Reaching The Wounded In Haiti Fidget

3 Feb 2010 — Soon after the January 12 earthquake pummeled Haiti, Jeff Stein and some friends started making phone calls. Within days, they had formed a nonprofit organization and were on a plane to Port-au-Prince.

Stein, an international relations major, arrived in the devastated country on January 19 with members of the nonprofit he cofounded, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief in Haiti, which describes itself as "working in solidarity with the people of Haiti." The group has been treating injuries, cleaning wounds to prevent infection, handing out vitamins, and caring for patients with preexisting medical conditions.

Stein is leaving Haiti this week and plans to spend a day or two at a team member's farm in Alabama to "decompress" before heading back to Boston. He responded via e-mail to questions about the group's efforts in Haiti and the devastation wrought by the quake.

BU Today: How did you become engaged in Mutual Aid Disaster Relief in Haiti?

Stein: I'm involved in a nationwide community of anarchist street medics. We provide medical care at protests and actions where there are victims of police violence and provide care in our communities. Many of our folks were the first medical personnel into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After the earthquake, friends started calling each other, and in a matter of days the organization was formed and plans to go to Haiti were made.

Why did you want to go?

I knew that big aid organizations like the Red Cross would not provide the care that was needed. Ridiculous and unverified media hype has meant that until recently the majority of aid groups have not been going into the tent cities. I knew that my team and organization would be willing to go to those areas.

Do you have some first aid skills?

We all had experience, ranging from treating wounds from police batons in clouds of tear gas to working on ambulances to running an herbal medicine practice. Our team consists of two EMTs, two Wilderness EMTs, and one clinical herbalist/natural doctor.

How did you get into Haiti?

We were flown in by a group called Missionary Flights International. They regularly fly planes into Haiti, but were doing special flights of relief workers. We're not affiliated, but a member of our group had a contact. Our flight was free; NASCAR teams had donated their planes and pilots to fly in relief workers.

Describe your work.

Our first week or so was mostly treating wounds from the earthquake and aftershocks to prevent infection. Since then we've been handing out vitamins, tending to folks with lasting injuries, and treating people with preexisting medical conditions. It's important to remember that health care in Haiti was terrible before the earthquake; the disaster has exacerbated an already dire situation.

What kinds of injuries are you treating?

We've seen patients with huge chunks of flesh missing, many serious open fractures, head injuries, crush wounds, patients who received bad care and have severe infections, gangrene and necrotic flesh, and many patients with less serious injuries or preexisting conditions.

Where are you staying?

In Port-au-Prince we've been camping out with tarps and tents at an orphanage/hospital in a part of the city near the airport and next to Cité Soleil, an infamous Haitian slum. We're sleeping outdoors, but have a relatively safe and somewhat quiet space, which is more than many can say. We keep our supplies at the orphanage and set out from there each morning.

Can you describe the devastation?

One thing I'll always remember is driving through street after street of pancaked buildings and being reminded by the smell that people never made it out of the structures.

What's a typical day like? How many patients do you see in a day?

Every day is different based on information, resources, and luck. Our first week, a typical day might have been waking at 5:30 a.m., packing medical supplies, piling into whatever vehicle we had, and setting out for an area that we knew or had heard needed aid.

We would set up a small clinic with some other medical folks and treat patients for several hours, some days probably treating 40 to 100, but we weren't counting. Sometimes we would transport patients to hospitals.

Once we had done as much as we could for one tent city, we'd use the afternoon to provide care at another location, scout out parts of the city we hadn't been to, go to the World Health Organization warehouse to requisition supplies, or attend United Nations Health Cluster meetings. We couldn't really work after dark, so around six or so we'd head home, spend a few hours on a gravel pile decompressing and planning the next day, and get some rest.

Have you ventured out of the capital?

We spent the last two days traveling to, in, and around the city of Jacmel. From Jacmel we spent about two hours bumping up a river and riverbed in a pickup truck to provide care to rural villages that, while only 25 miles as the crow flies from Port-au-Prince, are a different world. It was really valuable to see that the chaos and bustle of the capital are not the only part of Haiti, that the country is multifaceted.

What's the biggest challenge?

Keeping my head and focus in the midst of overwhelming devastation. The sheer number of people who need food, water, medical care, and shelter is incomprehensible.

The biggest rewards?

The most rewarding parts have been the times we've gone back to tent cities we had visited a few days earlier to check on patients. It's really beautiful to reexamine a huge gaping wound days later to see that it is clean, free of infection, and healing well. In addition, making connections with Haitian people we've worked with has been rewarding, enlightening, and quite possibly the most valuable part of the trip.

This has been one of the more meaningful experiences of my life. The opportunity to witness firsthand the ineptitude, pointless fear, and implicit racism of many aid workers and organizations has deeply impacted my views on disasters and recovery. More importantly, I've seen the ways people unify in the face of extreme tragedy, protect their communities, and force life to go on.

This experience has convinced me that times arise when we all need to do what we know we need to do, regardless of implied danger, obligations, or naysayers.


Cynthia K. Buccini (2010 Feb) "Reaching the Wounded in Haiti: Student drops everything to dispense medical care to earthquake victims." BU Today

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