It is Saturday Night and I finally have a chance to sit down and go over the last 24 hours of my odyssey, before finally making it home to my family. My last shift in the hospital was relatively quiet except for the 7 babies born, 2 by cesarean section. Thankfully, the director of the hospital is an Ob-Gyn and was in house, because I haven't caught a baby since my med school rotation eight years prior. I only had to cover from 10pm to 4am because two additional physicians had arrived that day and were taking the shifts before and after.
The night went very slowly. I think the anticipation of finally leaving and getting on a plane kept me up even after my shift ended. I tried to sleep from 4 to 6 but eventually just got up, packed, and then went on the roof to catch one last Caribbean sunrise. Tons of thought were going through my head, mainly sadness for these people. Even with the thousands of volunteers and millions (billions?) of dollars that are going to come into this country, it seems an insurmountable task. Food, water, and medical care will eventually trickle down to the Haitians over the next few weeks, I have no doubt. But then what. There is no government, no functioning civil service, no natural resources, no infrastructure, rainy season coming, dare I say no hope?.
The amazing thing I guess is that the Haitians themselves don't seem to be daunted. They appear at first glance to be a hardy, spiritual, and resilient people, yet I wonder if that is just based on ignorance of how bad the situation really is long term.
At 630, Kate, Joe (A Loma-Linda Med School student), and I went with our bags (as I mentioned I now had one mostly empty bag instead of 2 stuffed ones) to the front gate of the hospital where Mimi (an orthopedic surgeon from LA staying up the road but working in the hospital with us) was waiting with a truck she had arranged to take us to the airport. The early morning drive was a little different than the midafternoon one although the route was the same. There was alot of activity on the street, lines of people already formed at western unions and banks where people were waiting to receive cash from abroad, open markets selling produce brought in from countryside, lines of buses which we were told were giving free rides out of the city twice a day in line with the plan to clear out the capital. The buses were mostly empty. I think by now anybody with family in the country has already mostly left for greener pastures.
The airport seemed pretty empty. There was a strong US military and federal customs presence. We flashed our passports and were taken quickly through an x-ray machine with Haitian security (Not sure what they were looking for as they ignored both my pocketknives and the guy behind me's shotgun which he had hidden in a violin case for his security). We went through to the tarmac and consular officials made us sign a form stating that we would be willing to pay the fair market value of a 1 way ticket from Haiti to whatever destination in exchange for being allowed to depart on a military transport. Not really sure what the going rate is, but that didn't really matter.
From about 730 until 1130, we were herded into a large tent given water, and some snacks. We were given numbered bracelets (I was 56). Planes were already coming and going. I saw Bolivian, Brazilian, Russian, and USA(Delta, Suncountry, and Ari Force) planes. They couldn't give us any information, so we just sat and waited. Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta were spotted about 20 feet away in an apparent VIP area. Mimi is a huge Sanjay fan, so we convinced the guards to let us out, ran over to him and took a picture. (I'm pretty sure they had a chartered jet;Didn't see them on our flight :-)
Finally at 1130, everyone seemed to get up and we walked behind a C-17 Air Force cargo jet towards the back ramp. They had us leave our bags at the entrance, one last passport confirmation and then up the ramp where we were placed in rows 8 across and then given blanket and pillow and sat on the cold metal floor of the plane for takeoff. Everyone was giddy and smiling and I think for the most part just happy to have gotten on a plane. They told us Orlando was our destination so I quickly texted Abby to look into auto rentals from Orlando to home.
The plane ride itself was sort of surreal. Taking off lying down holding onto a cargo strap made us think of those NASA shots of the space shuttle. The ride itself was uneventful and we got off in Sanford to a heroes welcome. Customs agent quickly got us through and then red cross volunteers had taken over the baggage claim area and were giving away food, drinks, medical help and travel arrangement help. It is amazing to think these volunteers must be on standby and get mobilized once or twice a day to help the offloading relief volunteers. It went far and above the call and I think we were all a little embarrassed to be receiving help we didn't think we deserved after so many days of just giving. They offered bus rides to Orlando airport about 30 miles away. Thankfully Hertz had a car ready and Joe, Kate and I were soon on the road heading for home.
You typically hear things like, "this will be a life changing experience", or ,"You'll never be the same again". I can't speak to any of that while it is so fresh, but I can come up with a few conclusions. The first is that going to do 3rd world medicine is definitely addicting. Taking a few days off from Co-pays, Insurances, and hospital politics to step back and remember exactly why I trained to do what I do, and be able to just give of yourself and help people is intoxicating. I met a man who shut down his practice the year his last child went to college and now he does six months a year of locum tenems (part-time doctoring) to pay the bills and then six months a year of medical missionary work. He goes all over the world and will spend a month at a time in Africa, Southern Asia, South and Central America operating. While I don't see myself going to this extreme, I will definitely be doing something like this again.
Additionally, Haiti is going to need our help for a very long time. Even as they exit from this acute phase of the tragedy, there will be opportunities to help them for years to come. As many of the international relief efforts slow down in the coming weeks, the need for American assistance will be even more paramount. Before leaving, I spoke to the leaders of the two major Adventist groups that we worked with and I will meet with hospital personnel this week. We will be sending more trips and my plan is to sponsor the next one with the money we raised prior to me leaving (at last count about $6-7,000).
Signing off for now.
Thanks to all of you for all of your support and for following me on my journey.