Volunteer nurse reflects on experience on January 14
By Anna Morrison
We loaded our supplies and boarded the small charter plane in the dark on Thursday morning, only 36 hours after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince. There was a simultaneous air of sobriety and excitement that surrounded us. Our team of doctors and nurses was thrilled to be a part of some of the earliest medical response to the victims of the earthquake, but we also knew that the agony and suffering that awaited us were far bigger than we were and would be beyond anything our training and careers might have prepared us for up until this point.
The hour and a half flight was mirrored by another hour and a half spent circling the Port-au-Prince airport, awaiting permission to land. We grew anxious and afraid that we would be prohibited from landing and our efforts to help would be stymied. Over the loudspeaker from the captain, the announcements came in waves, “We are 2nd in line to land.” “We have been bumped to 4th in line.” “Folks, we are now slated at 6th in line to land.” Our hopes grew dim. This could go on all day.
Finally, after what seemed like endless, dizzying loops around the coast and mountains hugging Port-au-Prince’s devastation, we were given the go-ahead to land. A collective sigh of relief was released, as we had probably never been happier to touch-down in all our lives. To describe our state of readiness and emotion as “chomping at the bit to get out and help” would have been an understatement. We were charged and ready to get to the people who needed us and the wait to do so had only intensified our resolve.
After a short, dust-choked ride on the back of a transporter truck, we arrived at the airport-based UN compound where we would spend the next several hours treating severely injured patients inside two airplane hangars that had been converted into makeshift hospital wards to house the endless stream of injured that flooded the compound. Both hangars housed about 200 patients each and each patient could be found lying on a standard green military-issue cot. Hovering over most cots were a myriad family members of the injured, some appearing desperate, calling and reaching out to us, others just seem dazed, eternally staring out into nothingness. Next to some cots, often those of small children, there was no one, a noticeable emptiness in the vast sea of bodies that crammed the hangars. These were the newly orphaned we’d heard about and would hear so much about in the coming days.
Before seeing patients, we held a brief strategy meeting with Project Medishare Co-Founder, Dr. Barth Green, Executive Director Ellen Powers, and Dr. Enrique Ginsberg as to how best to divvy up the daunting tasks before us. As there were only two nurses in the group, one nurse was assigned to each hangar of 200 patients, a nurse to patient ratio of the likes of which we had never seen before. Our first task as nurses was to ensure that every patient who needed it received a tetanus shot. We rounded up small armies of volunteers, taught them how to administer shots of anti-tetanus serum and set them about the task of inoculating patients.
Once the shots were administered, it was of highest priority to dress wounds to prevent infection, hang IV fluids to fight dehydration, and to administer antibiotics to those who needed it. Again, we instructed teams of volunteers who had shown up throughout the day as to how to properly dress wounds and set about literally cleansing hundreds of wounds and changing hundreds of bandages. Additionally, we hung dozen of liters of IV fluids and administered as many antibiotics and pain medications as we had brought with us, but unfortunately supplies were limited as these were yet early days. We also assisted in the air evacuation to the United States, Dominican Republic and other countries of dozens of critically injured patients who would have otherwise died in our care for lack of the proper monitoring and interventional equipment.
In all, it was a highly productive day and night of intense patient care and, although, we were physically exhausted and emotionally laden with all of the suffering that we had seen, there was a sense of accomplishment in having been able to do so much inside of only a short 20-hour trip. We had come and seen what needed to be done and were bringing back the message to our colleagues loud and clear. Port-au-Prince needed major medical attention and a solid and continued medical presence, and as we have seen, UM and Project Medishare and their volunteers have answered that call in ways immeasurable.
Thank you to Project Medishare for allowing me to be a part of that early mission to assess the situation and to treat as many patients during that first visit as possible. I have since been able to return to Port-au-Prince and to the newly-built UM/Project Medishare Field Hospital and serve a five-day rotation as the acting Director of Nursing of that facility. This second tour of duty was also a great honor and an experience I will never forget. I was privileged to work with some of the greatest hearts and minds in medicine from around the world in a spirit of solidarity and teamwork that I have seldom experienced elsewhere and under some of the most challenging conditions I have ever worked in. It was the kind of context in which miracles happened every day and I feel so thankful to have been able to be a part of Project Medishare’s invaluable service to the Haitian people.