When you hear of disaster response/relief what do you think of?
Some of you will be thinking of the recent tornado to hit America and the devastation that it caused to collapsed buildings. Some of you will think of the Urban Search and Rescue from the Bangladesh collapse and other people will think of the death and emotional impact on the victims.
In reality all those images are true, some of the images released recently from the Bangladesh earthquake are shocking and hard to erase once you’ve seen them. However... Disaster relief also involves happiness and joy, in the way of reuniting families, fixing people, improving their quality of life and on my part, completes exhaustion
After the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on the 12th of January 2010, two friends and I worked in Haiti assisting in the relief efforts over a period of 6 months. I was working in a local field hospital fixing/creating medical equipment, providing basic medical assistance in triage and trauma and teaching locals. When providing response it is all about rebuilding the lives of those who have suffered and making them more resilient.
“Give a man a fish he’ll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a life time”
“Hey Blanc give me one dollar” – Getting to Haiti one painful step at a time
Haiti (as seen below) is located in the Caribbean, not far from the coast of Florida, USA. It shares an island with the Dominican Republic and never have 2 countries been so different.
With the earthquake destroying 75% of the capital Port-Au-Prince’s (PAP) infrastructure and basic things we take for granted in everyday life were not functioning, this included the airport, which was restricting its access for specific flights to deliver aid.
I arrived in Port-Au-Prince after spending 3 days in New York City with some good friends. The airport was a complete change to the likes of JFK. Bags were thrown onto the floor and while you struggled to locate your bag – and praying it’s intact- you have then 5 men jumping on you insisting that as a women you can’t carry your bag and that they need to do it for you... Well for the small fee of $3
Walking out of the airport is utter Chaos – You constantly hear “Hey Blanc” or “Give me one dollar” shouted at you. It cab be pretty intimidating. This is where I hit my first big hurdle... No one was there to pick me up.
Walking around for 3 hours thinking maybe they were late/got the wrong flight from New York, didn’t help so I was verging on desperation until I saw an American guy with a bout 15 American teenagers on a church mission trip – They had T-shirts. I went up and asked if he was going to Leogane and luckily it was as if all my past sins (And there are A LOT) had gone away and he said 6 magical words to m.
“YES. Do you need a ride?”
I could of kissed him, so off I went hitch hiking with some of the most conservative Christians from the deep south of the USA. They were some of the nicest people I have ever met and welcomed me with open arms to their bus, which transported me to the Orphanage they ran.
After arriving at the Orphanage they ran, I stayed for a drink and I then went my separate way arriving at the hospital to where a crazy Texan lady greeted me by saying: “You Brit’s sure have some balls”
That pretty much sets the tone for a crazy few months
“We need to transport a 300lb women home as she is dying... Non of the cars are working and we have 1 spinal board, are you up for the challenge?”
The field hospital I worked in was essentially a glorified ($500,000) tent....
Rather often there wasn’t the right equipment, a severe lack of equipment and basic essentials – Including a toilet, running water, food. Therefore, the art of improvisation came apparent to being one of the most sort after qualities, which is where I came to be involved with the hospital.
Due to a complete lack of equipment I was often making bit of equipment to substitute in place of the missing equipment and also fixing various pieces of equipment to deal with the constant demand on the hospital.
FYI – Duct Tape fixes EVERYTHING (especially beds)
Due to often strange and traumatic cases coming through the emergency room/tent I would get some strange requests including: making an oxygen tent for a premature baby, how to transport a 300lb women without a car and fixing an incubator with cardboard boxes.
Due to short staffing and that I had some basic medical training from volunteering with the British Red Cross for many years I was then stationed to assist in the emergency room with triage, orthopedics (broken bones and casting) and providing patient transports.
Among the ailments that graced the Haiti M*A*S*H tent were: - A 6 month pregnant lady who refused she was pregnant - A man who cut off his own finger - Man flu on an epic scale - Malaria - Gangrene fingers - A ‘pregnant’ man – aka severe liver failure, Biology 101 people!!
However a few experiences really stood out for me and have subsequently shaped me into the person I am now today.
Dealing with the Grim Reaper
You won’t know how you will deal with a certain situation until you are faced with them. Dealing with high stress situations, which on occasion ended with the death of a patient took its toll on everyone.
Everyone deals with death differently. It is a harrowing event seeing someone take their last breath and it can take its toll emotionally and physically. You have to treat everyone dying the same way you expect to be treated, with dignity and respect. I held the hands of people while they slipped away and helped clean them to be taken away by their families. Often a lot of the deaths were preventable, but due to the circumstances with equipment failures and lack of medications often meant many lives were lost.
But, as horrible as it sounds... It does get easier to deal with over time and the more exposure you have to death the easier it comes to deal with and at the end of the day all of you working there are in the same boat, so you are never alone. Going for a drink at the end of the day or playing football with the cute kids in the IDP (internally displaces people) camp always is a good stress relief. I think a good sense of humour if vital in disaster relief work.
Beans, beans they’re good for your heart the more you... – Well... unless you fall into a pot of them
The man pictured below was one of the first medical cases I got directly involved with. He was involved in a horrific accident where he fell into a boiling pot of fried beans and bean sauce, essentially covering his whole upper body in scolding hot food.
Due to a complete lack of ambulance service, his friends dragged him in by his arms and legs depositing him on a hospital bed (I.e camping bed held together by duct tape). The job of a select few of us with stomachs of steel to scrub the beans off him, while he was awake. The screams and the smell stuck with me for a long time (and put me off the food), and in a country where the staple diet is rice and beans (as well as mystery meat Monday) there wasn’t the ability to escape the smell of beans for very long.
However, there is a very happy ending to this story. 9 months later and multiple skin grafts he is looking fantastic and he has 2 small children who are an absolute delight to play with.
The night I won the wet Scrub shirt contest: Tropical storm, children and rum
I was often tasked with doing patient transport to the local MSF (medicine Sans Frontier) hospital and to other clinics with in Leogane. But on occasion with more serious cases I’d have to travel the 29km to PAP to the well-equipped hospital set up by Medishare.
One evening when we were incredibly short staffed due to change over day with the Doctors I had to transport a very sick child to PAP for further medical assistance urgently using my good old ambulance ‘old faithful’.
With grey clouds and the imminent rainy season ahead the journey wasn’t looking too pleasant. However, we began by strapping the child onto a bed duct taped down to the deck and making an IV pole from a crutch, which would later hit me in the face every time we would go over a bump.
Within 30 minutes of starting what should have been a 1 hour journey the heavens opened and it was pouring with rain. Within all of 10 seconds I was soaked to the skin, very grateful for the fact I had bought along a spare scrub top with me to put over my very see-through white one.
The journey took a total of 5 hours to reach the capital due to flash flooding and the truck (old faithful) deciding to kick the bucket on numerous occasions – Not particularly helpful to be honest – we finally managed to get into Port-Au-Prince, where we managed to get spectacularly lost. Getting into the capital we were lost due to it being 2am and with the hospital having recently moved to a more permanent location it was proving difficult.
Locating a UN base (with turrets and armed guards) I got off the van and knocked on the steel doors, with a high level of security they would only let me in as a ‘white westerner’ and not my Haitian friend. We finally got directions and a short escort along with a UN doctor and managed to get the patient to the hospital...
After such a long and stress filled journey On the way Derek the administrater and I sat in the back of the truck drinking whiskey and eating Haitian rice and beans until it got to 5am and the sun was rising.
Luckily the team took a great amount of pity on me and let me have a lie in...
“I can Sing like Mariah Carey and dance like Beyonce after a bottle of rum... I swear!”
When you consider working 12+ hour days in stressful circumstances there is a definite need to play as hard (if not harder) than you work. With a famous bar down the road call Joes – and by a bar we mean some stools and open space and a fridge – we took full advantage spending the equivalent of 50p on a beer or 75p on a small bottle of whiskey (or both I’m not really fussy), which eventually leads to that wonderful past time of thinking you look like Beyonce when you dance.
Alcohol we need words... You promised to make me a better dancer..
People mistake Haiti for being a country in turmoil, hopeless and without and real beauty. When in fact, it is one of the most beautiful countries on the beaches and in the countryside. As seen below we would go to the beach every Sunday for a day of rest, the beaches attract a lot of United Nations (UN) and other NGO (Non governmental organizations) staff and it becomes a community and a family.
Overall this experience led me into working abroad in various other countries, gave me confidence I never knew I had and has provided me with life long friends. If you get an offer to do something like this, take it by the horns and enjoy the ride. You will surprise yourself.
How you can get involved with volunteering
There are many ways you can get involved in volunteering. However, it is important to remember you are dedicating your time to this, you will spend a lot of time training and volunteering, so don’t just volunteer for your UCAS application, volunteer because you want too. Because, at the end of the day the more you put into it the more you will get out of it. But here are the different ways
Volunteering locally and raising awareness
This is what I started doing at 16, it is so much fun and you can find a role to suit you. The British Red Cross and Saint Johns Ambulance are 2 large organizations that do a lot with first aid, emergency response and volunteering within the community. THere are also many other organisations that you can get invovled with too. Start an awareness campaign at your school or college, by working alongside a charity and raising awareness you are spreading the message to others, which is so important. Volunteering packages: I’ve personally never done one, but I know people who have done the ‘voluntourism’ packages (gapmedic, gapyear) and they loved it. It’s a great idea to do if you can afford it and as a young adult it gives you a safety net if you have never travelled alone before. However, they are expensive and the money doesn’t always go into the hands of the community and the projects. It’s worth investigating the program further and emailing the company directly to discuss what you could do.