Have you ever promised someone that you want to truly help people? While interviewing for medical school, I guarantee every applicant has muttered these words, and rarely followed up with the true action of helping people at a sacrifice to yourself, or your family. I was one of those persons until January 19,2011 when I joined 10 relative strangers to travel to a foreign land with the sole intention of making a difference in over 1,000 lives. Thanks to the efforts of Guiga and Leo Vieira and Robert Ferreira, founders of People For Haiti, numerous medical missions have succeeded in treating thousands of people who, at no fault of their own, have not had access to medical care, proper nutrition or clean running water leading to contagious infections, skin diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, rampant sexually transmitted diseases, and an abundance of diseases we, as medical students, only saw in text books.
I must admit when I first heard about People For Haiti through Leo Vieira, I could not wait to travel there and help the needy. As soon as I was notified of the need for a physician to go, I did not hesitate. As the trip drew near, I became somewhat apprehensive, realizing I was leaving the comforts of home, my family and loved ones, not knowing what I would face.
While flying into Port Au Prince from afar the island looked wonderful but as the plane began to land, we flew over some of the poorest conditions anyone could imagine. Thousands of small blue and white tents covered the land and trash filled the gaps between the tents. I thought, oh my gosh, where have I landed and what am I about to see?
While driving from the airport I was amazed at the poor living conditions; words have no place here. Thousands of people in horrible living conditions doing whatever they can just to survive, no clean water just a filthy river with hogs and kids swimming together. Tent after tent for as far as the eyes can see with a backdrop of gorgeous mountains. Trash everywhere and people walking through the trash and searching desperately for their next meal. What have these people done to deserve this? Nothing, they are victims of circumstance. Is there any way 11 people from a foreign land can help? Only time will tell.
As we arrive at the orphanage we are greeted by 50 beautiful smiles on more beautiful children than one can imagine. Your emotions quickly switch from fear and sorrow to comfort and joy. These kids latch onto you and never want to let go. They are starved for attention as are the millions starving for food. I felt like Santa Claus; anything I did for them, as simple as taking their picture to holding their hand, filled their hearts. But they filled the volunteers’ hearts 10 times greater, as it is far greater to give than to receive. I then realized my life had changed for good. Finally, I could help hundreds of people by my mere presence.
Quickly, 11 strangers had something in common. Now we each knew that we were going to make an impact and this unifying energy lead to a camaraderie far beyond words. I became close friends with total strangers in the blink of an eye.
Being a Pain Management Specialist and Anesthesiologist, I knew I was outside my field of training, but I also knew I could quickly remember how to deal with the medical conditions we would see simply by asking my colleagues Vakesh and Robert, both of whom I have the utmost respect for. When we arrived at the first village for clinic, I was once again horrified at the people’s living conditions. There was no running water, wood huts rested on dirt and pigs walked on the grounds behind us and trash was everywhere. When the clinic started and I saw how every Haitian resident made their best effort to dress as nicely as possible, bringing in that human element and reminder that, to no fault of their own, they live here, They still have pride, they still have smiles and they still need and want medical care. I loved the patients, I loved the ease of which we were able to see patients and I commend my friends for doing their jobs. I told the group that night, that our job as physicians was easy; we were trained for this, but the rest of the group was totally outside their element. They did an awesome job and should be proud of their great accomplishment.
Each evening after clinics, the 11 total strangers formed bonds and friendships that will last a lifetime. We shared funny, sad and down to earth stories. I gained tremendous respect for each one of them as the days went by. Every morning I went outside to work out in my make shift gym and used the orphan children as my weights. I have never enjoyed a work out as much as I did with them. We didn’t speak the same language but they knew what to do. I truly miss those kids.
On our way to the second clinic in the mountains, we were truly faced with adversity, but you wouldn’t know it by the pictures from the trip. While the cargo truck was going up a steep incline, our 5 gallon jug of Gatorade spilled off the back, followed by our 5 gallon jug of water. The only water we now had was whatever each of us had individually packed plus a small amount to mix our medicines. Nobody complained and everybody continued to trek on knowing we were here to help, not lament on the problem. This clinic was inspiring, sitting in the mountains and watching the patients come in droves, dressed their best, hoping for help. My colleague, Dr. Vakesh, was a true hero when he astutely diagnosed a severe case of meningitis. He treated the patient extremely well and definitely saved his life. Our group volunteer, Karen, stayed by the sick child’s side and never relented in her care of him. Unbelievable.
While walking down the mountain, I got ahead of our group and found myself walking with 3 Haitian children, ages 14,10,and 8. The oldest spoke very good English and asked me if I would be his friend. “Of course I’ll be your friend”, I told him. A few moments later he said to me,” I am hungry Mark, do you have any food?” I remember someone gave me a PBJ sandwich and I reached in my backpack and handed it to him. While I was zipping up my backpack I saw him run to his brothers, cut the sandwich in thirds and share with his brothers. That was so beautiful; he didn’t have to share, but he did without hesitation. Those are the Haitians I got to know… loving, caring, and sharing.
Our final clinic was located on the grounds of our orphanage in the hot blazing sun. Eleven tired, yet enthusiastic volunteers, working relentlessly as the crowds gathered one more time. It was such a pleasure to see this fine oiled machine work in perfect harmony once again. When the clinic finished we all went back to our quarters to share stories and reconnect with our families back home. That’s when one of our Haitian friends come running up to us yelling that a lady arrived in the orphanage in labor. Dr. Robert and I quickly assessed the situation and realized this was a premature delivery in progress. We were able to get her onto a table and while every volunteer began to do their jobs, her water broke. My hands were immediately filled with the feet and legs of a dead fetus about 18 weeks old and clearly beyond saving even in the best of conditions. With the guidance and help of my colleague, Dr. Robert, we were able to deliver the head but not without a very difficult and trying time. I’ll never forget the look of this stressed patient and her loving husband as we had to tell her of the babies unfortunate demise, yet deep down I knew she would have died if we were not there to help. She probably never knew that; she only knew that she lost a child that day. Those are the Haitians I got to know… suffering, wanting and lamenting.
As we left the orphanage on our final day there were tears, hugs,kisses and sorrow, but we all knew we helped people that desperately needed and wanted us. While driving back to Port Au Prince, we were faced again with the harsh realities of the Haitian life. Tents, trash, famine and disease as far as the eye could see.
Upon our arrival at the orphanage in Port Au Prince, I realized this was a completely different place. Here, 102 children were barely surviving. It was so sad to see. As opposed to our orphanage, there was no rejoicing when we arrived. There was only numerous children running around with severe signs of malnutrition from lack of protein and 40 % of the children were completely naked. What did they do to deserve this? Nothing. They were born into the wrong place at the wrong time. I quickly told myself that this is the place I intend on sending all my children’s clothes. This is severe poverty. We must fix this. How can this exist in this day and age? My colleagues were visibly upset, as was I. On my next trip, I hope this orphanage will look completely different, with well nourished children that are fully clothed.
- We were 11 strangers brought together by one cause.
- We took 1,100 pounds of supplies to positively affect 1,100 lives.
- We will never be the same, we will only be better.
- We all owe this to one lady with a dream of bettering this world. Thank you Guiga, for all that you do and thank you for allowing me to see the world through your eyes.
Mark Hashim, MD