Monday, January 24, 2011

'I left Haiti leaving small pieces of my heart behind'

The Observer asked relief workers who traveled to Haiti in the aftermath of last year’s earthquake to share their reflections about the experience. To read more of the published accounts from local relief workers visit home page of This Land. And also take a look at the Observer Special Reports page on Haiti.

Debbie Jonas (photo: blue shirt holding green bag) is a 41-year-old physician assistant with the Conner Family Health Clinic in Matthews. She traveled Dr. Will Conner and a team of Charlotte doctors and nurses in February Cap-Haitien working at a 65-bed hospital that was converted into a 250-bed MASH unit to help treat earthquake victims. She treated 16 patients -- almost each one with amputations -- in a concrete classroom that had been converted into a medical ward.

"One year ago the earthquake that decimated the country of Haiti provided a rare and precious opportunity for me to see first-hand the strength and optimism of the Haitian people. Below is an account of my experience in Haiti:

In times of global crisis, people are able to truly witness the very best people have to offer. February 18th was the beginning of a journey in which I was able to witness the very best people had to offer. Through the gracious generosity of Hendrick Motorsports – our medical team was flown directly into Cap Haitian for a week-long, medical relief effort for the refugees of the Haiti Earthquake.

Our team was fortunate to serve at the Sacre Coeur medical compound in the small town of Milot, Haiti. Outside the gates of a make-shift medical compound, Milot appeared to be a simple rural Caribbean town: Dense green foliage, banana trees, dirt roads, street vendors trying to sell their wares to passer-bys. But within the walls of this make-shift medical compound existed an entirely different world.

I had 16 patients in my unit – a concrete classroom building that had been converted into a medical ward, and the adjoining side had an additional 28 patients – practically each one with amputations. Each morning I entered Salle A and greeted my women, 'Bonjour mes amies' – and without fail they would each greet me back. These women were lovely, graceful, appreciative, dedicated to getting better, and strong. I mentioned on more than one occasion to my teammates that we could learn many lessons from these women: How to face adversity with faith and strength; Living in the moment; Focusing on all of the blessing they had versus all of the losses they had sustained.

Our morning began with an hour commute to Milot and we began seeing our patients by 7:30-8:00 and would work straight through until 5:00 each afternoon – the commute back was considered dangerous after dark so our days were limited to daylight. The time flew by – rounding on patients, assuring their pain was being controlled, dispensing medications, reading notes from the specialists the day before, consulting with the physical therapy team, administering mid-day meds, dressing changes. The days flew by….then night would come and worry would set in…..would they receive their pain meds through the night? Would they receive their injections of Lovenox to prevent blood clots, would the women get any rest, or would they continue to have horrible nightmares about the earthquake that rocked Haiti?

Solange, a 23 year-old female, sustained a fracture in her lumbar spine, resulting in paraplegia. During the aftermath of the quake she was stuck in the rubble with so much pressure on her pelvis that when she was pulled from the rubble, her entire backside was torn off as she was pulled to safety. This woman was in excruciating pain when we arrived – a challenge in any setting but worrisome in a setting of primitive medicine.

Jean-Pierre Azir, a 30 year-old female sustained a fracture to her left femur and arrived in Milot, with the hardware of an external fixator attached to her thigh. This woman and her four children survived the quake, only to be separated so that she could receive the medical treatment to repair her leg correctly. Her youngest child is 4 months old.

Anne-Marie Milieu, was a 41 year old female who had suffered a right femur fracture, damage to the nerves in her left forearm, a scalp laceration, and an injury to the popliteal artery that required surgery. This woman who had serious wounds worked through her physical therapy exercises every single day without fail, and only admitted to discomfort from the exercises, with persistent prodding.

These are just three snapshots of hundreds upon hundreds of patients from the Haiti earthquake. Each of these people had their own story of loss and survival. And while all of their injuries were different, and their prognoses varied from case to case, one thing was certain – there was hope in their eyes. Hope that their bodies would heal. Hope that they were receiving the very best medical care Haiti had to offer. Hope that Haiti will change for the better. Hope that people will never forget Haiti.

I left Haiti leaving small pieces of my heart behind with each of my patients, but these gracious souls gave small pieces of their hearts to me to take home. So while my heart is whole again – it is forever changed."

Photo: Jeff Siner, The Charlotte Observer

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