NEW YORK NURSE: April 2010
by Mark Genovese
“When we first arrived, we saw such devastation. I’d seen it on the television news, but this was the real thing. I thought: ‘Good God. The suffering is overwhelming.’”
It was Jan. 27. Cecelia Williams, a veteran RN from St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan, had just arrived in Port-au-Prince to help care for victims of the Haitian earthquake at the city’s General Hospital. The eight-day mission, arranged through the Haitian-American Nurses Association, included 10 RNs and New York City fire and emergency personnel.
“Everything was flattened. Villages were wiped out,” Williams said. “People were digging for lost family, but to no avail. It’s so hard for them to start again. Their houses had concrete roofs and couldn’t be rebuilt. So they salvaged what they could, then abandoned them.”
Volunteers were housed in a gated complex with two buildings that had four bathrooms for 300 people. Yet Williams didn’t feel inconvenienced. “Everybody stopped thinking about themselves,” she said. “We all had one goal – and it was the work. We were always thinking that we’re going to give them our best.” They each found a corner and opened their sleeping bags. Volunteers woke up at different hours because they all had different shifts.
“We didn’t have any coffee or a way to boil water,” she said. “We never got hungry. Some snacks were available, but we gave them to the patients. Some hadn’t eaten in days. You just wanted to be able to give them more.”
Patients were seen in large tents constructed in the hospital compound. The lines were long and so were the days. “Everything was quick-quick-quick,” Williams said. “We did wound care, community nursing, psychiatric care… a little bit of everything.” There was also a maternity unit, “because you can’t tell a baby, ‘you can’t be born right now.’”
The support services that nurses take for granted weren’t available. “We couldn’t call the lab,” Williams said. “We had to do our own transfusions, and assist in the operating room. We started to recall all our training and all that we learned over the years. We improvised – cut available cloth to use for dressings.”
Even as they walked between the tents, patients would come up to them, injured and bleeding, asking for help with pain. “Sometimes we saw one of the volunteers in the corner, crying. Then they’d pull themselves together and go back to work. It was challenging, but you looked inside yourself for strength.”
By necessity, Williams took on pharmacy duties. Her patients needed medications, but supplies hadn’t yet been sorted after delivery. “So I started by getting all the aspirin together and went on from there.” A pharmacist from New Jersey stopped by one day and taught her the finer details on organizing and running a pharmacy.
With what little French that Williams knew, she found volunteers to help search through supplies and put them in order. “When I found kitchen towels in one box, I was so moved. They packed what ever they could find and it was so appreciated.
Williams saw many young people with debilitating injuries they must live with for the rest of their lives, such as lost limbs and crushed hips. She recalled one toddler who was missing a hand and foot. “Yet he had the cutest smile on his face and he made everyone else smile.” A young woman paralyzed from the waist down will need to use a catheter for the rest of her life. “But will she have enough supplies? I was told we couldn’t keep her here any longer, so we had to send her out.” Many times, after patients were discharged, they just stayed near the complex. “They just had no place else to go.”
Williams plans to return and would like to be involved in a long-term project to help the people of Haiti. “Everyone we met, whether they spoke English or not, were so appreciative,” she said. “They would hold my hands and look into my eyes, and I knew what they were saying. There was no need to translate.”