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April 21, 2010 > A Doctor's Haiti Experience

A Doctor's Haiti Experience

Submitted By Jay Bachicha, MD

In February, Dr. Jay Bachicha, a physician with the Kaiser Permanente Hayward Medical Center Obstetrics/Gynecology Department, flew into earthquake-ravaged Haiti on a volunteer mission. The trip was organized through KPCares, Kaiser Permanente's volunteer program for physicians and employees. Here are a few excerpts from his Haiti volunteer mission:

It's great to be back in the land of hot showers but I plan to go back later this year. I left with a sense that I could have done much more had I stayed at least another week or two.

I was getting used to electricity failures, lack of running water, bucket baths (standing in the shower with a 5-gallon bucket of water and using a cup to pour it over myself) and a limited menu (lots of spaghetti, rice and beans). Sleeping bags and mosquito nets were the rule.

We lived in a house in an area called Carrefour, a red zone where the U.N. did not venture because it was too dangerous. On the grounds of the house, behind walls and a gate, were our medical tents where we saw patients. The house is owned by an American doctor from Wisconsin who has lived in Haiti for over 30 years with her partner, a nurse. They were in the process of moving to a town in western Haiti before the quake to start a clinic, and they continued that process after the quake.

Our medical group ranged from 12 to 20, with nurses and doctors from the U.S. coming and going at different times, most of them affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

I treated men, women and children with medical complaints. I did see some pregnant women and delivered three babies, including a beautiful baby girl who barely made it to a "Doctors Without Borders" hospital nearby. Where else could an unknown doctor walk into a barely staffed hospital, deliver an unknown patient, and walk out without anyone asking a single question?

Our medical group also held mobile clinics in a couple of areas near tent cities where there were no other non-government organizations like ours. We'd pitch our medical tent, see patients until we had to leave and do something similar in another location the next day.

We had a curfew and if we were outside of our compound, we had to back in it by 6:30 p.m. During my first few days there, we would walk outside the compound maybe a block or so in either direction. Our outside walks stopped after we learned that we had become kidnapping targets given our regular schedules. After, we only left in SUVs and generally in a convoy with at least two vehicles. But I never felt unsafe.

Our translators and drivers were from the same neighborhood as our compound. Our two guides were raised in a nearby orphanage that was badly damaged in the quake. One translator's house collapsed completely. The family escaped and everything else was lost. A neighbor family escaped but a two-month old baby was buried under the rubble. The building next to the orphanage collapsed with 13 people inside and the smaller children were afraid of their ghosts and refused to go near the orphanage buildings. They lived in school buildings and tents just down the hill.

There was much destruction all around, everywhere you looked. People often living in tents even if their houses were standing, fearing a collapse in another tremor. I felt at least four aftershocks. A few were strong enough to send some in our group scurrying outside and produced screaming from the tent encampment next door, along with lots of dog barking and rooster crowing. Roosters and dogs seemed to be everywhere delivering a random racket through the night, leading to an occasional sleepless night. While I slept in the building among the boxes of bandages and supplies, most slept in tents in the yard.

The Haitian people have endured so much for so long that this latest calamity is only one of a long string, though certainly the worst in history. We heard numbers like 220,000 dead, as many injured, a million homeless and 70 percent of schools destroyed.

These numbers are incomprehensible, but made real by individual people we see. There are children with no parents, people with amputations and wounds coming for dressing changes, old people who've seen too much, happy and beautiful children, adults who are survivors of a tough environment that doesn't allow for laziness or complaint. People try to keep clean, living under a tarp on the street, bathing with a bucket of less than pure water. Possessions may be lost and destroyed but dignity thrives.

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