Thursday, 4 February 2010
Christopher - Day 6 Early Morning
We have now been working at the hospital here in Haiti for over a week and life is settling into a rhythm. Sleep is difficult without ear plugs because dozens of dogs bark all night. Then if there is an after-tremor, there is a veritable peal of barking and howling. We are all living in tents next to a house. It has only one bathroom. The secret is to get up before 5am so that you can beat the queue. Otherwise, it feels like boarding school all over again.
Quite suddenly at 5.30am the cicadas in the trees start their monotonous buzz just like a faulty fluorescent light being switched on. It is just a hundred times louder. Then at 6.15am sharp they stop again just as suddenly and presumably get on with what cicadas do for the rest of the day. Their chain-saw whine wakes all but the soundest sleepers who are sprawled on the sofas and on camp beds in the open trying to find some cool breeze.
Breakfast is quite leisurely and civilised; a chance for all thirty of us to touch base and hear what everyone else is doing and thinking. At this time of day there is never any electricity so I have difficulty understanding the French as I cannot see their faces clearly in the half light and I need every cue that I can get to follow the meaning of what they are saying.
The hospital set up
Then we all pile into an old Land Cruiser for the bumpy ride to the hospital. We weave between rubble, and crushed cars, past lines of people carrying water back to wherever they are currently sheltering. As we pass the Presidential palace with its ornate domes tilted at crazy angles, we enter a large park with the statue of some national hero in the centre.
This is one of the largest refugee camps, a kaleidoscope of clothes drying and tarpaulins covering families. Hundreds and hundreds of people are milling around talking, selling things, trying to feed their children, find water and get some kind of more durable shelter before the rains come.
Around the corner is the Hospital. Its gates are guarded by American troops. They have to be. Even at this time of the morning, there is a queue of hundreds of people waiting for treatment, pushing to be let in. We set up the operating tables as quickly as we can. The Haitian doctors will not arrive for a while. They do not have transport to bring them in, so will get in later.
My first job is to walk around the wards and find the patients booked for today. We write on the dressings when the next operation is due, because although the patients are supposed to keep their notes under their pillows they get wet, torn and lost. So I go from leg to leg, arm to arm searching for the Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde) logo and today’s date.
By the time that I return with my list, the smiling Spanish firemen and women have also found some patients too, and they are added to the list. In the hospital there are now ten tents with between ten and twenty patients in each just for trauma.
Then there is the ‘Jungle’. This is the hospital garden, which has been filled with old beds while tarpaulins are draped between the trees. It is full of patients who could not find a bed anywhere else. The hospital is trying to close this open ward as it is becoming a bit of a refugee camp for those patients who have no home to go to. But as fast as they empty it, more patients arrive. Meanwhile lorries are arriving at the Triage tent travelling down from ‘up-country’ loaded with more patients to be seen.
The working day
We operate for eight hours. I am part of the Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde) French team and being French they bring wonderful tasty things for lunch, and if there is a chance we stop around midday to eat sardines on biscuits and drink tea.
This is clearly a sacred moment for the French and they always look upset if we don’t manage to stop for this little oasis of peace. As soon as the last case is finished there is an hour’s work tidying up and restocking for the following day, then it is back down to the gates to meet our transport to take us home.
Beneath the rubble
Yesterday the building outside the gates was being cleared with a large digger and dozens of Haitians were digging through the rubble salvaging what they could. The smell was terrible as bodies tumbled out.
To me the horror was the thought that some of the people must have been trapped there for hours or even days hoping for rescue which never came. They are presumably some of the parents of the orphans who are causing so much distress for everyone. They would have been at work when the earthquake struck, and it is the big buildings in the centre of the city which seem to have been worst damaged.
I try to relate this whole situation to Oxford where I live. What if the Cornmarket and the High Street were just piles of rubble with electricity cables trailed across the road? The Westgate would be a pile of rubble with over a thousand people buried in it. What if patients from Beckley and Eynsham were still coming in by the lorry load three weeks after the disaster their wounds covered with maggots?
What if there was a crèche of one hundred children on the Marston road, another on the Abingdon road and another in Botley full of orphans of every age, brought together into camps because of the fears about child traffickers, but with no facilities to look after them? I know that it is hard to imagine, but this is what we are living now.
The next stage for Haiti: Reconstruction
This is going to be really difficult. Actually this city now needs to be completely razed to the ground and built again. Those buildings still standing are mostly unsafe while the rest are rubble already. But if you do that, who is going to pay for the rebuilding? This country was bankrupt before the earthquake. It is now homeless too.