As reports of the devastating earthquake in Haiti poured in, my sense of sadness and concern grew. I previously had gone on several medical missions to Haiti, and knew all too well that people there could ill afford such destruction and devastation. As a physician, there was no question that I soon would be departing for Haiti in order to help in any way I could. I took a leave of absence from my practice and, with the support of my family, I prepared for what would be a most physically and mentally demanding endeavor.
I volunteered my services to several organizations, many of which were eager to have not only my medical skills but also my fluency in Haitian Creole. I eventually joined a surgical team comprised of surgeons, anesthesiologists, operating room and post-surgical nurses, a physical therapist, and a biomedical engineer. These were medical professionals from all over the country who put their lives on hold and answered the urgent call after the deadliest natural disaster in world history. None were familiar with or had previously been to Haiti, and understandably did not know what to expect. As the only one with extensive experience with and understanding of Haitian culture, I served as a resource for the team.
Because there were no reliable flights into Haiti, we all gathered in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, for the trek into Haiti. We were met at the airport by Harrison Ford, the actor, humanitarian, and pilot, who had volunteered to take us to Haiti in his 10-seat airplane. After a one-hour flight, we almost did not find the dirt airfield in a small town two hours outside of Port-au-Prince, and we experienced a hard landing. It eventually took four trips to ferry the team and our equipment to Haiti. It all seemed so surreal, flying over an exotic land in a small plane and landing in a dirt field with Indiana Jones at the helm!
The town where we landed had been spared the devastation of the earthquake and had some infrastructure. Trauma patients had been brought to this area in hopes of finding medical care at a government-owned hospital. What we found was a poorly maintained and equipped 1920s-era building that lacked electricity, air conditioning, and running water.
The medical care was rudimentary, with nonexistent surgical or wound care for earthquake victims. Wards were open-air, where mosquitoes and flies feasted on patients and their wounds. Food and materials for patients’ hygiene were provided by family members, with patients often receiving only one meal a day. An outhouse was available for the ambulatory patients, with family or friends assisting the non-ambulatory. Many of us had brought high-calorie nutrition bars and candies, and we fed those to our patients to give them sufficient calories for the healing process.
We immediately went to work triaging patients and using whatever supplies and antibiotics we had brought to clean and prepare infected wounds for surgery. We worked from early morning to sundown to take advantage of natural sunlight. We used battery-powered headlamps when the sun went down and there was still work left to do. For two weeks, we worked through the heat and humidity, knowing that our patients faced the same conditions.
Our accommodations were adequate, as we had small beds and bed screens in a newer building not far from the hospital. We had nonpotable cold running water from a rainwater cistern for washing. We were provided with bottled water and adequate amounts of Haitian food for our consumption.
Many of our patients had endured multiple fractures, hacksaw amputations of their extremities, or severe burns from outdoor cooking in tent cities after the quake. Our patients were all so stoic; anything we did to them paled compared to their initial trauma or amputations without anesthesia. The local population was so appreciative of our presence; we were always treated with the utmost respect, and we all could sense the gratitude. At no point did we feel unsafe or threatened, even when we took early-morning walks through the town or the countryside by ourselves. We also were involved with several complicated pregnancies; one involved a patient with severely high blood pressure and her baby who most probably would not have survived without our intervention and medical management.
The above are examples of the many horrors we treated. The majority of our patients did well and were stable enough for us to transfer their care to the Haitian nursing service when the time came for us to leave.
On the last day, I traveled to Port-au-Prince, my birthplace and where I lived until age 9. It was so heartbreaking to see the magnitude of the devastation firsthand. What I had seen on the news could not begin to approximate what I saw firsthand. There was so much more destruction and there were so many more people displaced than could be conveyed by the small screen, and now there was no more infrastructure or life-sustaining activity in an area already severely impoverished. The city had an overwhelming stench with all the unrecovered bodies still under the rubble. In spite of all this, people continued to interact peacefully and assist each other in the daily struggle for life.
My childhood home, my school, my church, and everything else I remembered in Port-au-Prince had been destroyed. However, the people of Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in Haiti seemed resilient and determined to survive this ordeal, however grim. As one American volunteer remarked in a letter to his community back in the States:
“Port-au-Prince residents, despite their difficult housing situation, are busily carrying on with the business of life – no one I talked to there seemed to be wasting any time on self pity. They are focused on survival – especially where their children are concerned. These are incredibly strong and faith-filled people. I am frequently amazed by the way that people there who have lost everything they owned and many of those they loved manage to be something that we affluent people struggle to be in the best of times: cheerful.”
I continue to provide financial help to charities serving Haiti, and will again volunteer my medical services to Haiti next year. I hope that as Haiti fades from our news cycle, we won’t all forget that it will take a lot of help for the people of Haiti to eventually recover from this disaster.
A biographical note from Greg Kernisan ’78: “My family urgently fled Haiti and Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s secret police when I was 9. We settled in New York City, where I learned English and the wondrous American traditions of liberty and opportunity, eventually graduating Princeton, Class of ’78. I am presently married with two children, and practice pediatric anesthesiology, with a teaching appointment at University of Connecticut Medical School. I had been on several medical missions to Haiti before the earthquake, and returned to Haiti in November 2010 to assist during this most difficult time. As a Princeton alumnus, I hope that our community can be kept informed of some of what happened and be reminded that much more needs to be done.”