Personal Stories from Haiti

Wesley Laîné ’10 and Michael G. Hughes, M.D., ’84 shared candid observations about their recent travels to Haiti.

Holy Cross Magazine asked Wesley Laîné ’10 and Michael G. Hughes, M.D., ’84 to speak about their recent travels to help with the aid mission in Haiti. Laîné was there in October as part of a group that brings clean water supplies to areas that need it most. Hughes, an ER physician by training, went in April to assist in the medical needs in Port-au-Prince. Both men returned with vivid stories to share.

Rocks in the Water, Rocks in the Sun

Written by Lisa Armstrong

Wesley Laîné ’10 went home to Haiti in October with about $500 in cash. He was determined not to bring any of it back.

As soon as Laîné, 22, exited the airport in Port-au-Prince, a young man, about his age, said to him in Creole, “You’re a young man like me. Please, help me out.”

Laîné gave him $20. He was moved not just by the young man’s plea, but by the fact that, had Laîné not had the chance to emigrate to the United States, he could well have been in that man’s shoes.

“It took me through so many emotions,” says Laîné. “He was my age—the reality is that he was me. It was ironic that the first person I saw, was myself.”

Laîné was born in Haiti and moved with his father and sister to Oklahoma in 2000. Growing up in Port-au-Prince, he lived in slum areas. Laîné’s mother died when he was a year old, and he says he does not know how his father, a pastor who did odd jobs on the side, was able to support his sister and him with the little he made. Still, despite the fact that he did not have much material wealth, he did not remember ever feeling sorry for himself.

“At the end of the day, I knew we would always be OK,” says Laîné.

Still, he says that it is this stark division between rich and poor, or between the rocks in the water and the ones baking in the sun, as he puts it, that has kept Haiti in this emergency phase since the earthquake, because the politicians and those with money are doing little to help their fellow Haitians.

“[The Haitian author] Edwidge Danticat says that Haiti is a mother with two children, the privileged, and the poor,” says Laîné. “I don’t want to perpetuate the division between the two, but the rocks in the water don’t know how the rocks in the sun feel. The political elite are playing games, while the rocks in the sun are suffering.”

At Holy Cross, Laîné studied political science, with a French minor and concentration in African Studies, and now works at International Action, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that helps to provide clean water for Haitians.

He went to Haiti in October 2010, right after the start of the cholera outbreak. While there, Laîné visited the African Methodist Episcopal Church Service and Development Agency Hospital in Arcahaie, where International Action was installing a chlorinator. There, he saw an old man sharing a wooden pallet with a 3-year-old girl. Both had IVs in their arms. The man was naked, save for diapers. He was unconscious, but the doctors and nurses were trying to save him.

Laîné was filming, documenting the work that he and the International Action team and he had been doing, but, when he saw the old man, he stopped. He instinctively turned off the camera because he could see that the old man was dying.

“It’s the first time I’d ever seen someone die in front of me,” says Laîné. “I said, as a Haitian, I cannot film this. This man was my elder; as a young Haitian, I would call him ‘uncle.’ These are my people, my family. Would you want the world to see your father, your sister in a situation where they would feel pity?”

The next day, Laîné and the International Action team left Arcahaie. As they drove through different towns, he saw many funerals—people burying loved ones who had died from cholera. In Saint Marc, Laîné gave a family $100 as they did not have enough for a funeral.

A few days later, Laîné headed back to the United States. As he was going through airport security in Port-au-Prince, on his way to catch his flight, he discovered that he still had $60 in his pocket. He asked the woman at the security desk if he could go back outside, as he had forgotten to do something.

Laîné distributed his last remaining dollars—he gave $20 to some young women, $20 to a child and $20 to a man simply selling his paintings.

Through a Doctor’s Eyes: On the Ground in Haiti

Written by Michael G. Hughes, M.D., ’84

In April, Michael G. Hughes, M.D., ’84 spent a week at Haiti’s Port-au-Prince University Hospital, the main ER for the city, trying to help as many as he could with limited resources. What follows is his recollection of that very intense and wrenching time, shared through his physician’s lens.

22-year-old trauma victim, head injury, unconscious, responding only to painful stimuli. You’ve done this a hundred times: ABCDE—Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Disability, Exposure. Secure the airway by intubation if necessary, check breath sounds and place a chest tube if there are signs of a pneumothorax. Start two IVs and place a central line into a large vein if necessary, open IV fluids to keep blood pressure above 90 systolic. Check neurologic status, cut off clothing, roll the patient to check for back injury. Secondary survey when the patient is stabilized, go from head to toe. Talk to the ambulance drivers and family when you get a moment. CT scans of the head and neck, chest, abdomen and pelvis as well. Call the surgeon and get them involved early; this guy looks like he will need the OR. Standard Advanced Trauma Life Support protocol, you could deal with this anywhere.

But Haiti is not anywhere, not in April of 2010. The earthquake took what passed for a healthcare system and shook it away. The emergency department for Port-au-Prince—a city larger than Boston—consists of three tents. No CT scanner, a few rudimentary x-ray machines, rare to be able to get a blood test, let alone a transfusion. The rainy season is starting and water pours down hard every night. You have to be careful to try to keep the lighting dry, and your scrubs are always wet. You get called out to the pavement at night to deliver a baby on the street because the stretchers are full in the obstetrics tent and while running to help you step on a rat. The patients have diseases that to you are names from an Infectious Disease class: dengue, typhoid, malaria, tuberculosis. But here, young people are dying from them, night after night. Twenty percent of the population vanished in the past three months. There is a widespread acceptance of the idea of death that seems strange to an American—but when it happens to a family member, the response is devastation.

Your patient is transported in the back of the truck by his friends after he fell off the moving vehicle. There are no ambulances here. He is unconscious with a large head wound, and one pupil is slightly larger than the other. He takes shallow breaths. You could intubate him but there are no ventilators to be found so it is pointless. There is no CT scanner to evaluate his brain injuries and no neurosurgeon to operate on them. You confer with a trauma surgeon from the United States who is present and you both realize there is nothing you can do. You lay the patient outside; space must be freed up in the tent for the next patient. When the morning sun and heat comes, he is still breathing shallow breaths. You try to move him into the shade and keep his lips moist. After more than eight hours, he dies alone.

You suffered through Organic Chemistry in college, going to labs wet and cold after crew practice. You suffered through Physiology, Pharmacology and a week of cramming to pass the boards in med school. You suffered through every other night call in internship, and moonlighting nights in small town emergency rooms to make an extra buck during residency. All so you could try to alleviate the suffering of others. You get to a point in your career when you feel confident and competent.

 Then you come to Haiti and you realize how little you know. You cannot turn your back on all the death; you cannot prevent it from happening. You must comfort yourself with the smile of a mother when you reassured her that her child would be OK, or the procedure you did that alleviated a patient’s pain for the day. In the morning, at the end of a long night shift, you fall into bed and try to clear your mind for a few hours of sleep. You awake to do it again, and the nights don’t change much. You haven’t worked this hard since internship, and the other doctors beside you are doing the same. As a premed student you answered the question in med school interviews like everyone else; you wanted to become a doctor “to help people.” You leave Haiti exhausted, feeling guiltier for those you couldn’t help than proud for those you could. 

Michael G. Hughes, M.D., ’84 lives in Cohasset, Mass., with his wife, Nina, and their children, Samantha and Max. A member of the President’s Council, Hughes was a chemistry major and a varsity rower at Holy Cross, and received his medical degree from University of Massachusetts Medical School. He currently works as an ER physician at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass.