Haiti's Struggle

Written by Lisa Armstrong

When Wesley Laîné ’10 first saw the news on television about the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti, his instinct was to get on a plane to go and help. At the time, Laîné, who was born in Haiti and moved to the United States in 2000 at the age of 12, was about to start his final semester at Holy Cross. He had no idea how he would help but thought that, by just being there, he could make a difference.

Laîné’s father, Emmanuel, had other ideas.

“He said, ‘You have one semester left. Get it done, then you can go play Superman,’” recalls Laîné, 22.

And that’s what he did. But while going to class and completing his major in political science with a minor in French and an Africana studies concentration, he helped organize an unprecedented student-driven response to the crisis in Haiti, ultimately raising almost $20,000. After graduation, Laîné began a job as a project manager with International Action, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that helps to provide clean water in Haiti. He finally got his chance to go to Haiti in October, when the cholera crisis began, and was shocked and saddened by what he saw.

“I felt that, even though I was home, I was in a different place—seeing the rubble, driving by the [destroyed] palace-— that sickened me because, for a lot of us, that’s the pride of our country,” says Laîné. “I like to be positive, but I felt that our country was at a point where it seemed like we were pretty much damned.”

There are many in Haiti who share Laîné’s sentiment. Though the earthquake happened nearly a year ago, for many Haitians, little has changed. Most of the 1.5 million displaced still live under tarps and tents, in often squalid and unsafe camps. Women and girls are especially vulnerable, and, since the earthquake, there has been a significant increase in the number of rapes. Many organizations stopped distributing food in April to deter people from moving to camps to access the free services. As a result, many have had to go hungry.

A report released in October 2010 by Refugees International states: “The people of Haiti are still living in a state of emergency, with a humanitarian response that appears paralyzed.” It’s a puzzling fact, given the billions of dollars pledged by nations and donated by individuals worldwide.

Critics complain that a lot of money has been spent on housing, security and food for non-governmental organization (NGO) staff, while Haitians languish in the camps. Experts also say that, in order to make any progress, NGOs need to do a better job of listening to and working with the Haitian people.

“The problem with the NGOs and the U.N. is that they are not listening to the voices of the Haitians and are not including them in the process,” says Nicole Phillips, staff attorney at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). “When you have NGOs with no accountability, no transparency, you don’t know where the money has been spent.”

Still, Phillips says, in the beginning, when the focus was on rubble removal and rescue, and the medical teams came from around the world, there was hope.

A premed economics major on the Hill, Navy Cmdr. Tim Donahue, M.D., ’91, arrived in Haiti on Jan. 19, 2010, on the USNS Comfort, where he was chief of surgery. Donahue had been assigned to the ship, which is a 1,000-bed medical treatment facility, since 2005; one of his first trips was to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Two patients were flown in the night the Comfort arrived in the Port-au-Prince harbor. Despite the seriousness of their injuries—one patient was an 8-year-old boy with a crushed pelvis and ruptured bladder—Donahue and his staff were easily able to treat them.

“We thought we’re going to be able to handle this,” says Donahue, who is now stationed in Bethesda, Md. “But the next morning, patients started arriving by helicopter every nine minutes for the next 40 hours. We were crushed. It was the busiest I’ve ever been. Every single space was covered with patients.”

Donahue is a urologist, but he assisted with different kinds of surgeries. Hundreds of people arrived with fractures and amputations. Some people had severe burns and other injuries that they could not survive, so Donahue and his team did what they could do to make them comfortable. The Comfort doctors and nurses also treated hundreds of children, including newborns. In the chaos of the first few days, Donahue remembers that one newborn was flown to the Comfort, while her mother was taken somewhere else. They were later reunited.

“The kids were always the saddest. There were just some devastating injuries; those just break your heart,” says Donahue. “There’s a side of me that’s pretty emotional, but the reality is that, as a physician, you have to push back the emotional issues to be effective.”

Among the patients who made a particular impression on Donahue in the seven weeks the Comfort was off the coast of Haiti is 19-year-old Marie. Marie had been in a car accident that shattered her leg just prior to Jan. 12. She’d been in a hospital bed at the general hospital, scheduled to have a leg amputation, when the earthquake destroyed the building. Everything crumbled, save for the corner of the ward, near the stairwell, where Marie lay.

After Marie was brought to the ship, Donahue says, “We took her to the [operating room] 14 times in 30 days.” Through operations and skin grafts, they were able to save her leg so that it did not need to be amputated as originally planned.
Donahue was also impressed by the demeanor of his Haitian patients, and the resilience of the Haitian people overall. In the early, frantic first days, he told his staff to look at the patients, telling them, “If you notice, the quietest people and the most serene are the Haitians.

“Because life is hard on a daily basis, I think there’s a different approach to suffering,” says Donahue. “When life throws curve balls, they, as a group, as a nation, respond in a stoic way.”

Fellow Holy Cross graduate Elizabeth Sheehan ’81 also noted that incredible stoicism when she went to Haiti last summer. She was horrified too by the conditions in which she saw people living.

“We were driving down streets paved with garbage, and my reaction as a clinician was that there was a public health hazard, with the water and the garbage and the kids putting their hands in it and then to their mouths,” Sheehan says. “It’s unbelievable that it’s an hour from Miami and this is happening.”
Sheehan is the founder of Containers to Clinics (C2C), an organization that converts metal shipping containers into medical clinics that can then be used in the developing world.

After Holy Cross, Sheehan received a master’s degree in health sciences from Duke University and worked as a physician’s assistant. In 1991, moved by the desire to use her medical skills in an international context, she travelled to 20 developing countries (including Cambodia and Mozambique, where she implemented medical evacuation programs for groups clearing landmines) to observe the delivery of primary health care. Sheehan completed a master’s degree in public health in 1995 at the London School of Hygeine & Tropical Medicine and returned to work for the U.S. State Department on a primary health care reconstruction project. Most recently, she lived in Tanzania and was a member of the British High Commission.

During her years overseas, Sheehan saw that people, particularly women, did not have access to well-stocked and well-staffed rural medical clinics. This lack of access to health care meant that the most vulnerable populations were sick or dying in very high numbers. In some places, she met women who wouldn’t name babies for six months because they knew so many would die. “But it’s not that they’re poor and helpless, it’s that they’re poor and voiceless,” Sheehan says. “They are resilient and grounded and resourceful.”

Two years ago, Sheehan saw a magazine article that showcased a shipping container that had been converted into a house. She realized that she could do the same thing, but make the containers into clinics.

“There are walls of shipping containers in every single port, unused,” says Sheehan. “Most are made in China, filled up and shipped to poor countries that have no export. So they pile up.”