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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/17/10

Annette Vander Ploeg: How We Became First Responders to Haiti's Earthquake

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Welcome to OpEdNews, Annette. Last month, you were either in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time. Please tell our readers why you were in Haiti in the first place.

I was one of 23 people who were on a team sponsored by Little by Little, (liitlebylittlehaiti.org) a nonprofit foundation focusing on pediatric medical care. Started by Sue Walsh, a nurse practitioner who teaches at UIC, groups of medical personnel (and non-medical, like myself) have been going several times a year for five years. This was my first year. We had been there a week, planning on leaving the 13th when the quake hit on the 12th.

We work in a clinic approximately ten miles from Port-au-Prince which was built by Mountain Top Ministries (MTM) in Gramothe, Haiti. MTM was founded by a native Haitian, Wilen Charles, whose vision for his people and this village has made it a model for sustainable living in all of Haiti. He is responsible for bringing water down from the top of the mountain to the village so they could farm by terracing the side of the mountain. They now have clean water from several points in the village. As he was able to raise funds, a church, a school, preschool through high school, and a medical clinic were built. Little by Little has been responsible for taking medications every year and stocking a pharmacy. Because of these efforts the children of Gramothe have no worms and parasites. This is not the case in the surrounding mountain villages.

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The clinic is only open when teams, like Little by Little, come to staff it, usually three or four times a year. The week we were there, over 1000 children and their families were seen at the clinic. When the word spread that the clinic was open, people walked for hours from mountain villages and cities south of Port-au-Prince. When we got there each morning, there were hundreds of people already waiting in line. I, a clinical social worker by profession, assisted the nurse practitioners in numerous ways, scribing, blood pressure, weighing. Not speaking Kreole, communication was through eyes and touch and a few French words. The poverty and hard lives of these people were staggering. Their kindness and strong spirit were inspiring.

On the morning of the earthquake, I and a few members of the team, visited the preschool of about fifty beautiful children, all in clean, bright yellow dresses and shirts. The children sang a song for us in their language. One of the children who sang for us that morning was later fatally wounded by a falling rock from a avalanche as she walked home from school that afternoon. She was brought to the hospital where our team had gone to help. She still had her yellow dress on. I will always hear that song in me.

Please tell us about what happened next.

I was walking with several team members on a rocky, narrow, dirt road up the side of a mountain when the earth started to shake. I thought at first that I was dizzy, perhaps from the walk down and then up another mountain side. But the ground kept shaking violently, so we flung out our arms for balance. I am not sure how long it lasted. At first, I couldn't believe it was an earthquake. At that moment, we heard a crack and turned to see a huge side of the mountain fall into the river bed we had just crossed over.

We were shaken but kept walking quickly about another mile to the home where we were staying. Although there were not too many homes along the way, nothing appeared damaged. As the team arrived back at the house (some having already arrived in pick up truck and on ATVs), we tried to take in the realization that we had just felt an earthquake. We tried to contact family in the States, but Internet and all cell phones were down. We naively pondered whether this would effect our flight out the next morning, not comprehending that a earthquake might close an airport at a minimum!

Within an hour, a cell phone call came in that some people were hurt in the village. Several team members climbed on the ATVs and rushed back several miles down our side of the mountain and up the other side to the village. When they got to the dry river bed, which is used almost like a road in the dry season, a father came rushing up carrying his child, whose head had been badly crushed by a falling rock.

With my husband, David driving, and nurse practitioner, Sue Walsh, carrying the child, they were directed down the rocky river bed to Baptist Mission Hospital five miles away. Followed by the Haitian missionary, Charles, they arrived to find hundreds of dead and wounded people filling the four-room hospital, with only one doctor and two nurses.

Charles came back to our house and asked us to come help. We piled in the back of a pick up truck for the rocky trip to the hospital. On the way, we tried to cut up scrubs into strips to use for triaging patients. One of the nurse practitioner students (all of 28 years old!) had disaster training. She instructed us to tie different colors of strips of cloth, depending on what care they needed.
We could not have imagined the chaos at the hospital when we arrived. It was dark outside by then. (The quake struck about 5 PM.) There was no triaging to be done. There were no supplies: no bandages, gauze, no sutures, no IVs, no pain medications. We ended up using the scrubs to sop up blood.
Wilen took the pick up truck back to the clinic at Mountain Top Ministries and filled it with suitcases full of medical supplies and medicines from the clinic, much of which we had brought into the country with us the week before. So, for the next six or seven hours, all of us, medical and non-medical alike, provided medical care to victims of the earthquake.

Wounds were deep, arms, legs, knees were severed. I am not a nurse, let alone a trauma nurse. Remember M*A*S*H? That's what I felt I was in. I am sure we saved many lives that night in large part due to the medical supplies that came from the clinic. We had antibiotics. It wasn't until we finally got back to the US and I heard reports on CNN how people were dying because of no antibiotics, that I fully understood.

One young woman, maybe 18 years old, had one eye crushed by the rubble. There was a deep, gaping wound above her other eye as well. While the nurse practitioner tried to clean and bandage up the damaged eye, I tried to clean the other wound. The young woman pointed to her closed eye. Opening it with my gloved hand, I saw a little stone which I was able to remove. Blood still dripping down her entire face, and in unspeakable pain, she whispered, "Merci." I have many memories of that night but I seem to be always drawn back to this one. I have been warmed and comforted by her kindness over and over again.

We left the hospital by 2 AM, when there was no one who had not been seen. The hospital is built on the edge of a cliff, and aftershocks had been rocking it all night. There were two rooms with perhaps twenty beds each. There were several people to a bed. And the bedding was dirty and bloody. It was hard to leave. The little girl from the preschool died in one of those beds, with her mother and father at her side.
Our group was trained and prepared to bring medicines and provide clinic medical care for the week. We were not trained nor prepared to provide disaster relief care. Although difficult, with our hearts broken, we knew we needed to get back to the US. With the airport shut down, no communication, only sporadic Internet connection for the next few days, we tried to decide how to leave. We had gas left only for one trip to the airport. On Friday, the 15th, we went to the airport, and for the first time, saw the devastating damage in Port-au-Prince.
We waited on the tarmac for eight hours and were gratefully led onto a US military cargo plane at midnight. We stopped in Charleston, SC to refuel, then on to Mc Guire Air Force Base in New Jersey. The military was really quite wonderful in the care and attention they gave us. Most of the people were Haitian evacuees with US passports. There were cots and blankets, Red Cross kits of essentials, hot showers, food, clothes if needed, phones and computers to connect with family and make travel arrangements. I was most impressed by a video in Kreole for the children to watch! Interpreters made sure the Haitians were understood. I couldn't help but think that Katrina had really taught us something!
My husband and I, along with Sue and Brian Walsh, the founders of Little by Little, were taken by bus to Philadelphia. There, we got a commercial flight back to Chicago. We arrived Saturday night the 16th of January, four days after the earthquake, thankful to be home.

Wow. What a story! What do you suggest for people wanting to help? And do you plan to get back there any time soon?

Joan, as you might expect, I would encourage people to look at the Little by Little website ( littlebylittlehaiti.org) to learn of the work our foundation is doing Haiti. The site has paypal. A donation to Little by Little means that ALL the monies will be used to bring health and wellness to children living in Haiti: primarily, in providing health care, but also meeting basic needs, food. clothing, shelter. Working with the Haitian missionary who founded Mountain Top Ministries, we have first hand knowledge of the needs and the way the funds are spent to meet the enormous need.

I am troubled by the stupidity and arrogance of people (loosely called "missionaries") who have used this tragedy to exploit children and families in Haiti. Little by Little is committed to building family connections and providing supports to give hope and make that possible. We have no religious affiliation.

I will not be able to return until next January. Little by Little will have a team going in May, '10, as planned prior to the earthquake.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to my experience, even though some of it is yet unspeakable.

Thank you so much for talking with me, Annette. Welcome home and good luck to you!

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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