Fi Stephenson reports on the harrowing aftermath of the Haiti earthquake
It is difficult to start this news. It is sad I am afraid and just a small part of this country’s day to day reality.
This week we have had a lot of rain. The roads have potholes within potholes. The 98% de-forestation means that when it rains, the top soil just gets washed away and channels and ravines are created instead.
This particular day, there had been a mild tremor felt in Cap Haitian, during the night. Nothing new really. Unfortunately, albeit small in comparison to the earthquake, the recipe was complete to create another unwanted natural disaster for these already suffering people.
Saqib, our team doctor and I were busy at work at the Spinal & Rehabilitation Unit. Carwyn, the main co-ordinator for the Haiti Hospital Appeal popped his head around the door and said that he had had a call asking for the ambulance to attend a school that had been affected by a landslide. We quickly put some equipment together and jumped into the ambulance. What should we expect? A school, landslide, rain were all menacing words when put in the same sentence. I took some airways, resuscitation equipment, intravenous fluids, cannulae, gloves, gauze, saturation monitor (gold dust), BP machine……
Splashing and swerving through deep muddy craters in the main road, into and through, Cap Haitian finally got us to the school.
The scene was one of chaos, and it was raining. The school was on the side of a hill, with a big metal gate and wall at the front. The road was filled with onlookers, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, friends, teachers. Most of the children had already been evacuated. The noise was indescribable; wailing of distraught women, in shock at the prospect of children being injured. Other people were shouting. Dr Toussaint , the Medical Director of our Clinic and Hospital was there too. He was trying to console his wife and sister in law; His 8-year-old daughter, Pascale, was missing along with three other 8-year-old children.
We were ushered into the school playground and the gate was closed behind us, providing us with a safer environment - A crowd of distraught people was a potential riot. This being said though, the playgound was full too…. UN soldiers from Chile, Equador, Nepal, Canada, Haitian Police, The Mayor, other dignitories, milling in and around the school. I had a bad feeling about this. We stood at the edge of the playground and waited. There were workmen inside trying to find and dig the four missing children out. A school wall had collapsed after the side of the hill had slid into. We could hear rocks and soil moving and sliding as we stood outside.
They had found a child. Saqib and I went to the first ground floor room by the broken staircase, where we had prepared the stretchers and intravenous fluids before retreating earlier because of the situational instability. One by one they arrived. Four children in all. Three girls and a boy; all 8 year old classmates, who had had the misfortunate that morning to sit at the back of the classroom by the wall. Covered in soil and mud. We tried our best. We performed CPR. We tried our best.
Why does life have to be so cruel. Why the big test? Surely these people have been through enough? Why the children? These questions remain unanswered.
To have an ambulance was a rarity. In Haiti there is no such thing as a paramedic. People literally scoop up the injured and dash to a nearby hospital before any first aid is given and before any chance of ABC assessment. At the scene, I put my foot down. The mayor wanted to take the children straight from the rubble to the hospital 15 minutes away on a good day. I explained that to give them the best chance, if there was any chance, we needed to be able to do our job and assess the children before they left the scene. With a lot of persuasion, we were able to do this. I had managed to get some hard hats for us to wear and we set to work.
Why is it that the press have got to be so intrusive? Someone was taking photos. Another was videoing. I asked a man who seemed to be co-ordinating things inside to make these people leave. They were of no use. As it was there should be minimal people in the building in case there was another landslide.
There was nothing more that we could do for these poor children, apart from preserving what dignity was left. We gently placed them in body bags and waited whilst they were identified by their families. What a tragedy. What a waste of four beautiful lives.
This happened on the Monday. Pascale’s funeral was held on the Friday and we had been invited to go. Some local families, known to Carwyn and Reninca Hill, had very kindly lent us some appropriate black clothes.
There was a huge turn out. 700 people in the largest Baptiste Church in Cap Haitian. The atmosphere was charged with grief. The emotion was something that I have never experienced. The grief and sorrow was on every face and expressed in every body. Pascale’s coffin took centre stage and was adorned with beautiful flowers, palm leaves and inscriptions. Dr Toussant and his wife and family set beside her; totally grief stricken. Wailing and sobbing. Throwing their bodies to the floor in uncontrollable pain and heartache. Each person had assigned to them someone to look after them and protect them in case they hurt themselves in their grief.
This was their culture. This was their way of coming to terms with their grief. This was the way that their mothers and fathers had grieved for people before them. It struck me that this was why they did not need bereavement councelling. It was totally normal and ok to show their grief. And why not? Why do us westerners try and hide it? Why do we have ‘to be strong’ and have a ‘stiff upper lip’? Maybe we have got it wrong. How natural to show the sorrow that one feels. To get it out and not bottle emotion up is a much healthier way of coping.
The service was in Creole and lasted about four hours. After this, a sombre and dignified drive through Cap Haitian took us all to the final resting place of little Pascale. A single violin played as her coffin was lowered into the ground, to her final resting place. This final act was followed by a crescendo of grief.
A question: how on earth does a country mourn for over two hundred thousand people who died on the 12th January – only six weeks ago? How do people mourn when their churches have been destroyed?
Message to self: please learn something from these people. It is ok to grieve; whatever the circumstances. It is ok to show emotion. Do not bottle things up.
For further information please go to www.haitihospitalappeal.org.