February 6 – A team of 11 consisting of Dr. Vilma Vega (team leader, co-founder/president Hearts Afire, and Infectious Disease), Dr. David Sugar (Orthopedic surgeon), Dr. Allen Van (orthopedic surgeon), Dr. Gary Dunlap (orthopedic surgeon), Dr. Jose Estigarribia (general surgeon), Dr. Nilesh Patel (anesthesiology), Dr. Greg Abbott (oral surgeon/anesthesiologist), Beth Abbott (anesthesiology RN, Critical care RN, midwife), Dr. Mildred Pastorizo (Pediatrics and Pediatric immunologist), James Lohmann RN ( IV RN, missionary RN, board of directors member of Hearts Afire), Fernando Vega (private business owner, logistics, IT, documentation).
We left at 2 pm from Ft. Lauderdale. Upon original arrival to airport, we were greeted by four Haitian baggage handlers who not only met us with a smile, they didn’t want to take tips for handling our bags of medical supplies. As we arrived to the counter at Jet Blue, we met a very friendly Haitian worker who broke out crying about her country and immediately thanked us for providing medical support. She directly went to the supervisor who then called headquarters and allowed all our 34 pieces of luggage 50lbs each on board. Already God’s favor on our trip was being displayed. We arrived in Santo Domingo and stayed with our Dominican missionaries(Corazon Del Siervo)overnight.
Feb. 7 – We left for Haiti in a rented van and driver at 4 am. We arrived in Port-au-Prince at 12pm and went directly to the Quisqueya Christian School compound where we checked with logistics to confirm that we were still needed at the Petit Goave Wesleyan compound. When we got the confirmation we left for Petit Goave. During this time we also met our Haitian Pastoral guide who drove us through the city of PAP. What I had only seen on CNN and fox news was coming to life. Yes these buildings were all completely flattened, yes the smell of decomposing bodies still was heavy in areas where you know 100’s were still crushed below large buildings and markets, yes large tent cities were scattered throughout the city, and yes it is still clear in my mind the look of the Presidential Palace crumbled yet the spirit of these people was still resilient. Life and business must go on. So despite all the dust and disaster around them, the Haitians were still in the hustle and bustle of life. Some of them were going to work, others were helping each other in their tents, others cooking, and the street markets were open and people were selling products of any choice on the streets. It was surreal that with all this death and despair people were selling Coke and Pringles on the street,but life must go on. We stepped foot into a local supermarket before going on to Petit Goave. We bought snacks and water for the team. It was amazing. It looked like any supermarket in the US. We exchanged money in the supermarket and moved on. Gas stations were open but you needed to have Haitian dollars and goudes, otherwise the exchange rate was terrible. As we started up towards Petit Goave with our goods in hand we saw some of the worst sites including horrible roads, more craters and cracks in the road created by the earthquake. People living not only in tents but some only with sheets over wooden sticks to cover them. Dust beyond measure and I thought Uganda was bad. We started looking at everything from a logistics point of view and first stopped at a Venezuelan/Cuban camp where over 100 tents had been donated by private U.S. donors. They had been set up as a medical and feeding camp. As we continued on we went through Grand Goave and about 80% of the houses were crumbled. Again small missionary camps were present but few. From their we arrived in Petit Goave and again what stood out was the fact that 80% of buildings were crumbled and what was left was questionable as to whether it was structurally stable. We arrived first at the Notre Dame hospital and encountered 4 organizations working together including ourselves, the Cuban physicians, the Cuban rehabilitation organization and the German Ampour organization. We quickly evaluated the grounds and went into the OR and set up at the hospital where the surgical team bought the fuel to run the generator to operate. The surgical team started to set up camp and Dr. Pastorizo and myself went to interview the various organizations. We also saw that the only government medical workers on the ground were the workers involved with the HIV program. Otherwise their was no presence of Haitian medical workers or director. Fortunately we spoke Spanish, English and even a little French which got us around. We then went back to the Wesleyan camp where we found ourselves using our Spanish more than we expected. The Military from Spain had planted their camp at the Wesleyans and along with them, various teams from Canada and the US representing the Wesleyan group, the US Navy and Marines and Hearts Afire started to work together. Prior to our arrival to Petit Goave, Mildred and I and Fernando (our IT man) felt we were going to continue onto Jacmel to check out further logistics for future teams but God drew us closer to the Wesleyan camp. We realized that there were some initial difficulties at the Wesleyan camp because of language and cultural differences between the folks from the US and Canada and the Spaniards. Because of our Latin background we fit the unique mold that these teams needed to work more efficiently together. We helped to organize the grounds and set up teams of both the Spaniards and the Wesleyans. We initially worked from 8:30am to 5pm but then the emergency evening shift began very soon there afterwards and left us very little time to rest.
We therefore decided to work in shifts with the morning shift between the US military and the Spanish military and Hearts Afire. The evening shifts were the Wesleyan group and on some days part of the Hearts Afire team especially when emergency C-sections needed to get done or vaginal deliveries. There were also some special pediatric care to be given to the newborns.
February 8-11 – Everyday we started our mornings with devotions and our working days from 8:30am to 3pm. Final statistics for our trip were almost 3000 patients evaluated between our 4 teams, 75 surgeries, 26 deliveries and 1 pair of twins.
I still remember the 1 month old that was brought in from another camp, with a sunken fontanel (top of head) who looked like a prune. As his eyes rolled back and his body was floppy, his heart raced and he looked septic. His fever was 103 and he was extremely dehydrated. As soon as Jim Lohmann started a small 24 gauge IV (which was a miracle in and of itself) in this dehydrated baby we started seeing some response from baby X. Within 24 hours the baby looked normal and went from a prune to a plum. Wow what a difference a day makes. One more hour the day before and he would have been a goner but instead God’s grace showed His miracle to us and the baby’s family. The baby had developed diarrhea and fever and had also fallen during the earthquake and he became easily dehydrated. Just like this story there were many stories of medical care arriving just at the nick of time.
Then there is the emergency C-section at 1am, which our general surgeon had to perform. Not to mention that all the women seemed to be in labor between the hours of 10pm to 7am. 26 babies in total were delivered several of which needed episiotomies. Moms delivering on wooden boards and babies bundled and placed in little beds made from cardboard boxes. Then the Marines had constructed a little wooden house used for post-op cases. 2 single beds were filled with other women who delivered or had been operated upon.
The case that still haunts me is the 29 y/o man who walked 7 hours to see us because we were the only ones doing surgery in a radius of 40 miles in all directions. This man had been having pain for several days before this but it had become so bad that he proceeded to find us. He had heard about our small referral clinic. Word of mouth travels fast. Our surgeons immediately evaluated him and took him to the OR. Upon opening him up they found a ruptured appendix with significant pus in the abdominal cavity. We had brought IV antibiotics, in particular the “gorillacillin” of them all Tygacil. But even despite IV’s, antibiotics and surgery, this young man progressively worsened and died four days later. Just like this, their was another woman who showed up at the Wesleyan compound in labor but unfortunately had been having cramping for days. She unfortunately delivered a full term infant that had probably died perhaps a day before. I cannot describe the emotions that these physicians and the patients went through during this time. We have been taught to do no harm, to heal, and to do the best for our patients. We are taught to try and be perfect, yet noone teaches us to deal with the emotions that overflow when situations like this occur. Without any working hospital, with very little medical care available except us as a referral center and small daytime clinics set up by small relief organizations locally, their was nothing. We realized that this must be how it is even when there is no earthquake. What we saw were things of everyday life. How many children die in childbirth not to mention the women. How about those emergency appendicitis’ or the accident cases. They don’t even stand a chance even when there was no earthquake. The earthquake has brought to the surface and the recognition of millions what has always been the case in Haiti. These are people of resilience who have relied on barely anything and certainly limited to no medical support. Is this what the world has let pass silently. However the world will never let Haiti stand-alone any longer. All of us have become mobilized under one cause to love humanity and relieve human suffering to the best of our ability using our medical knowledge and the love of Christ. These are the images that haunt me – the burnt child, the woman who refused to undergo an amputation which was so necessary in order to save her life, the young girl who had become catatonic after the earthquake, the father who stayed up with his infant as we rehydrated him through the night hoping and praying that they would have one more day together.
Every day I would try and go towards Jacmel but everyday the Wesleyan compound kept a hold on me. I know that I was needed there not only to take care of patients but also to help relations between the Spaniards and the Americans so that we could all work together for one cause and to be in God’s will. My biggest lesson learned was that any expectations or desires that I may have had initially had to give way to God’s will. When I let God completely take the wheel, so to speak, the entire mission was successful. When one is thinking on their feet at such rapid speed, especially in disaster relief mode, it sometimes is hard to hear the distinct voice of the Lord. That is why I learned to wait even when having to make critical rapid decisions. Pride has no place in disaster relief and neither does poor judgment because both of these lead to poor results. I must say that I was very proud of this exceptional medical team that laid it all down on the line for the unity of the team, the patients and especially for the Lord. We worked succinctly, efficiently, and with lots of Love.
February 12 – as we said one last goodbye to the Wesleyan compound that morning, there was sadness on our faces. We had made so many new friends, and had grown to deeply love the Haitian people who through all circumstances had yet become more resilient. We didn’t know when we would be back but we knew we would. Again another long drive back to the Dominican Republic. But on our way out we saw every few feet hundreds of people dressed in white with Bibles in their hands singing songs of praise and worship thanking the Lord for the new life that is promised to them. The government of Haiti had assigned Feb. 12 as the 1-month anniversary from the earthquake and announced a day of prayer and fasting in the nation. Therefore we saw all the way from Petit Goave to Port-au-Prince the Glory of the Lord shown on the faces of these beautiful Haitian people who no longer had faces of mourning but of rejoicing in the greatness of the Lord. We arrived back in the US on February 13th.
February 19th – Dr. Maria Mallarino is planning her team for March 4th. Medications and supplies are ordered to assist their team to complete their mission in Port-au-Prince.
February 22 – Dr. David Sugar and James Lohmann plan Hearts Afire team to Petit Goave for March 13-20. Everyone at the Wesleyan complex is excited especially the Spanish military who can’t wait to get more bilingual help.
We are thankful to all the donors of medical supplies and medications especially various local organizations and especially our local hospitals including Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Blake Hospital, and Manatee Memorial Hospital. We are again thankful for all those who have given to Hearts Afire with everything from financial support, to time, to prayer and our volunteers who have worked tirelessly to help us get these teams deployed. Most especially we give thanks to the Lord who continues to shine His favor and blessings upon us.
Vilma Vega MD, Co-founder/President Hearts Afire