Haiti: Moments of Grace

I wonder if their hands trembled as they tied each side of their bed sheets to the bright blue fence. I wonder, as they stretched the sheet out flat to make a roof, if they were in a state of hollow shock, moving robotically with each step of this process, using rope to secure the remaining ends of the sheet to the large sticks that served as tent poles. Or did it all feel like a dream—an out-of-body experience, of sorts?

Perhaps their hands didn’t shake when they grabbed the other two sheets and used them to form sidewalls. Perhaps their gaze was steady and they worked with a sort of stoic necessity, digging through the rubble of demolished buildings to find parts, like a large troupe of adolescent boys building a forte. Only, this was the forte to top all fortes because it went on for miles. The tent-homes were constructed with rope and sticks and sheets and towels. They covered every inch of grass and stadium in Léogâne, Haiti, like a patchwork quilt half-hazardly sewn together.

After the 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, these “tent cities” continued to grow as more people lost their homes. They started on the grassy areas, and then spilled over onto the concrete and the sidewalks that ran alongside the highways. Some even built along the center divider, with cars whooshing by on every side. Those tents didn’t even have a back fence to support them. They were feats of engineering—the combination of ingenuity and human creativity.

My friend, Christi Kambs, says the people of Haiti are incredibly brave and resilient. She said that even in the midst of being treated for really intense medical wounds, they still exuded an inspiring sense of strength and toughness.

She would know. She was there only two weeks after the earthquake hit.

Alongside a team of 18 other medical professionals from Rock Harbor Church and the non-profit organization, Hope Force International, they flew from California to the Dominican Republic and then drove over the Haitian border. Upon arriving in Léogâne, a city about 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, they began constructing yet another group of tents, only theirs were of the store-bought variety. Large white tents that were filled with cots and medical carts, I.V. bags, syringes, and surgical tools—any number of the 2,000 pounds of medical supplies that had graciously been donated by hospitals, clinics, and drug reps in the United States. The medical team worked quickly and efficiently to build this little clinic in the field of Cardinal Leger, what used to be a Catholic hospital in Léogâne . All that was left now was an oddly shaped mosaic of cement blocks and strands of rusty old rebar, bent like little candy canes poking out from the rubble.

But that is what most of the buildings in this region of Haiti looked like. Léogâne was the epicenter of the earthquake, and an estimated 80-90% of the city had been completely destroyed. Even the paved streets bore testament to this. Certain sections of the highway were cracked and deformed. The concrete was split by the thunderous impact and now resembled an uneven sidewalk that had been overtaken by the roots of a gigantic tree, growing beneath it and forcing it into submission.

Word spread quickly that medical help had arrived and by 4:30 each morning, people began to line up to be treated at the field clinic. Ever since the earthquake, or “The Event”—as the Haitians called it—a group of Cuban doctors had been working alongside a group from Doctors Without Borders to treat patients who needed surgical procedures. The field clinic that Christi and her friends set up was the first to offer aid for other, more routine medical needs. Their group of volunteers formed only four days prior to leaving the United States. There was Kirk Dominic, a Deputy Fire Chief from the Costa Mesa Fire Department; Garrett Sutter, an E.R. doctor; Lisa Blount, a mid-wife, Christine Thompson, the medical team leader; and Christi Kambs, a third grade teacher by day, and future nursing student by night. Christi was still taking pre-requisites to get into the nursing program, but knew that this was her true calling after she traveled to Australia to attend a certification program for Primary Health Care.

None of the medical team spoke French or Creole, so they scoured the streets for bilingual Haitians who could help translate between them and their patients. They found a group of nine men. Some were university professors who had studied English in school, while others had learned English from family and friends. All of them were currently living in the streets. They paid these translators $10 a day to stay alongside them in the tent clinic. They enabled the doctors to learn each patient’s medical needs, to offer them support and prayer, and to be able to hear and understand their stories. Indeed, there were many, many stories. Under those white tents surrounded by palm trees and a canopy of greenery, their clinic served 2,500 patients in only 10 days. This is a small sampling of what they encountered:

Three days after the field clinic had opened, a young man showed up with his friend, a woman who was eight months pregnant with twins and who appeared to be in shock. Upon examining her, the doctors found that her condition ran much deeper than emotional trauma. She was leaking amniotic fluid and would need a C-Section—an operation that the doctors at the field clinic would not be able to perform themselves. Kirk, the Deputy Fire Chief and U.S. military veteran, wasted no time in contacting the military officers present in Haiti and arranging to have her flown by helicopter to the U.S. Comfort, a Navy ship that was docked off the coast of Haiti. The hospital on board the ship was able to perform the C-Section, which saved her life, and the lives of her twins—a healthy baby boy and girl.

But they were not the only babies to be born during those ten days in Léogâne. A woman named Stephanie went into labor a few days later and she was brought to the field clinic because she was hemorrhaging badly. She had delivered the baby, but the placenta was still attached and the baby wasn’t breathing. They found her at the gates of the old Catholic Hospital, and sent her to Lisa, the midwife from Hope Force International. Lisa was able to stop the bleeding, while Dr. Peter, a pediatrician from Costa Mesa, worked to restore the baby’s breathing. Christi did the honors of cleaning the newborn and placing her in her mother’s arms later that afternoon.

As the days went by, more doctors began to arrive from other countries, and soon the Rock Harbor team was partnering with medical professionals from Germany, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. They also learned that once they headed home to California, another team of doctors from Oregon was scheduled to take their place.

Every night, these doctors of many nations would eat dinner together, and the final night of the trip was no exception. After ten incredible days, they all gathered together for one final dinner where they took communion and then said a prayer.

I wasn’t there, so I’m not entirely certain of what they said or how they said it. But what I imagine is that beneath their white tent, in the fields of the old Catholic hospital, with the mountains and the palm trees and the sound of helicopters buzzing above, they silently bowed their heads. Some closed their eyes, some left them open. Some had faith that flowed through them powerfully and continually, like the waves of the ocean, while others were just plain skeptical. But when it was time for everyone to join hands, they all took the hand of the person next to them simply because it was polite. And in humility and sorrow and exhaustion and hope, they offered up a prayer for the people of Haiti.

It was a prayer of protection and provision, as the rainy season is steadily approaching and hundreds of thousands are living in tents. But it was also a prayer for all of the things they knew they couldn’t fully understand, like what it would feel like to wake up every day and be greeted by the evidence that yes, your home has been destroyed, or that yes, your husband/sister/mother/father/ child has been crushed underneath the falling concrete blocks. Yes, there is now a constant droning of helicopters overhead. Yes, you may only eat when food is given to you by men in military fatigues and royal blue helmets that have the letters ‘UN’ printed on them. Yes, your childhood school has been leveled and all that remains are students’ assignments that landed amongst the rubble like pieces of colored confetti—lists of multiplication tables; the definition of photosynthesis; a spelling test that received an A+.

It’s hard to truly fathom what that would be like, but I would like to think the doctors tried, and said a prayer of mourning, but also of hope and of thanks—thanks for the many moments of grace. For the man whose brain tumor they were able to remove. For the healthy newborn babies who were safely delivered into this world. Because after all, one of the many, incredibly ironies of life is this: that even in the midst of utter chaos and destruction, new beginnings are somehow able to spring forth.

If you'd like to learn more about the situation in Haiti, or how you can help:



* A special thanks to Christi Kambs for allowing me to interview her, and for giving me tons of information and photos!

The tent cities

                                This is what's left of Cardinal Leger, the Catholic Hospital

Setting up the field clinic

Removing a man's brain tumor

Stephanie's newborn baby girl

Cracked cement street

A leveled elementary school

The medical team from Rock Harbor and Hope Force International