Friday, March 19, 2010
David and Jo-Ann Driscoll’s volunteer odyssey
“Welcome!” shouted David Driscoll through a bullhorn. “I have to tell you that because of the heat, we’ve discontinued putting chocolate mints on everyone’s pillows. They were melting and getting in everyone’s hair.” For a new contingent of about 120 doctors and nurses, this greeting was a rare light moment in what would become a week of medical practice, the like of which most of them had never seen. They had come to Haiti, to care for those who had been rescued from the earthquake that struck near the town of Léogâne on January 12, leveled much of Port-au-Prince and damaged towns and settlements for 30 miles around its epicenter.
At this writing, the death toll from the quake stands at nearly 250,000 and one million people are homeless. The injured pour in by the thousands to what Driscoll described as “the Mayo Clinic of Haiti,” a 600-by-200-foot camp hospital similar to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.), set up a half mile from the Toussaint L’Ouverture International airport terminal next to the runway. Driscoll had been volunteering there with Project Medishare for Haiti for about a month, working on the logistics team to keep the hospital running and direct cargo and transport, personnel and the hospital morgue. His wife Jo-Ann joined him two weeks later and spent her first days there helping to organize the supply tent, “which had no shelving; only pallets and pallets from one end to the other, and boxes and boxes of unidentified stuff.”
Living conditions for volunteers are primitive: about 160 medical staff bunk on cots in “a big circus tent,” other volunteers stay in box shelters and all use makeshift showers and latrines. The hospital functions on large generators and the tents and supplies are secured from desperate looters by military personnel from several countries and a wall of barbed wire.
Around the world, one disaster at a time: 2005-2009
This is not the first disaster that has sent David and Jo-Ann Driscoll into the field, or even the first earthquake. They began volunteering in 2005 in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a ten-day stint that extended into two months. They heard about Hands-On Disaster Response (www.hodr.org), an organization started by Carlisle’s David Campbell, on National Public Radio and signed on to assist in Indonesia in 2006. There they helped to dig out a small village from the rubble of an earthquake. “I think that was the friendliest place we’ve ever been,” says Jo-Ann.
The next year found them in the Philippines near Luzon, where a typhoon had caused flooding and landslides that wiped out buildings and fishing boats and buried villages. The Driscolls helped to rebuild a school and to build fishing boats to restore livelihoods. In the wake of an earthquake in Peru that year, (see Mosquito article, “Peru diary: land of blue sky and brown rubble,” November 30, 2007) they teamed with UNICEF to build a temporary school and to re-establish irrigation to villages.
In Bangladesh in 2008, they worked with a number of organizations to help people displaced by a hurricane that caused massive flooding. “We were in the absolute boonies,” David says. “We were 24 hours by boat south of the capital. The only transportation people had were those three-wheel bikes with baskets, so we couldn’t send things much more than five miles, or get supplies from any greater distance. We communicated with cell phones, which work in remote locations, and you have to depend on them because [telephone] wires get stolen.”
Four hurricanes in a row in the late summer of 2008 caused houses and buildings in Gonaives, Haiti, to fill up with mud. The Driscolls were on site, participating in bucket chains trying to clean the mud out of the buildings. “You had to scrape it into the buckets with your hands,” Jo-Ann says. “Then when you got it to the dumping places, you had to scrape it out of the buckets.” David adds, “We actually created a taxonomy for mud, like the [Inuits] do for snow, to identify the different kinds. ‘Clud’ is the worst: that’s a mixture of clothing and mud. Almost impossible to work with.”
The Driscolls and their group cleaned out and repainted a school and put 700 children and their teachers back in a safe building. Restoring schools is a priority for Haiti. Despite publicity about the value of education there, the illiteracy rate tops 50% of the population.
Roughing it and fitting in
In Sumatra in 2009, the Driscolls spent months tackling the aftermath of another earthquake and found themselves “in the rainy season in the jungle. You couldn’t dry anything. Some of the volunteers actually got trenchfoot. We stayed in an abandoned restaurant, and then in a hotel building and a private home, in very close quarters. Surprisingly, there was no friction. A challenge for Hands On is to find safe places to live for the volunteers, as well as [potable] water. Most of what we eat is local food, and we usually have a local cook. We get embedded in the population, and we try to fit in. Internet access is about the only amenity we have. In some places, it’s like iPhone technology. In other places, we’ve set up satellite networks.”
Despite efforts to blend in with the local populations, the Driscolls have learned to supplement local diets with “freeze dried food, tuna and mayo in envelopes and peanut butter. It’s important to keep up your proteins for this kind of work because you often have to learn to get by on four hours of sleep, but eating rice and fish heads for breakfast and rice and fish tails for dinner day after day can be a little trying. Gatorade is also a good thing to have along.” Laughing, Jo-Ann adds, “And thank God for Spam singles!” There are some compensations provided by the Hands On project leaders, who make pancake breakfasts for the volunteers on Monday mornings. “I don’t know how they manage it in those remote areas, but they do,” Jo-Ann says. “We often bring maple syrup with us.”
David notes that they can frequently get “M.R.E.s, (Meals Ready to Eat), which have improved a lot since the military used to call them C-Rations. Even though the soldiers sometimes refer to them as ‘Meals Rejected by the Enemy,’ they’re actually quite good, and they heat right up when you add water.”
He continues, “It isn’t effective when a rich American comes to a disaster area and stays in a nice hotel eating caviar. It’s important to set an example of good leadership and of women working alongside men with the local populations. [The actor] Sean Penn has been in Haiti recently. He’s the real deal. He was carrying kids into the hospital, really digging in.”
Haiti 2010: “the worst we’ve ever seen”
Penn has brought useful publicity to the current relief project in Haiti as well, but the Driscolls also credit a number of organizations with providing aid. “The U.S. 82nd Airborne has been extremely effective, and the Air Force. They have organized transport, supplies and security. The U.S. Army is also integrally involved, as well as the Canadian military, the French army, firemen from Portugal, the Dominican Republic trucking over meals on wheels, and the U.N., which supplies troops from 39 countries. There are also a host of private and religious NGOs (non-government organizations) [including Medishare], and the Rotary Club has been really impressive. They provided shelter boxes for patients and staff.”
Even with all these international organizations working in cooperation, the situation in Haiti is, quite simply, unimaginable. “It is without question the worst we’ve ever seen,” says Jo-Ann. “And this is really the first time we’ve been face-to-face with the human toll,” adds David. “By comparison, Haiti makes Bangladesh look like Switzerland.”
Haiti’s per capita income is $270 per year. “In the U.S., it’s about $40,000, which means that U.S. citizens make a lot more in a year than a Haitian can make in a lifetime.” He adds, “When there is a disaster here in the U.S. or in any of the First World countries, other cities can rise to the occasion and help,” because developed countries have infrastructures. “In Haiti, the heart of the country has been ripped out and even the larger cities can’t help.”
Another way to try to understand the massive and yet very personal toll this disaster has caused is to look at what the survivors will face. Before the earthquake, Haiti’s unemployment rate was a mind-boggling 70%. Aside from the pervasive poverty represented by that statistic, there is so much competition for jobs that there is no place or provision in the workforce for people with disabilities of any kind. “So, although it hasn’t hit the kids yet,” David says, “the adults know what they are up against. If they have to have a limb or two amputated, they know that all they can ever look forward to is the life of a beggar.” Amputations after a catastrophe of this kind are routine. The hospital is inundated with people who have been pulled out of rubble with crushed limbs. Besides directing traffic at the airport and the hospital compound, one of David’s duties was to take away body parts from the operating room and put them in boxes behind the hospital for removal.
David established and ran a coffee station for medical staff, so that they could get some respite before or after going on their shifts. Doctors and nurses, who perform about 80 operations a day on four tables, are under such intense physical and emotional pressure that the staff turns over weekly. “It’s Civil War medicine with better anesthetics,” David says. He remembers a little boy who needed to have a limb amputated patting the heaving shoulder of a sobbing doctor and telling him to “just go ahead and do it.”
Although there are volunteer therapists and makeshift wheelchairs and crutches, there is no place for those discharged from the hospital to go, and no prosthetics or rehabilitation facilities in all of Haiti. Indeed, just keeping order at the hospital is a gargantuan challenge. “You face incredibly hard choices every day,” Jo-Ann says. “You can’t fix all the problems. The large picture has no answers. You have to consciously tell yourself to attend to one person at a time.” David believes that even with relief efforts, Haiti will lose another quarter of a million people before this is over.
Coming home and reflecting
The Driscolls returned to Carlisle three weeks ago, and David says that re-entry is very difficult. “I’m not really back yet,” he says, softly. His eyes describe better than his words the overwhelming enormity of the tragedy that is Haiti.
Jo-Ann adds quietly, “But even in the midst of all this death, there is life. People are stoic about it. I was really moved on the last night of my stay to find a woman grieving for the husband she had just lost in the hospital. There was just nothing they could do for him. And yet, on that same evening just a few minutes later, a nurse came outside cradling a newborn baby. I was so…” her voice trails off, “moved.” Recovering herself, she adds, “And there are spots of hope. The first time we were in Haiti, we learned about a home for boys called St. Joseph’s, run by an ex-priest who had worked with Mother Teresa. It was reduced to rubble in this quake, completely destroyed. But the boys got out. They have a dance troupe that performs to raise money and the boys have been asked to come [to the hospital compound] to perform for the people. There are these little spots of hope.”∆
© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito