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Haiti - A journalist's journal - Peace, passion, penance

Published:Sunday | January 24, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Ian Allen/Photographer
An injured woman is transported in a wheelbarrow in Port-au-Prince, Haiti yesterday. Along with thousands of other persons, she was injured during last week's 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

Our reporter, Laura Redpath, returned from Haiti, which was flattened by a 7.0 earthquake on January 12. This is her journal of destruction, desperation and pain - a living nightmare.

Day 1

Covering Haiti was my first time reporting during a state of emergency. The incredible experience didn't begin with my arrival; it began with my vaccinations against malaria, diphtheria and polio.

I set my alarm for 11:50 p.m. Friday, and as soon as it went off, my heart sank. For the first time on Thursday, I planted myself in front of the television and watched as much Haiti coverage as I could. What I saw frightened me and I wasn't sure if I could handle it. My husband didn't say much, but I could sense his tension, and this made me apprehensive.

He helped me gather my things and drove me to the Bustamante Hospital for Children where I met eight doctors with whom I'd be travelling. They were Dr Shane Alexis, Dr Arlington Lightbourne, Dr Adriana Hamilton, Dr Donna Braham, Dr Khia Duncan, Dr Tanya Douglas, Dr Naomi Swaby and Dr Vincent Riley. From the children's hospital, we drove to the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) base on South Camp Road where we met with soldiers and Ministry of Health doctors, nurses and officials. All of us left in a convoy with the military and headed for the Norman Manley International Airport.

Exhausted and hungry

One thing that will always stand out for me is the amount of time we spent waiting. Sooner than later, I realised this time was less about getting there and really more about honouring protocol.

We arrived in Port-au-Prince at approximately 6:30 a.m., exhausted and hungry. This wasn't really a surprise, as we had been 'officially' on our way to Haiti for the last six hours. My stomach growled and this served as a wake-up call to me. If I felt this way, I could only imagine how the earthquake victims must be feeling having not eaten for days. Someone was kind enough to pass around a loaf of bread on the aircraft while we waited to get off the plane. I took a small chunk so as to ease the nausea I had been feeling since I took my anti-malaria tablet the night before.

I was in awe when I stepped off the Air Jamaica flight. There were journalists everywhere, already up and about, perched by satellite dishes, dressed in camouflage, towing tons of equipment. I took out my recorder and camera, energised and motivated by the bustling activity around me.

Major Jaimie Ogilve greeted us, and around 8:30 a.m., we moved to the camp at Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport's runway. We watched the planes coming and going out for the next couple of hours, felt the ground shake with another tremor, and ate army rations. I was hesitant at first, but curious. What could possibly come in cardboard boxes the width of half an inch? I looked around me and saw everyone else examining the packages, too. Dr Edgar Abbot tore his open and pulled out a grey plastic bag. So, I opened mine too, realising the bags held food (chili and pasta, which was actually cold ravioli, chicken and dumplings, pears, dried cranberries, oatmeal cookies, etc) that we had to scoop out with a spoon. We realised the food was high in carbs and low in fibre. However, that was the last time I ate the army's food.

Eight doctors

I was embedded with the eight doctors and we should have left the airport the minute we arrived. We waited, as required by protocol, because we were now in the care of the JDF soldiers. The JDF and some from the ministry team went to Santé de Centre Bernhard Mevs to determine the level of safety there. Dr Lightbourne was anxious to get out into the field and start working, but the waiting dragged on and eventually, the burnt-out doctors caught up on much-needed rest.

Finally, four hours after arriving, we could leave. Kathleen Zuraik came in an armoured vehicle to pick up the nine of us and take us to the hospital. She was getting increasingly angry, screaming at soldiers, telling them to stop talking and start moving.

"People are dying while you are waiting!" she screamed.

Truer words had never been spoken. People were dying while protocol sorted itself out. We got in the car and she sped off, taking us through the gate guarded by United Nations police and JDF soldiers. It was a completely different world out there.

"Why don't they stop traffic from coming on this street?" Kathleen asked. "Why don't they?"

There were scores of Haitians out there, looking for work, and no one was letting them in. When night fell, they became more agitated, sometimes pushing at the gate to the sounds of warning shots.

We drove through the streets and were captivated by the desperation of these people. They wore masks to lessen the stench of dead bodies. A building next to the hospital had collapsed and by the time we left, the smell of death became stronger. Uncertain at first, we knew for sure then, that there were bodies trapped underneath all of that rubble.

Chaos! The hospital was in complete disarray. Makeshift beds were set up outside because no one wanted to be inside a building. I'm trying, but there is nothing I can say that will do justice to what I saw.

I saw a dedicated mother, holding her baby to her chest as she sang and rocked him to sleep. He had an IV hooked up to him and when he finally nodded off, she gently placed him inside his crib and kept vigil. The next day, she was still there, fanning with a piece of cloth to keep the scavenger-like flies away.

At one point, I stood on the spot and just stared. Beads of sweat poured down these doctors' faces as they hurried around, distributing medicine and changing days-old bandages.

Patients were wheeled in and out of surgery, going in with all their limbs, and coming out without one. Amputations went on all day.

I found a table and some chairs in what used to be the cafeteria. It now served as storage space for medicine and food. This was where I set up my workstation and used my alone time to gather my thoughts before I settled down to write. Eventually, a toddler who kept saying, "mama! Mama! Mama! Mama!" over and over again, got to me. I can still hear his voice and feel the pain and sadness that laced it. I needed to get out, so I grabbed my camera and went outside to take photos as a way of distraction.

One of the tasks I had to fulfil, aside from writing and photojournalism, was collecting audio. I walked around with my headphones plugged into the recorder and I listened very carefully in order to make sure I got sound bites I could use. Everything sounded so close, magnified by my headphones, and I felt as if the screaming was crawling into my head. I didn't know how to stop it. The best thing I could do was look at the blood-stained ground while I captured audio, and block out sounds as best as I could, while getting the visuals.

Echo of her wailing

That evening, one of the last scenes I saw that will stay with me forever is a woman who was missing four of her toes. She squirmed, eyes shut tightly, and the echo of her wailing carried into the night. I froze and watched Dr Alexis clean the red, soft, spongy tissue of her flesh. My stomach turned and for the first time that day, I felt the tears coming. A nurse came out of nowhere and grabbed the patient's head, pushing it into her bosom and she rocked the woman, muffling her cries.

"Hush! Shhhh!" she said, her eyes, too, filling with tears. "Shhhh!"

The nurse's fingers clenched and she closed her eyes.

The Jamaican doctors sat in the office and discussed a new plan of action.

"We're almost out of medication," Dr Hamilton said.

The brainstorming began as they tried to figure out how they could stretch the medicine in order to make it last longer. One of the things they discussed was adding saline to the antibiotics.

"No man," Dr Douglas said. "That woman's situation grieved me."

"Which woman?"

"She had a fracture in her arm that was cutting off one of the blood vessels. You know that needed to be amputated."

With 15 minutes left to the 7 p.m. curfew, we ran out of the hospital, amid chaos and shouting. There we were, running along the street towards our transportation that looked like a cattle truck. JDF soldiers were there, throwing us on to the back of the truck with our bags, and before long, we were rocking through the Port-au-Prince streets in the darkness. The truck was travelling through the crowd at a high speed and at one point, it hit a pothole that forced my knee to lock into position. I could feel a snap, but the pain was the least of my worries. Anxiety pressed in on us and we held on for dear life.

We made it through the gate just in time, and soon enough, we were back at the base: two large tents on wooden sticks in the middle of what felt like nowhere. I felt relief, exhaustion and despair. The doctors seemed depressed and the things they said weren't very hopeful. A lot of these people, the injured survivors, were going to die. The harsh reality is the number of casualties, aside from those caused by the earthquake, would rise if these people did not receive follow-up care.

Dr Lightbourne said he didn't feel as if he had done much because most of the patients required surgery, and surgery wasn't his speciality. Dr Alexis gave him a pep talk and told him that everything he did, no matter how small, made a difference.

The camp was quiet by 8 p.m. as most of the doctors went to sleep. I set up my cot a couple of metres away from the tents; I felt the need for a lot of space and I wasn't feeling well because of my fever. Eventually, I went to sleep and woke up half an hour later when a plane took off. Sleep was one of the luxuries, aside from running water, regular meals and electricity, that I had to give up. The temperature dropped, I became congested and I realised we were all going to freeze out there in 16-18 degree weather, not accounting for the wind chill.

A few members of the United States search and rescue team next to our camp came over and told JDF soldiers they had got word of five persons trapped underneath a collapsed building. They were alive. A couple of hours later, by approximately 11p.m., the JDF got approval to provide armed escort to the US team, and they set off into the night. By 8 a.m. the next day, we heard they had rescued three of the five persons and they were still working on it.

By 3 a.m., Ministry of Health doctors were getting up, getting in gear for another long day. By 4 a.m., there was a tremor that had a magnitude of 5.0. I had given up on sleep and listened to the camps by the runway come to life.

Day 2

By now, the smell of blood and infections was the norm. My own body odour smelled stale and I got used to the flies buzzing around my head as well as the itch from mosquito bites. I moved in and out of hospital beds and patients lying on flattened cardboard boxes. There were at least 25 patients who had been 'admitted'. By now, the doctors had set up some sort of administrative system to keep track of patients in order to facilitate follow-up care.

I slipped into my routine of taking photos, capturing audio, writing, taking photos, capturing audio and writing. By the afternoon, I felt useless, so I kept reminding the doctors that I was available to help in any way I could.

Medical supplies arrived in a Greek ambulance and the doctors dug into supplies sent from Morocco so they could administer health care. A team of Colombian nurses, who were also nuns, arrived, and Spanish was added to the mix of English and French Creole.

A Colombian nurse approached me, speaking in French Creole. I looked at her helplessly, trying to convey how sorry I was that I didn't speak the language.

"Español?" she asked.

"Sí," I responded.

And so we spoke to each other in Spanish. She asked me where I was from and I told her Jamaica. She then introduced another nurse to me who only spoke Spanish and I helped her look for supplies, as she needed them.


Dr Hamilton told me that I was welcome to join them in the operating room to take photos. So, I put on surgical wear, following her and Dr Carlos Wilson as they prepared a young girl for surgery.

The girl, who didn't appear to be older than 13, was crying, while her father looked on helplessly. She had a bandage wrapped around her ankle and sucked in her breath sharply every time her leg shifted.

"Move your bottom!" Dr Hamilton shouted at her in frustration as she tried to move her on to a gurney with Dr Wilson's help. By now, there were nurses translating for the Jamaican doctors and Dr Hamilton told one of them to get the patient to move on to the gurney. The girl's father picked her up, cradling her and almost dropping her, as he struggled to move her dead weight.

Dr Hamilton and Dr Wilson wheeled her into the operating room where Dr Hamilton, the only anaesthesiologist, administered anaesthesia. Before long, the young girl's eyes closed, her breathing regular, Dr Hamilton keeping a close eye on her vitals.

Dr Wilson removed the bandage, and there it was: a wound the size of my hand, gaping and revealing the inner workings of a leg. The bone, with a black tip, was exposed and her white flesh (reminding me of coconut jelly) had a green tinge to it.

I put the camera down as there wasn't much I could take and helped the doctors as best as I could by passing gauze and gloves. Whenever the girl shifted in her unconscious state, I helped Dr Hamilton hold her while she administered more anaesthesia.

Dr Wilson flushed out the wound, cleaning it, and collected a container (measuring about 8" x 10" and 3" deep) of blood. Meanwhile, in the operating room right next door, an amputation was going on. Dr Edgar Abbott, supported by a team of doctors and nurses, amputated a man's leg. Because of the lack of supplies, Wilson and Abbott had to share what they had with each other.

As soon as Wilson was finished cleaning the girl's wound, I felt cold sweat wash over me. I grabbed the camera and recorder and went outside for some air. The foul air seemed fresh at the time.

On my way back to my safe haven, near the back of the hospital, I saw a woman with her eyes closed and a large black patch on her leg. After walking over to her and looking closely, I realised the black patch was made up of flies. They were very still, just sitting there. I waved my hand and they took off, exposing an open, fleshy and obviously infected wound.

Tired and frustrated

Dr Donna Braham came inside the hospital looking very tired and frustrated.

"I just saw," she began, "a woman who had her hand sutured up. She had fractures all throughout her hand. So when I opened it and started cleaning out her hand, whoever sutured her hand did it with stones inside.

"And, I don't mean one or two stones. I mean 10 or 20."

Kathleen took us downtown Port-au-Prince to see the devastation for ourselves. A lot of it I had already been seen on TV, but one moment stands out for me.

Dr Naomi Swaby and I got out of the car to take photos when people started coming over, pointing and talking. We got back in and I turned around to see a child with lips and the surrounding skin, dry and cracked. He was chewing on crackers, which he obviously could not swallow. Kathleen handed me the half bottle of water in the car to give him, which he took before leaving.

That evening, back at camp, I felt my big toe throbbing in pain. So I decided, for the first time since I arrived, to take off my sock and check on my ingrown nail. I muttered a string of expletives (all of which are inappropriate for this piece) and showed Dr Win beside me. My toe became infected and Abbott offered to remove it for me.

"It won't take any time," he said.

As tempted as I was to let this amazing surgeon provide me with some relief, I declined. Somehow, getting an infected toe fixed up while open wounds became hot spots for buzzing flies didn't seem right.

Dr Win gave me some antibiotics she had in her purse and crushed another antibiotic pill to put on my toe. I was incredibly grateful for the comfort she provided.

Day 3

The JDF soldiers told us they had got a generator, but no diesel. While the Canadian and US camps next to us had electricity and running water, our camp had none. The bus, which should have taken the ministry doctors to the hospital at 6 a.m., ran out of fuel. Four hours after their scheduled departure, the doctors were still waiting at the camp.

The team of seven doctors (Dr Hamilton chose to stay behind as she was the only doctor who could administer anaesthesia) was trying to get on a flight out of Haiti and back to Jamaica in order to mobilise the right tools and supplies needed. Finally, it was nearly noon and we got word that a Canadian military plane, the C130, was heading back to Jamaica. We moved as fast as we could to make that flight.

Upon arriving home, I heard the aircraft team discussing whether the supplies were still good, as they had been sitting on the runway waiting for clearance. They were debating whether they should throw them out. I didn't hear the end of that debate.

I got in the car with my husband and for the first time since arriving in Haiti, I broke down. Once the tears started, they couldn't stop. I mentioned before that there is nothing I could say that would do justice to what I saw. This earthquake caused a complete, living nightmare and I haven't even scratched the surface of it. I came across all sorts of challenges, both personal and journalistic. The smell still lingers, a reminder of the animalistic horror that our fellow human beings are living through.