Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Mind-Changing Response to Visiting Haiti

By David Serota, Filmmaker with International Medical Corps

That is what this is. That is what Haiti is. On every level. In every way. From the Haitian people. To the people who were compelled to come here. All the way down the rabbit hole -- to me.

Standing in the rubble that was once Port-au-Prince and Leogane (the actual epicenter of the original earthquake) you are instantly struck by what those in the media could not capture and our Western sensibilities cannot address. I tend to enter a 'situation' with a "you know what they should do" mindset. The places I have been fortunate enough to travel to have reduced this knee jerk response to a certain extent but Haiti might have changed it for good. Changed me -- for GOOD.

Landing in Dominican Republic at night was like waking up in a dream. No sense of time or place. Driving through city streets, not sure what is on either side of you. It could be the ocean. It might very well be a cliff. A late dinner with most of the team I traveled with in DR Congo last Spring (Margaret Aguirre, International Medical Corps’ Director of Global Communications, and film actress Sienna Miller) and we headed back to the hotel. An early morning taxi pick up and then off to the airport once again for our flight to a place that was once the only thing on television and is now barely a mention on CNN or in the NY Times.

Woke up late and rushed down to meet everyone in the lobby. Our taxi wasn't there. So we grabbed another one and headed for the airport...the wrong airport. This not being realized until we got there. Through morning rush hour and then along a Caribbean coastline we motored to the right one. Luckily the plane we were on was delayed so we made it with plenty of time to spare. A reminder. When traveling, what can go wrong, will. Journey on.

Upon landing in Port-au-Prince you are thrown into the melee to come. Plane cargo trucks backing up to open bay doors where they throw your bags with impunity and then out into a traffic jam of people trying to exit gates that are dressed with people in need. Begging for something to make life...livable. Fortunately, the chaos was made easier as we were met by Andy and Crystal from International Medical Corps. International Medical Corps arrived less than 24 hours after the quake to deliver emergency assistance and I am here to document their long term response to Haiti's recovery. Crystal is the communications officer for the operation and Andy is our security advisor. International Medical Corps always travels in convoys. It is important to ensure safety, strength in numbers, and because people can always pile into one vehicle if the other breaks down. It is not for show and it is not for insurance reasons. It is standard operating procedure and another one of their lifesaving methods. Aid workers are often targets of violence. Three have been kidnapped in the past week here in Haiti.

The destruction is everywhere but it is hard to absorb. It felt like it could have happened 5 minutes or 5 years ago. But then it digs in a little. There are people in there. Hundreds of thousands of them.

One of my favorite parts about traveling with International Medical Corps is that they employ the local people and none more important than the drivers. This time we have Steeve. He is 27 years old. Learned all his English from television and music. Always in an oxford and slacks. Always rocking out to hip hop. They take you everywhere. They navigate the traffic and streets like they went to school for it. Avoiding pot holes that would have swallowed you up. We learned about his friend. Trapped in the quake. Steeve was at school for thematics. When the quake happened he jumped from the balcony. He and a few others went looking for a friend. Found him. Trapped. Only identified by his sneakers. They could not reach him. So for 10 days they passed him food and water with a rope. Eventually. Nobody took the food.

International Medical Corps has set up a guesthouse in one of the remaining structures still standing. They have 39 full time staff and around 59 rotating volunteers. It is compound like. High walls, metal gate, armed guards. But inside it feels a bit more like a college fraternity house. People live out of duffle bags, even those on 6 month rotations. Everyone is from a different country but they all have one thing in common. They have traveled extensively. Mostly doing aid work. They LOVE what they do.

The courtyard is a tent city. Not only because there are not enough rooms to house everyone but aftershocks are still prevalent. There was one last night. We threw our stuff down and were out the door to our first location.

The morning after the quake, a Port-au-Prince local, Joseline Marhone, opened an emergency clinic under a grove of trees adjacent to the wreckage of the Church of St. Pierre in the St. Louis area of Port au Prince, just a few miles from downtown and began treating the injured. Several of her medical students quickly joined her. A tent was erected, canvas sheets were put up and mattresses were hauled in to create a 13-bed in-patient section to the clinic. She sleeps in the pharmacy, which is outside. Her dinner table is an Igloo cooler and her bed is a worn out piece of foam. She tells me this with the most beaming smile you have ever seen.

At night we gather on the terrace, download our days and unwind with drinks and dinner. Everyone getting to know one another. Exhausted, I climb into my tent and go to bed. The sound of chickens who do not know what time it is, gunshots and screaming babies serenade me.

Early the next morning we take a long drive out through Leogane, a town by the sea. That is where we board a small motor boat to visit one of seven mobile clinics International Medical Corps is operating on that part of this island nation. Before the quake this area had never received any kind of medical attention due to the steep hillside making it only accessible by water. Once we arrive we immediately saw International Medical Corps’ presence. A field clinic steps from the beach outfitted with basic medical supplies. They even provide mental health specialists for those with psychiatric needs. It is a sight to see. We felt welcome. I thanked them then and I thank them here.

Dina Prior is the head of the Emergency Response Team in Haiti. Her job is to setup International Medical Corps after a disaster. Imagine that. Trying to coordinate, triage and implement a scalable RESPONSE in the midst of a communication blackout, in a city still shaking and still on fire. That night at the guesthouse she details for me the the first days. A rock star in every way.

There is an amazing lighthearted nature to the staff. Perhaps a primal response to the intensity of their days. The fight and then their flight. Save a life and pal around. All in a days work here.

Today we went to the general hospital downtown. The buildings were all left uninhabitable so International Medical Corps has set up tent clinics for every issue imaginable. TB and AIDS patients, an intensive care unit and a pediatrics ward just to name a few. While in the ICU a young girl went into cardiac arrest. The alarm on the monitoring machine sounded with the audible scream of a flatline. A doctor raced to her bedside and immediately began chest compressions. Nothing. More doctors. More compressions. Still nothing. They move on to the defibrillator and finally to adrenaline injections. Nothing. The tall doctor pressed with all his might. It was his first day on the job. The heat inside the tent was almost unbearable. The RESPONSE of International Medical Corps to save this girls life left me in awe. 20 minutes later, when many thought he should have given up, she responds on her own. Her future is unknown. Although her blood flow was maintained by the chest compressions brain damage might still be a result. The irony of tomorrow's health care vote is not lost on me. Every life deserves a fighting chance.

After that we went to an internal displacement camp of approximately 40,000 people in an area called Petionville. We went to visit Sean Penn and his personal efforts to address the disaster in Haiti by focusing his attention on these people alone. A gigantic task and an admirable one. He used his own financial resources to deliver a RESPONSE that is effecting change for thousands of individuals. Unfortunately the camp is set on a hill so when the rains come it will not be sustainable. We walked up that hill to the top where we found Sean and his camp. Both modest and dialed the compound is very cool to see. We chat for a short while and once again take a walk through the camp with our guide Pastor Sincere. Yes, really. The people stop you. The people thank you. I am overwhelmed by the RESPONSE.

Sean passes by in a small 4×4 vehicle and gives us a lift back up to the top of the hill. He stops and interacts with many of the camps residents. They know him. They like him. There are no cameras here. This is not a photo op. This is who he is.

Back at camp we talk about the upcoming rainy season and he details his next steps and we all trade observations and opinions. Unfiltered. Same team here. Sean says something that stuck with me. "The Haitian people are punished for their strength." It is true. In every Haitian you meet you see it. You feel it. They are STRONG.

Thing is, nobody is protected from the upcoming hurricane season. Housing for both International Medical Corps and the Haitian people is temporary. When the storms come...

Tomorrow is our last full day and I am sad. Not by what I have seen but that I am leaving. That is my RESPONSE. Haiti is in me now. And I will come back.


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