Notes on Haiti - CEO Journal Part 14

Note: While serving a medical mission to Haiti, Scripps CEO Chris Van Gorder is writing dispatches about medical aid in progress, conditions on the ground and what can be done to help earthquake victims. For other journal entries, see the Haiti news page.

Here are thoughts from Dr. Steven Shackford, one of our trauma surgeons who just returned from Port-au-Prince with the team last night:


I have had some time to collect my thoughts. I will do my best to be brief. First, however, a little background. This was my ninth trip to Haiti. Over the years, because my Creole is barely passable (the Haitians find it hilariously entertaining), I have had to use body language and facial expressions to communicate. Conversely, I have become adept at reading the Haitians’ facial expressions and body language, which is very necessary because they do not complain. Often, when I ask how they are, they may respond, “Pas pi mal”: not too bad. “Not too bad” pretty much covers the waterfront, and it could mean they feel great or horrible. Thus, I must rely on reading their faces.

With that history, the following vignettes pretty much describe my feelings on leaving Haiti yesterday:

1. On Thursday at noon I was called to assist with the transport of one of our three paraplegics (a 24-year-old woman) back from “Radiologie” to her tent, “ward 4.” As you may recall, this is an arduous trip: under a recently constructed wooden buttress that is supporting the only remaining wall of what was once the ultrasound room (which actually was once the first operating room in Haiti), through what remains of the pediatric ward (now condemned because it is structurally unsound after the earthquake), over a sand mound and across the parking area. As I raised her up onto the bed, we exchanged a brief look. I know my eyes betrayed my feeling of deep concern, and hers gave away resignation: she knew that she was likely to die soon. I did not see fear or anxiety — only resignation. As you know, Haiti has no rehab facilities for spinal cord injury. She needs specialized care and that care is not available without transfer out of Haiti to a specialized facility.

2. By Thursday afternoon, 30 pairs of crutches arrived and an 18-year-old woman from my tent (ward 6), with a healing right below a knee amputation, was up and using the crutches and walking pretty briskly. She saw that I approved of this and acknowledged my look with a nod that spoke of hope and determination. Her nod made me intensely proud and gratified that I could be part of the team that cared for her.

3. During the morning on Thursday, I was checking outpatient wounds in the wound tent and right in the middle of a dressing change I felt a tug on my scrubs. I was engrossed in examining the wound and did not at first acknowledge the tug, but it became more persistent so I turned around and looked down, since it was my scrub pants that were being pulled. It was Songalli, an 8-year-old orphan whose foot I had been operating on every other day for the past six days. Songalli was orphaned by the quake — she lost her parents and all her siblings.

Before the first operation, I was very concerned about a spreading infection, and she noticed that concern. Her expression was one of fear and anxiousness. I was also concerned about what would happen to this poor, beautiful child. I learned during the week that the family of the boy in the crib next to hers had “adopted” her. They fed, bathed and clothed her. So now here she was having found me in the wound tent and tugging at my scrubs. When I looked down, I saw the widest smile I think I have every seen — fear gone, replaced by gratitude and trust. She said only two words to me: “Merci, merci.” I stood there trying to regain my composure and think of something to say, but I couldn’t. I didn’t need to… I guess my face and the tears welling up in my eyes said it all.

Thanks to Dr. Shackford for sharing his insights. It’s nice to have the team home.

Chris Van Gorder

See the Haiti news page for other journal entries.