Thursday, January 28, 2010

Heartbreak and heroes

Bill Shore is founder of Share our Strength. He wrote this dispatch after a mission to Haiti with Jeff Swartz, CEO of Timberland. They flew down in the company plane with relief supplies. Then, make sure you read the post just below, too, which confirms Bill's point about heartbreak and heroes.

Haiti’s general hospital looks like the world’s largest battlefield MASH unit. Patients are being transported from all directions and vast numbers of wounded and recovering wait on the ground. Doctors in makeshift operating rooms are so cool and professional you’d expect them to someday be played by George Clooney and Meryl Streep.

“Sixty to seventy percent of the hospitals’ buildings have been damaged” explains Doctor David Walton, a 12 year veteran of Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health, who splits his time between Haiti and Boston. He walks us past the green open air wound care tents. He then leads us through white tents crammed with cots where post-operative care is provided to many of the poorest people in the world by a handful of the best doctors in the world, with the least amount of modern medical equipment.

This hospital is a microcosm of many issues converging in Haiti today: the challenge of coordinating individuals from numerous institutions, the lack of basic infrastructure, the heartbreak of so many children left to survive on their own and in the street, the resilience of the Haitian people who are playing a major role in their own recovery. Mostly it underscores the need for taking a long view and making an almost unimaginably long term commitment.

For example, one of the unique and terrible legacies of this disaster will be the large number of people who needed to have limbs amputated. Many were lying quietly on cots after surgery, between 12 and 20 to a tent, some sutured but not bandaged. Some were soon to be released, but of course not to their home which no longer exists, but to the sidewalk or a tent city erected in parks and on hillsides across Port au Prince.

The day after visiting I called former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, who lost his leg in Vietnam, had nearly a dozen surgeries, and eventually returned there to help establish prosthetic clinics. I used to be his chief-of-staff and knew how well he understood the need. This is what he explained: “Making prosthetics is not complicated, but there is artistry involved. A five year old girl that needs to be fit for prosthesis will need to be fit for another when she’s seven, and again when she’s 12, and then every six months for awhile. She’ll need prosthetic services for the rest of her life.

“In the US that would cost at least $15,000 a person, but it can be done less expensively in Haiti and elsewhere. We wouldn’t have enough expertise here in the U.S. to ship to Haiti even if we wanted to. What we need to do is build training centers for prosthetic technicians so we can help kids but also employ Haitians.” Kerrey offered to chair a national committee to bring such expertise and resources to Haiti.

When we returned to the air field in Port au Prince to head back home, helicopters of all sizes were touching town and taking off as quickly as commuters getting their morning coffee at a McDonald’s drive through window. Relief workers from different organizations were shouting over the noise of the engines, introducing themselves, helping each other load or unload. Some who’d been since right after the quake were hitching flights that might somehow get them home from Haiti, like weary refugees looking for letters of transit to leave Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca.

The longer we traveled through Haiti over the last couple of days, the more Timberland’s Jeff Swartz and I found ourselves feeling this paradox. Everything we saw reinforced how blessed we were in our comfortable lives and why we should never want for more.

But at the same time it was impossible to not keep adding to the list of people we wished we were or want to be when we grow up: the soldier from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne who carried a woman in his own arms from the street into the general hospital because there was no stretcher and no time; the 35 year old doctor from Grand Rapids who left for Haiti a week ago on two hours notice and ran a hospital 10 miles outside of Port au Prince where he had nothing but farm tools to perform everything from amputations to delivering a baby; the mother of three who opened her home to us in the hills high above Port au Prince and had more than a dozen people she’d never met until that evening sleeping on her floors and in the bed she and her husband gave up. They are the kind of people who are not only making Haiti better, but us better too.

Heartbreak and heroes never seem to be too far from one another in this world. Each has their own way of seeming to appear out of nowhere. We saw both at every turn on this journey. Thank you for the commitment to what we do at Share Our Strength that enables us to support and sustain such heroes whether in Haiti or here at home.

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