I was compelled to make an effort, more than usual to respond to this tragedy. I decided to somehow get involved directly with the relief effort and in this way express my solidarity with our Haitian brothers and sisters. As a volunteer of the American Red Cross (ARC) I already called the local chapter to inform them of my disposition to go to Haiti as soon as possible however, decisions as to who and when goes to Haiti in the relief effort was and is decided by the Federation of the Red Cross and Crescent Society of which the ARC is a member. No volunteers were being enlisted. The task of the ARC for this disaster was to raise funds, which it did very successfully. According to a report from the Federation "more than 80 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have raised more than $700 million dollars for earthquake relief, recovery and reconstruction since January 12..." The Red Cross and Red Crescent emergency plans proposes to assist 300,000 people for three years at a cost of approximately 204 million dollars.
I signed up as a volunteer with "Iniciativas de Paz", a small non-governmental organization (NGO) in Puerto Rico that decided a few days after the earthquake to organize mobile clinics in Haiti to attend to communities that were either not getting any relief aid or the aid was taking too long to arrive. The called came in and I got ready to go to Haiti.
I was in Haiti for barely a week (rotating teams are asked to volunteer 7 to 14 days), between the 5th and 12th of March, seven days of which three were used in traveling by air and land to and from Haiti via the Dominican Republic. A team of between six and nine doctors (two of them Haitians and one wonderful pediatrician from Colombia), five nurses, a person in charge of security and myself as an epidemiologist (I collected data on the prevalent diseases in the communities we visited), and a team of translators comprised the mobile clinic. My other assigned task was to keep the flow of patients more less in order as they waited their turn to see a doctor.
In four days of intense work, we visited the neighborhoods of Lavoux and Martissant in Port au Prince, and for two consecutive days we visited a internally displaced camp at a soccer field just beyond the town of Petit Goave, a two hour drive West from Port au Prince. We quickly raised two big tents, one with portable chairs and small tables for each doctor and translator. The other tent was the pharmacy, organized and managed by the nurses that constantly provided the requested medicines to each doctor. The clinic attended to 1,517 patients in four days, of which 64% were women and about 17% children less than five years of age.
At base camp we discussed what we were seeing everyday. A doctor summarized it best: the main complaint of the people we were attending is hunger. Hunger is the underlying condition that is made worse by the prevailing diseases such as diarrhea (leading to dehydration), respiratory infections, intestinal parasites, head lice, etc.
One of the greatest harms comes from drinking non-potable water which in some places like the soccer camp, is an obligated risk that is taken to quench the thirst even though it will maintain the vicious circle of illness and hunger.
And so the tragedy passed in front of my eyes constantly. Haitians that survived the earthquake now have to survive the terrible routine of not having much to eat, nor clean water to drink, in addition to having to sleep in a shelter made of a few rags tied between four wooden stick and a piece of cardboard as a bed.
How to get rid of that terrible acidity in the stomach because of having it empty for so many days with no food? The Haitian mothers invented a food staple that it isn't but they eat it just the same. It is a bit of soil mixed with oil or butter and cooked in a wooden fire. What comes out is a big pale pastry that the children eat it. They ate it before the earthquake, and they eat it after the earthquake.
On the last day in Haiti, the visiting team said its goodbyes to the Haitian translators. Willie a 12 year old boy with a big heart develops great fondness for all those that come to work in the mobile clinics, and every week, with the rotation of teams Willie gets sad. At the end I thanked Willie for the great lesson he gifted me with. And that is his great capacity to love strangers, his humility and his disposition to do a great job in communicating the patients with the doctors. I told Willie that he was a hero for the simple reason that it is he that is staying behind and figures it o ut how to survive. After a week of living in some discomfort we were returning to the security of our homes. The big difference of course is that we returned with our readjusted life priorities, rejecting the unnecessary and the frugal in our lives. This is the great message from Haiti that we should all attune to.
The first night back in Puerto Rico, as I was about to lay in my clean and comfortable bed I realized for the first time in my blessed life that I have the privilege of not having to worry about having clean water to drink the next day. A worry that Willie and millions of Haitians share.
The work that we did in a week is truly a drop in the ocean, but as my wife remarked when I told her that, it is nonetheless a precious drop. Next May or June I plan to go back to Ayiti and contribute with another drop in the ocean.
Finally I want to close by saying that you need to realize that it is the Haitians themselves that are helping each other with great love and generosity, sharing with each other whatever they have amidst the overwhelming uncertainty and the constant pressure of hunger and thirst. This exemplary Haitian solidarity is complemented by the work of several non-governmental organizations doing what is most needed now.
Sean Penn and friends are working to improve shelters before the rainy season here: http://www.jphro.org/
Doctors without Borders extensive work is shown here:
Sending Love and Light to Haiti
Diego E Zavala
Member of Amnesty International-USA since 1981
Red Cross volunteer since 2006 (after the Katrina disaster)