Scenes from Hell

On the ground in an apocalyptic Haiti

The first suturing was performed in the back of a truck. That was when the crowd was manageable. But as time ticked on, and the sun disappeared, the lawn began to resemble a Civil War battlefield.

This was Gressier, Haiti, a relatively large town on the country’s southwest coast, a 45-minute drive from Port-au-Prince. I was spending my winter break from post-baccalaureate, pre-med studies in Haiti, where my plan was to shadow a doctor at a rural medical clinic. And for a week, that’s what I did, absorbing and participating in a different kind of healthcare. And then the earthquake hit—and all hell broke loose.

Outside our clinic, on the battlefield, fluorescent ceiling-light panels were dragged out to the lawn and hooked up to generators; plastic patio furniture was set up as an operating table; cabinetry was ripped apart for splints and stretchers.

We were the only medical clinic in the area, so it wasn’t long before the wounded, the homeless, the terrified appeared. The scene was macabre, though there was hardly any time for the horror to register.

Shattered limbs, gashed heads, compound fractures, lacerations that offered anatomy lessons, paralyzed bodies lying in pools of blood on corrugated tin sheets—I weaved my way in and around them, cleaning wounds, assessing newcomers, holding the hands of patients being sewn up without anesthesia.

With very limited medical supplies (most of the clinic’s stock was buried in some
degree of rubble) and only two doctors, the odds were stacked against us, against them.

The gore was endless; the pain was tangible; in between the constant tremors, the air was full of cries. But there was no time to stop and weep; more stretchers were arriving.

The first 36 hours after the earthquake were a slow-motion blur interrupted only by a fitful 30-minute nap sometime before sunrise.

With the arrival of a new day, we moved our makeshift clinic from the debris-strewn lawn to the still-standing church where we were able to establish a bit more order.

I moved from pew to pew, cleaning out gashes with Betadine and forceps in preparation for sewing and splinting. I saw a woman die on the floor in front of me as I held the shoulder of her son, and I saw a baby emerge into the world in the last pew.

I saw the remnants of hands and feet, faces so swollen they hardly looked human. As I picked what probably amounted to a small cement block out of a young girl’s head, she reported on the status of her family: her mother, dead in the rubble of their house; her four-year-old brother, whom she brought to the clinic that morning, lay dead outside the gate; her baby sister, unable to walk.  She waited eight hours in the pew, but left with a sewn-up head and cheek, and a ride back to her village. Even with my pitiful Creole, I was able to communicate—it turns out agony and fear don’t have much trouble crossing language barriers.

I was evacuated from Haiti seven days later, but it took weeks to process my experience. My gauze and forceps had been taken away. I was left with insufficient words, and a sense of utter helplessness. I was also left with wider eyes, and a fierce conviction about my medical education.

Maggie Higgins ’08 is in her second semester as a post-baccalaureate, premed student at Loyola University in Chicago.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Amanda Zantal-Wiener. Amanda Zantal-Wiener said: I'm not sure when exactly it was written, but here is one pre-med's harrowing account of what's going on in Haiti – http://bit.ly/8Z3QBQ [...]

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