Nursing Times’ Haiti-based nurse blogger Fi Stephenson discovers a modern tale of courage, hope and friendship
I met Nadia, 31, Erlouse, 26, and Linda, 26, at a hospital in Haiti in February last year. The girls all shared a similar story: each had been seriously injured in the earthquake that had dramatically changed their lives.
On bed rest for sustained spinal fractures, they lay on camp beds (cots) side by side, in one of four, huge, very hot and sweaty, overcrowded hospital field tents. I explained the purpose of my visit: Haiti Hospital Appeal (HHA) had a facility where we could look after them and their carers, and help with personal rehabilitation.
At first the girls were very hesitant to come as they had formed a deep friendship and desperately wanted to stay together. But with some coaxing and a promise that they would remain together they agreed to be transferred.
The following day, the girls arrived in their new ‘home’ to start the next chapter of their lives. The thought suddenly struck me: had they actually touched each other since they had met? The answer was no of course not. They were all on bed rest and unable to move. So we carefully moved the three beds so that the girls could hold hands for the very first time. There was a lot of laughing and also a lot of tears …
The three friends would look out for each other, encourage each other, laugh together and comfort each other. They would also cry and pray together. They shared the only pair of splinting boots available to prevent foot drop and would use them in rotation and remind each other to put them on if they forgot!
In March, a spinal surgeon flew in and assessed the girls to ascertain if any were likely candidates for surgery. Out of the three, Erlouse and Linda were deemed suitable and transferred to another hospital for spinal fixation surgery, leaving Nadia behind. In their absence it seemed that Nadia truly missed their company. It was also a hard fact that Nadia was not able to go for a similar operation as she had an enormous sacral pressure ulcer that had to heal before surgery could be contemplated.
During the following month, while Nadia and Linda continued with specific strengthening exercises, they watched as Erlouse learnt how to walk again with the specialized SCI skills of Team Canada Healing Hands (TCHH) and Healing Hands for Haiti (HHH).
In May, it was time for Erlouse to be discharged home with her mother. On the day of her discharge, the three girls were initially very distant with each other. But then the tears flowed as they hugged each other and said their goodbyes. They truly did not know if they would ever see each other again.
Erlouse was very quiet while she was flown by helicopter back to her family and friends in Leogane. She took with her a donated tent, mosquito nets, kitchen set, mattress, sheets and a couple of pillows. These items would form her new home with her mother. Hers had been destroyed in the earthquake – it was one of the walls that had fallen on her and broken her spine. The story was the same for Linda and Nadia; their homes had fallen on them too.
After Erlouse’s departure, the girls kept in regular contact by telephone and we learnt that she had managed to find a job washing clothes in her home town.
Nadia was discharged home at the end of September, leaving Linda behind. Nadia was to move to a home her husband’s family had built on their property. Sadly, she was going home to only part of her family. Her baby, sisters, brothers and parents were all killed in the earthquake. Initially it was thought that her husband had also been killed. Thankfully, some weeks later, Nadia was told that he had been found alive.
Linda was eventually discharged a few days before Christmas. After many months, it was finally proved that her family owned a piece of land just north of Port au Prince Airport, so a wooden shelter was built for her to live in. All three had returned home.
When the first anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake came around, we held a reunion for the Spinal Cord Injury Patients in the HHH Kay Kapab Klinik in Port au Prince; Seventeen SCI patients attended … three of them were the lovely girls themselves!
As one can imagine, the meeting of the three friends was an emotional one. When Erlouse saw Nadia wheel herself into the room in her wheelchair, she shrieked with delight and then carefully placed one foot in front of the other, and walked over to her friend. She bent over and kissed her hello and then started to sob quietly into Nadia’s lap. Nadia held her friend and stroked her hair.
Linda was the last of the three friends to arrive in her wheelchair. By then, Erlouse and Nadia were talking and laughing, catching up on what they had been up to since they had last spoken. It was an absolute joy to see them all again. It was as though they had never been apart - three friends from very different backgrounds - but with one thing in common, finally united again.
It is a hard fact that in Haiti, as in other third world countries, the majority of spinal cord injury patients usually die within the first year following their injury. With the specialised care provided by HHA, TCHH and HHH these women have survived their first year.
With ongoing specialist rehabilitation care and support they will be definitely be many more …