A Letter From Haiti
“I Feel So Very Privileged”
AFTER the Haiti earthquake on January 12, 2010, I found it hard even to look at the devastation on the news. Then on the 20th, my dear friend Carmen called me and suggested that we go to Haiti as volunteer workers. I had met Carmen some years earlier when we worked as volunteer nurses at a Kingdom Hall construction site. Since then, we have volunteered for other projects and have become close friends.
I told Carmen that I might not be able to handle Haiti physically or emotionally. She reminded me that we worked well as a team and could support each other. Encouraged by her words, I called the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, and spoke with the person who was organizing the relief work from the United States. I gave him my name to add to the list of volunteers. I mentioned Carmen and said that we would like to work together. I was told that there was no guarantee that either she or I would be called or that we would work together.
So I went about my daily routine, thinking that I would not be invited to go. Four days later, on Monday the 25th, I received a call from Brooklyn asking if I could travel to Haiti—the following day if possible! I could not believe my ears. I agreed to do my best. First, I arranged to get time off from work. Next, I contacted Carmen, only to find out that she had not been invited because she does not speak French. I was excited and afraid at the same time. On January 28, after managing to get a plane ticket, I flew from New York to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, which borders Haiti.
A young Witness met me at the airport and drove me to the Dominican Republic branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Two other nurses also arrived from the United States that day, and we roomed together that night. The next morning, we were driven to the Haiti branch office in Port-au-Prince, a journey of seven and a half hours.
After crossing the border into Haiti, we saw the devastation. It was almost unreal to see what 35 seconds of earthquake did to this beautiful land. It had been hard enough to look at the devastation on TV; I cannot describe how I felt seeing it firsthand. Many homes, including the presidential palace, were damaged, while others had been reduced to piles of rubble. Many of those homes represented a lifetime of hard work—all lost in seconds. I could not help but reflect on the fact that the truly important things in life are not material.
When we arrived at the branch, the receptionist caught sight of us walking in and ran from her desk to meet us at the door with a big hug and a warm smile. She thanked us for putting our lives on hold to be there. After the noon meal, we went to the nearby Assembly Hall, which had been converted into a hospital. There I met other Witnesses who had volunteered to come, including a couple from Germany who were both physicians, their assistant, and a midwife from Switzerland.
I started working that first night. There were 18 patients, both Witnesses and non-Witnesses, lying on mattresses on the floor of the Assembly Hall. Every patient received the same attention and free medical care from the medical staff of Witnesses.
That night, one patient, an 80-year-old man, died. His wife was at his side, along with my roommate and me. After that, a young woman named Ketly started to cry out in pain. Her right arm had been amputated because of injuries sustained from the earthquake. Beside her was the Witness who was Ketly’s Bible teacher. She had been sleeping at Ketly’s bedside at the Assembly Hall practically every night.
I went to Ketly, wanting so much to ease her pain, but this was more than physical pain. She told me that she was at the home of a friend when the earthquake struck. They were not sure what was happening. They started to run to the balcony, arm in arm, when a wall fell on them, pinning them under the debris. She called out to her friend, but she did not respond. She said that she knew right away that her friend had died. The friend’s body was lying partially on Ketly until rescuers arrived four hours later. Ketly lost her right arm all the way up to the shoulder joint.
During my first night there, Ketly was reliving the experience every time she tried to sleep. Sobbing, she said to me: “I know what the Scriptures say about the last days and earthquakes. I know we have a happy hope for the future. I know I should be grateful to be alive. But put yourself in my place just for a minute. One day you have everything going for you, and before you know it, you find yourself like this.” Feeling utterly helpless, I just held her, and I too started to cry. We both kept crying until she fell asleep.
Every day, one doctor and two nurses were sent out to help those who needed medical attention. I was sent to Petit Goave, about a two-hour drive from Port-au-Prince. I went with two other volunteers—a nurse from Florida and a physician from France. We arrived at 9:30 a.m., unloaded our supplies, and moved them inside the local Kingdom Hall. People had been told that we were coming, so they were seated and waiting for our arrival.
We got to work right away. It was hot, and the lines of those needing treatment kept getting longer and longer. It was about three o’clock before we could take a break. The three of us gave 114 vaccinations and did 105 medical consultations that day. I was exhausted but happy that we could contribute to the well-being of those in need.
Altogether I spent a little over two weeks in the Haitian relief work. Almost every night, I worked a 12-hour shift at the Assembly Hall. It was a heavy responsibility, one that I had never experienced before. Yet, I felt privileged and blessed to have been there. I am very happy that I could bring some comfort and relief to the Haitian people, who have suffered so greatly.
We have so much to learn from them. For example, one of the patients I took care of, Eliser, a boy of 15, had to have one of his legs amputated. I noticed that he would save his meal to share with Jimmy, who had been spending the night at his bedside. He explained to me that Jimmy did not always get to eat before he came in the evening. Eliser’s example impressed on me that we do not have to be rich—or even well—in order to share what we have with others.
That spirit was also evident among the volunteers who were on my team. One volunteer was not well herself; another was suffering from back pain. Yet, all put the patients’ needs ahead of their own personal comforts. This gave me the encouragement I needed to carry on. We all felt emotionally, mentally, and physically drained from time to time, but we supported one another and kept going. What an unforgettable experience! I am thankful to be part of an organization of fine Christians who are kind, loving, and self-sacrificing.
Before I left Haiti, two of the patients who had had their right arms amputated managed to write me thank-you letters that they insisted I read only after I got on the plane. That was what I did. The letters touched my heart, and I could not stop weeping.
Since my return home, I have been in contact with some of the new friends I met in Haiti. Strong friendships are forged and tested during times of hardship and crisis. Our bonds of friendship, I believe, will stand the test of any hardship in the future. I feel so very privileged.