific natural disaster have been the most painful, yet inspiring part of this experience in Haiti.

Kids, as young as two, must now face an uncertain future without a leg or arm.

Yet they’ve maintained their curiosity. They even flirt strangers.

More than 45 children are being treated at the Sacre Coeur Hospital in Milot.

When asked to describe her job, Sabrina Joline told me: “We’re medical clowns….

“We do undercover PT.”

It’s been fascinating watching Joline and Ashlyn Armistead do their work inside the pediatric tent.

Both Charlotte relief workers are younger, perhaps helping the children relate. Joline, 21, whose family is from Cap-Haitien, speaks Creole allowing easy communication. And Armistead, 26, is the “bubble girl.” She’s the one with all the toys, including bubbles, which has fascinated the Haiti children.

While standing outside the pediatric tent, I asked Joline what was the hardest part of working with such young victims.

“My heart is broken,” she said. . It’s hard enough to live in Haiti with both legs and arms. Now these kids have to figure out with just one.”

This boy, Jackie Delva, lost bones in his forehead after doctors stitched back his skull, which had been partially crushed in the earthquake. He needs reconstructive surgery, but

Charlotte team members don’t know if he’ll be able to get it in Haiti.

But Joline said she’s learning more from the kids than she could ever teach them.

“We think we go through things, but these kids have lost an arm or leg or their family and their still fighting. They’re still smiling.”

Armistead said the children, despite their losses, “are still kids.”

“It’s the saddest place, but the happiest,” she said.

Armistead has been teaching several of the children with amputated legs songs that they can dance to. They sing and dance together. The children concentrate on the singing and dancing while Armistead makes sure they’re working out important muscles they’ll need to get by with only one leg.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dear kids: 'Why I left last week for Haiti'

Charlotte doctor Marc Lewin says his children Max, 8, Kate, 7, and Charlie, 5, don’t quite get why their dad came to Haiti. The family physician wrote them this letter to try and explain.

Dear Max, Kate, and Charlie.

I am writing this letter to you because I want you to understand why I left last week for Haiti and because I want you to know how lucky you are.
There was a big earthquake last month in a small country called Haiti and many, many people died. Even more people where hurt and lost everything they had, including their family and their homes.
Haiti is a very poor country and there aren’t enough hospitals and doctors to help all the injured people. On top of that, some of the hospitals were destroyed in the earthquake. This is why I came here, because we have to much and they have so little.

You also know that I speak French and that is the language that many Haitian people speak. So you see, it is important to learn other languages.

The hospital I am working at is made up of a bunch of a very large tents in a field. I am the doctor for Tent #2, which has thirty-five women, some of the them are pregnant. All of them have serious injuries.

Let me tell you about one. Her name is Virginie. She is twenty-seven years old. Her whole family was killed in the earthquake. She was trapped without food or water for fifteen days until she was rescued. She lost her right arm and has a badly broken right leg, which was fixed with surgery. She is learning to walk again now.

I can see in her face that she hurts with every step, but she never complains. Instead, she tells me “thank you” many times every day for helping her.

This has been my experience with all the Haitian people. They are warm and grateful and never complain.

I feel so terrible for these people who have suffered so much and yet I think they have a lot to teach us about being grateful for what we have. I hope that, somehow in your lives, you will learn this.

I love you and I look forward to seeing you at home soon.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

'This quake and mission has become part of my history.'

Charlotte pre-med student Sabrina Joline said she was scared and unsure when she returned to her earthquake devastated nation. But she was inspired by the strength and spirit of her patients. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
Why are you here?
I am from Haiti, and my people needed help. My colleagues needed help and my family needed help.
Tell me about what you’re doing?
I have served as a childcare specialist with Ashlyn, a physical therapist with Fabbien, a nurse, and mostly a translator. I will be learning physical therapy exercises for children with Fabbien and Ashlyn.
Is there one patient who impacted you the most?
It’s hard to just mention one patient because all of them had an impact on me. Jenson, a 13-month-old with hydrocephallis child, taught me how to truly nurture and unhealthy baby. Sandia, 3, and Yvlene, 3, who have broken legs, taught me how to laugh even in the worst situations. And this list goes on.
How do you hope to help them?
I hope I can keep their spirits up and take their minds off their situation. Also some people at home are willing to adopt an entire family, so maybe we can get some of these patients adopted and taken care of.
What inspires you?
The spirit of my people. From an outsider looking in, it seems as the ones who are in distress are the doctors and nurses. The patients are strong, courageous and appreciative. They inspire me.
What frustrates you?
Not being able to do more.
The needs are so great. Do you feel you can really make a difference?
A little goes a long way. Just by translating, changing dress wounds and feeding the patients, I’m able to allow the doctors and nurses to relieve some stress. By doing that, they can be more productive.
What will you remember most?
Fortunately and unfortunately, everything
What will you try to forget?
Nothing, this quake and mission has become part of my history.

'Can you imagine'

Matt Lord is one of only four physical therapist for 250 patients at Sacre Coeur Hospital. So many of the patients have lost a leg or arm. They need as much assistance as possible preparing for an uncertain future in a country unequipped for so many physically challenged people.

Lord, 29, who works at Presbyterian Hospital, was struck by the story of one young patient who shared his story on his journey to the hospital in northern Haiti.

An accounting student at a university in Port-au-Prince, Verdou Mensou, 21, was in class when the earthquake struck. He is unable to remember most of what happened, but he says he was trapped for up to five hours when he was pulled out of the rubble. They put him on a bus for victims needing treatment.

Verdou lost consciousness again on the bus. He was out so long that riders thought he died. Lord said the young man told him he woke up in a pile of trash with eight dead victims.

"Can you imagine," Lord says.

When someone noticed him moving in the trash, Verdou was picked up and taken to an aunt’s house where he stayed for two days before being sent to Sacre Coeur.

"The thing I found strange is that this boy was smiling the entire time he was telling me about his journey, which is the attitude of most of the earthquake victims," Lord says,

Monday, February 22, 2010

In Haiti, small things have big impact

The conditions these Charlotte medical professionals work under is tough, but it’s even harder on the injured Haitians who often must sleep on the floor and have their open wounds treated in rooms infested with flies.

Vickie Blackburn, a Rock Hill nurse practitioner (featured in Sunday's story on the Charlotte team taking over treatment of evacuees) is in charge of the operating room at Sacre Coeur Hospital. She found a way to make one patient a little more comfortable.

When Blackburn found out an injured mother, Ena St. Pierre, was sleeping on a military metal cot without a mattress, she grabbed her sleeping bag. 

Ena has a crushed spine, infected left foot, and pins holding together her broken forearm.

Blackburn thought Ena could use the sleeping bag as padding. 

Charlotte OB/GYN Dr. Sherma Mortonwho delivered the sleeping bag to Ena, said she was so glad to have it.”

“May God bless you,” Ena told Vickie. 

Blackburn said seeing Ena smile made her day. They took a picture sitting on the pink sleeping bag.

It was humbling, Blackburn said, to see how much Ena appreciated the small gesture. 

“These people have so little and are happy with what they have. They say thank you for everything you do. It is a very humbling experience.”

Friday, February 19, 2010

'Please help me. Don't leave me. Will you come back?'

Dr. Sherma Morton says the post-traumatic stress many Haitians are suffering may be worse than their lost limbs.

The OB/GYN from the Carolinas Medical Center-Pineville has been struck by the mass of emotional injuries she’s seen here at Sacre-Coeur, this northern Haiti hospital, treating more than 250 earthquake evacuees.

Working in a tent with more than 30 female victims, Morton says she’s giving out Prozac because there are so many depressed patients. They spend their days staring at the walls, she said. They don’t want to get out of bed. They don’t eat.

“I literally fed a woman her food today,” she said. “I put it in her mouth.”

Morton, whose family is from Haiti and who speaks Creole, says many of the women just need someone to listen.

They cry out to her: "Please help me. Don't leave me. Will you come back?"

Every night, Morton writes about the experience to family and friends. Here is a little of what she’s told them.

“I have seen so many unimaginable tragedies. This earthquake has spared no one. And now there is soo much that is still needed. God help Haiti.”

“I was able to go back to General surgery and medicine today. It was really gratifying to touch these lives. A school recently collapsed and 4 children were killed and many wounded. Ages 9-12. That is not the way their lives should have ended. They barely had a chance to live. So sad.”

“I found out today that the post-traumatic stress that Haitians are suffering may even be worse than their lost limbs in the earthquake. We can't turn out the lights at night in their outside tents because they start having flashbacks of being trapped when the world fell upon them. The cries of grown men mixed with the screams of children are a few of the things I will never forget.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

'Most have lost a leg or an arm'

A Charlotte relief worker writes in her journal about her first visit to a Haitian hospital treating earthquake evacuees and the children she met.

I asked if any of the team members were keeping a journal. Ashlyn Armistead, who works at Presbyterian Hospital helping children prepare for traumatic medical procedures, said she is and gave me the OK to print what she wrote.

Here is an expert about the group's visit to Sacre-Coeur Hospital in Milot, a 65-bed facility serving more than 250 earthquake evacuees:

Milot was about an hour away. I cannot believe the condition the roads are in here. It takes forever to get anywhere because of how slow you have to drive through all the sink holes. We passed one poor family after another. One of our people threw pencils and crayons out the window for a few kids and you would’ve thought it was a million dollars! Then more kids ran after our bus – it was heart breaking…

The staff at Milot were so happy to see us. They didn’t believe that a team our size would be coming to help. We toured the facility and had a debriefing on the previous weeks. There were so many people there – men, women, children.

Across from the hospital were tents that were an extension of the hospital. It looked like a tent city with cots, people sleeping on the floor and families living outside of the tents.

On our tour, I saw where I would be working – the pediatric tent. I met the doctors and nurses and they were happy to see me. A few even knew about child life! I even met some of the kids. Most have lost a leg or an arm. They were so cute but so sad. I am excited to get started tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On to Haiti: Expecting severe deforestation

I'm in Santiago, Dominican Republic, and about to jump on a bus that will take me to Haiti.
Since I'm going to Cap-Haitien, the bus will cross via the northern border instead of in the south where we entered the country on the last trip days after the 7.0 earthquake.
I expect today's crossing will not be as devastating, but still eye-opening.

On this second trip, I'm anticipating great poverty and major deforestation, which has been a severe environmental problem.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic sit side by side on the same island — Hispaniola. But the Dominican Republic has lush green forests. Haiti, on the other hand, is almost completely bare. More than 98 percent of its forests are gone.
Most Haitians are descendants of African slaves brought over in the late 1600s by French colonizers who destroyed tens of thousands of acres of forest to plant the cane that made Haiti the world's largest sugar producer. More wood was cut to fuel the sugar mills. Entire forests were shipped to Europe to make furniture of mahogany and dyes from campeachy.
In 1804, slaves defeated Napoleon's army and Haiti became the world's first black republic. The great plantations were divided among the residents. Most families got small pieces of property -- not enough to sustain a large family. Haiti is one of the fastest growing populations in the world. Many farmers chopped down more trees to make and sell charcoal.

I also want to share this video with you. This video below represents, in my mind, some of the most powerful moments of my first trip -- how Haitians helped Haitians.
The man in the video, Estime Gesner somehow survived a four-story building falling on top of him. Here he is reeling in pain as Dr. Will Conner of Matthews treats his broken and infected leg. Spontaneously, Linda Pierre, 40, began to sing. Pierre, who had a 10-inch scar across her face and full casts on both a leg and arm, sang "Gen konfyance nin bondye, Gen konfyance nin bondye."
Each time Gesner moaned, Pierre sang a little louder. Other patients and their families joined in until nearly the entire room was singing. "'Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus. Just to trust him at his word."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Photos: AP, Franco Ordonez

Monday, February 15, 2010

Stories from my first trip to Haiti

I'm about to jump on a plane to the Dominican Republic. From there, I will catch a bus to Haiti. 

In case you missed some of the stories from my first trip to Haiti after the earthquake, here are links to the full series. My favorites: Days 4, 5, and 6.

Day 1: Matthews doctor follows heart to help Haiti. Local doctor moved to travel to Haiti to see how he can help devastated country he's worked in three times before

Day 2: Matthews doctor gently cares for Haiti's desperate. Within 10 minutes of parking at a makeshift clinic outside a Haiti hotel, Will Conner prepares syringes to treat a 2 -year-old boy he worries might have typhoid fever. 

Day 3: Doctor sees suffering, but also luck, hope in Haiti. Hundreds of injured patients were waiting for Dr. Will Conner of Matthews early Monday, their cuts and broken bones telling stories of heartache, courage and luck in the wake of Haiti's devastating earthquake six days before. 

Day 4: 'I want to help. And I can help.' Donald Chaudry's transformation into a physician's aid  represents the efforts of Haitians across the country who, despite their own trauma and losses, have found ways to help their communities and country any way they can. 

Day 5: My 5.9 wake-up call: Hallway shaking, pool water rippling. The only reason I was sleeping under the building was that it had rained the night before. Many reporters (and residents) sleep outside in Haiti these days because of concerns about aftershocks following last week's 7.0 earthquake that had ruined much of the capital – and had wrecked half of our hotel. 

Day 6: Images of patients in Haiti follow 'Dr. William' home. The Matthews doctor was  drawn to Haiti by the massive earthquake that devastated the country where he had worked three times before. He leaves with a heavy heart, but determination to continue helping his new friends. 


Heading back to Haiti

A large group of doctors and nurses are leaving for Haiti this week. I'm going with them.

The doctor I covered on the first trip, Dr. Will Conner of Matthews, is returning on Thursday, and this time he's got company. He's inspired about dozen more medical professionals to join him, found a hospital, and got a plane (donated by Hendrick Motorsports).

His team will join another Charlotte group of more than 20 medical professionals and volunteers who arrived in Haiti today. Many of them are native Haitians going back to help their countrymen.

I left this morning. I'll meet the group in Cap-Haitien, the second largest city in Haiti. About 80 miles from Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haitien was not damaged like the capital, but it has been overwhelmed by thousands of evacuees who have converged on the region.

The Charlotte team picked the region thinking it could make an immediate impact. They’ve named their mission “Charlotte goes to Haiti.”

I’ll be telling stories about the Charlotte group, but also writing about the collateral damage from the earthquake that has cut across the country. I hope to use this blog to give a more personal account of some of the experience.

I’ll be updating the blog as often as I can, but you can also follow my stories and updates in the Observer at, and at