It was awful. I’ll try to start from the beginning of the quake, but I’m sure I’ll jump all over the place. There is so much in my head. My emotions are all over the place. The feeling of helplessness, the despair, the pain of the people, the poverty, the suffering, too many thoughts…….I’ll try again to stay focused and start.
It was just before 5 p.m., since I was kitchen staff (man was that about to change), I was at the sink filling a pot with water to make rice. I hear a rumbling and I think to myself, hummm, a train, no wait that’s stupid there are no trains, I look out the window for a large transport truck perhaps coming up the dirt road, but the rumbling becomes deafening and the shaking starts. Apparently I yelled “earthquake” but I don’t remember, Debbie (our head cook) and I both ran for the only door out of the 2 storey building we were in. As I ran past the staircase a girl (22yrs old) was coming down the stairs, she was halfway down when a big heave threw her through the air, barely missing me and right in front of Debbie. Debbie helped her up and we all headed towards the door again. At the door Doctor (I will not use any surnames) was coming into the house from the porch area. He is in his 80’s, he’s confused, asking what is happening. I grab him into the door frame as I think the overhang of the porch is going to collapse. I yell to people to stand in a door frame. It’s all so fast and confusing, after seconds we all decide to run for it out the house, I’m holding Doctor’s arm to help him walk, he’s wanting his sandal that fell off, I tell him I’ll get it later and make him walk to the grass outside. I’m concerned for Lori in the shower and others in the house. People are crying, at this point the major shaking has stopped. People continue to come out of the house. Lori comes out, still dripping from the shower, I run to her and hug her, we are both crying, I’m so glad she’s okay. She tells me the shower was cracking around her. The people upstairs talk of lights falling from the ceiling, beds sliding across the floor, mirrors falling…everyone is shaking. I’m worried for Doctor as he is so confused, asking “what is happening?” I’m all concerned for the water I left running in the sink (our water supply is precious, this was one of the areas our team was in Haiti to work on). I know this is a silly concern at this time, but it shows how jumbled my thinking was. Debbie puts her arm around me and assures me it doesn’t matter.
We all go further from the house in case it falls. As we stand on the dirt at the side of the road, someone says “look at Port au Prince”. We all turn, and in silence we look at the cloud of dust over the city. No one talks, we know it’s bad. Tears flow, prayers start. I run down the road to the clinic, knowing the people will come. It was silly really because of course people won’t be there yet, it’s only minutes since the quake. I turn and start running back up the hill, panicking now because I know there are 2 huge propane cylinders outside the kitchen window as this is what we use for the stove. As I’m running up a car stops with some of us in it. I ask if anyone has turned off the propane, they assure me it’s done. I go back to wait with our group by the road.
The medical team gets organized, I tell Dr. C. that I have just be recertified in CPR and First Aid. She says to come along as a helper. We all jump on the ambulance and head to the clinic. We get there and people are waiting. Blood, crushed limps, head injuries. We have no light outside…we are given glow sticks. We start going from person to person. Babies are crying, parents begging us to look at their child. Where to start….so many. We begin, we have no choice. All of us realizing we are working outside our comfort zone and capabilities. I will only talk about my contact with people. I go from person to person. The most serious I grab a nurse to look at them, she will in turn grab our Dr. or paramedic from Halton, if needed. The most serious are taken inside the clinic. Aftershocks come, people cry and crawl, run, try to get away from the overhang or walls, staff run gurnies and carry or support patients out of the clinic. The aftershocks are numerous, eventually we stop running patients out of the clinic, the people stop moving away from the walls, I guess we all figure if the building has survived so far, the aftershocks hopefully won’t bring it down.
The injuries….heads gaping open right to the skull, heads swelling, legs/arms at angles that shouldn’t be….compound fractures…internal injuries, fractured pelvis…people with multiple injuries – one woman with severe gash to her scalp, the arm broken and bleeding profusely, they stitch her arm up outside to hopefully stop that bleeding, her knee gaping open, cement dust and gravel in the wound from the cinder blocks that fell on her. This is with everyone, having to clean out dirt and stones which had turned to cement in their wounds. Cutting the braids away from a woman’s gash that ran the whole top of her skull from side to side, trying to flush out the dirt as best as I can, trying to put tape from her forehead to the back of her head to try to close the gaping wound until we can get her in the clinic to have it stapled. Using my broken French to try to communicate, to calm or to try to inform them as best as I can. I don’t understand them too well as they speak Creole, but with a lot of hand gestures and some common French words I am one of the main translators until our official translators trickle in during the night and the next day. It’s all so confusing as you think you have checked everyone with a quick look to ensure the most serious are brought to the attention of the more qualified medical people, but people keep staggering in and sitting, lying all over the place, then you find someone who hasn’t been looked at as you are stepping over the bodies all around, into blood, vomit. Parents trying to get the injured child to sleep, me going over and waking the child, telling the parent in my broken French that the child can sleep but wake them every 20 minutes (we extended the sleep time once we felt the child didn’t have a massive brain injury), and to yell for one of us if they can’t wake the child. Walking by parents holding screaming children and telling them, this is good, trust me I’d rather see a crying child than the silent ones, the dying ones. People in shock…shaking, using cinder blocks to raise their feet up..covering them with sheets…we have no blankets...it’s Haiti…it’s supposed to be warm..the night is cool. They are shaking from shock and cold…we give sheets to as many as we can…I make fathers take off their shirts to cover their children who are in shock…they think the blanc is crazy I’m sure.
One room in the clinic is set aside for the dying. I go in at one point and there is a 12 yr old boy on a gurney, massive head injury, in a coma, our team takes turn holding him, maybe he feels our comfort. Another team member is holding a 2 yr old. There is a girl, not sure of age, late teens/early 20’s maybe, internal injuries, we can’t treat that, no place to send her, she’s alert, family streams in through the night and day to say goodbye to her, she knows she is dying. Later a team member comes out and tells me the 2 yr old is gone, we hug, we can’t break down the people are looking at the “blancs” to stay strong and help them. Few of us shed tears, at least not in view of the people. The 12 yr old dies, I watch as a team member gently cleans his face from the cement dust, cleaning him as best as we can so the mom can come see him, but maybe she shouldn’t see him, his eyes are closed but bulging from the pressure inside his head. They tell his mom outside, she is pregnant, she begins to wail and in Creole for hours she tells his life story in her wailing voice, people are silent listening to her pain.
The only room we have with air conditioning is the lab…this becomes our morgue.
At 1 a.m. I am sent up to our building and made to eat, I have been up since 5 a.m. the day of the quake, they make me lie down…the images flash through my mind, I have a fitful sleep for an hour or so. I am back at the clinic at 3 a.m. I have brought my flash light, this is better than the glow stick. My flashlight is small…I can put it in my mouth as I cleanse wounds. I see a man sitting quietly slumped against the wall, covered in cement dust, blood dripping down his face, I sit beside him and start to gently sponge the dirt/dust away to see how bad his gashes are, he speaks broken English, he says my baby is there, I say where, he says there but he is dead, he’s 3 months old. I look down the bench about 4 ft away and there is a sheet all bundled up..I rush to the baby and another team member runs with me, we pull back the sheet and there is a beautiful perfect little face, so peaceful looking…cold to the touch…not breathing….we cover him back up. I go back to the dad, tell him I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. He tells me he is from Port au Prince…he went to 3 places to try to get help…he was turned away…he took a tap tap to our clinic…the baby is dead now. I clean his facial wounds as much as I can…a nurse comes and cuts away the pad of his big toe which is just hanging from a bit of flesh….he never flinches..he doesn’t cry..his chest hurts…he tells me his house fell around him…he had cinder blocks all around him. He can breath…we can’t fix cracked ribs…the nurse steristrips his facial lacerations..we clean off the dust on his face. His wife is a midwife, we send her supplies to hopefully keep his wounds clean. We tell them to wait until daylight, they have to go home….they will have to take their baby with them…we can’t keep the bodies. Daylight comes, someone asks me if I’m ok to go get their baby. I say yes. I go into the lab/morgue. Someone has wrapped three bodies in one sheet all rolled up…I feel the bodies..the first is the 12 yr old…the baby is in the middle..the 2yr old at the other end. I would have been ok with carrying the baby out of the morgue if he hadn’t been wrapped with the others, I can’t bring myself to unroll the sheet with the 3 bodies. As the bodies relax, gas is passing from them, at first it startles me. I leave the room and tell someone I can’t unroll the bodies, I don’t know who ended up doing it.
A mother motions me over. She is holding her boy, he’s about 6 yrs old. He has a pink slip (we are tearing fluorescent pink post-its in half and this is our sign that the person is complete and can go home). I tell her she can go…she is insistent I look at his head again…I look…the bandage on his head is concave…this is not good..I call a nurse over…she agrees…we start to take off the gauze on his head…the last layer has stuck to his skull bone..the wound is gaping…he wimpers…we need to soak it. I grab a saline bag that was used as a drip for someone and when they change the bags there is always some left in the bag…we use this saline to try and peel off the gauze stuck to his skull…tears stream down his face..he is trying so hard to be strong. We get it off…we put polysporin on it and gently place gauze over it for now. He needs to get in the clinic to have it stapled. He will have to wait again…there are so many to do. Hours later I see him inside finally…waiting outside the suture room to be stapled…his dad is there now..his mom must have finally gone home. I kneel beside him…let him pick a coloured happy face sticker…ask him in French what colour he wants and where he wants me to place it. I place it on his cheek…I tell him in my broken French that when he goes into the suture room it will hurt…a lot…a lot (we have no freezing)…I flex my arm muscles and tell him to be strong in French…he nods quietly. I move on back outside. I come in again later as they are finishing with him…they tell me he never made a sound. His head looks so much better…many staples…but better than seeing skull…the nurse gives dad antibiotics to give him. Infection will kill so many…we all know that.
The fractures…legs twisted in directions that are wrong. We check for pulses in feet. The children’s screams are heard everywhere as the doctor pulls to set the bones correctly…no pain killers…Tylenol. There is some morphine…some get it.
At almost 1pm…a truck backs in…on it…3 men…this is my breaking point…my pulse as I type this is rapid. Keep in mind…this is 20 hrs after the quake. They are burned…one man tells me later that they were working in a kitchen and when the quake came, the propane tanks exploded. One is taken by stretcher off the truck and right into the clinic. I help one walk but then I run to get a wheelchair and try to help him sit in it, but where to touch him..he’s so burned. Others help the 3rd man sit on an outside bench. I try to help…I can’t do burns…it makes me not breathe…I walk away…others help. I go inside the clinic to breathe in a quiet room. When I come out the room the 2nd man is in a room, Dr. W. is attempting to help him…it’s overwhelming…we don’t have proper burn equipment…we open a burn kit…Dr. W. is not happy with it….he is used to top of the line supplies in proper hospitals. He asks me to hold the arm while he attempts to wrap it…I try to hold where it isn’t burn too much…it’s burnt all over. The man does not make a sound, the burns are 3rd degree..the nerve endings are gone for now………As I said…I can’t do burns….I’m not a nurse…I see a nurse go by…I call to her…she is busy..I ask her to please come when she can….I think she feels my desperation….she comes soon…..I tell her I have to go…been up 32hrs now…need to go…she also has been up 32 hrs…most of us have. She stays…..I go.
I go up to the house…I grab a mattress outside and lie down…again….images….I sleep an hour or so. I go back to the clinic. The one guy whose arm I was holding, I’m told has gone home. Later in the day…we help the other 2 burn guys into the back of the truck…they drive off. The walking dead…painful death as the nerve endings return..the infection sets it…it will.
There is a little girl outside…in her Sunday best…a pretty cream dress with lace…her hair in ribbons…she looks 9…I give her a knitted teddy..I tell her to squeeze it when the pain is really bad. I find out later she is 13. Her leg is twisted.. the doctor looks at it..it’s not good…she is the last patient to come…the last they let in for the day. She needs to go to the hospital..we will transport her…the leg will likely be lost. I know her wait will be long again…it’s been 24 hrs already….she will wait days at the hospital. Mom is wanting to vomit…we take her blood pressure..it’s something like 190 over 140…the parents haven’t eaten since the quake. We give the parents food, the girl can’t have, she will be having surgery some time…..Mom nor dad don’t know what blood pressure meds mom is on, they just know she takes pills. We give mom pills. I pack a makeshift lunch and press it into dad’s hands as they are loaded on their make shift stretcher that they had made to carry her to the clinic in, onto the ambulance.
The next day a medical team that had gone into Port au Prince brings photos of the hospital there, I see mom in one photo..holding the girl still it’s been over another day, I guess it won’t matter now, she’s going to lose the leg anyways, I hope it won’t affect her dream. When she was at the Mission of Hope clinic I said to dad how pretty she was…he quickly told me she was not only beautiful but intelligent. She told me she loves school and wants to be a doctor. They are so poor…let’s pray she will one day be that doctor.
I’ll talk about one last boy…. We let him stay over night at the clinic with his sister. He is 8 yrs old and in a coma. We take 3 hr shifts through the night holding him as he thrashes about some times. His sister catches some sleep on a cot close by. We are told that if he dies during our shift we are to fetch the doctor so time of death can be recorded, we are to move him to the lab/morgue and tell the sister not to leave until morning. We have strict instructions that she has to take his body with her. I ask a Haitian man what will she do. He said she will beg people for money to bury him, if not she will leave him by the road and try to forget. She has no money, no job. I’m not so sure he will die, if this is so, what will happen, where will he get physio, who will pay…. She can’t. He will be so damaged, how will she cope. I’m not sure what to pray for in this case.
Bev at home in Kitchener, ON with her family
Some of my Haiti team taken while there, I am the one in the green t-shirt, 3rd from the left.
Some photos taken while in Haiti prior to the earthquake.
Bev returned safely to Canada and just recently sent along this footnote: "The last little 8 yr old boy I talk about, I heard he was coming out of his coma and was transported to a hospital, not sure what will happen to him from there, he has no parents."
View slideshow from Mission of Hope in Haiti about the earthquake and it's devastating affect.
We welcome essays from our readers on any subject
What do you think about when you flashback to your high school years? We'd love to hear from you.
Perhaps you went through something since then that you want to share with your fellow alumni.
Whatever the case, send your memories and photos to Angus Cross at firstname.lastname@example.org or use our contact form.