Thursday, February 4, 2010

Back from Haiti

Thank you to everyone who prayed and gave toward my recent trip to Haiti. As soon as I heard about the overwhelming earthquake that struck near Port-au-Prince, I immediately began to pray and sense God would have me soon stand on this nation’s soil once again.

On January 29th, 17 days following the initial earthquake, my friend Andrew Perry and I landed in Port-au-Prince on a relief flight with Missionary Flights International. We happened to travel on a Hendricks Motorsports airplane owned by Joe Gibbs and his NASCAR team and even landed in the Bahamas to refuel on the wait to our destination. Under other circumstances, this trip would have made a great vacation. But in this moment, all that was on my mind were the people of Haiti, many of whom had become friends during my previous visits to the nation.

We could see the military presence of the US, UN, Canadian forces, and numerous NGOs from the air, along with some of the destruction, even before landing. However, once we stepped from the plane onto the tarmac, we witnessed the beginning of a much deeper devastation.

First, we walked into the remaining terminal area to meet our ride. We had arranged for Marc Rubin, Haitian Executive Director of Mission of Hope, to meet us on the ground. Marc’s smiling face was a huge relief, as we had few other connections for travel once we landed. He called for his associate Servite driving an SUV while we stepped aside for other travelers en route to their various relief locations. Some of these workers were coming for only a few days like us; other, like Anna and her team from Canada, were staying for six months or more. During these few minutes, Andrew shot some video, we noticed many dangling ceiling tiles, and we wormed our way through the numerous Haitians attempting to carry our bags for a dollar. We left some tips, jumped in the vehicle, and snaked through the streets of Port-au-Prince in a daze.

Andrew and I both attempted to video some of the scenes, but through the bumps and pace of the drive, our clips did little to portray the reality of our surroundings. Building upon building destroyed; tents, people, and rubble littered the streets. And while there were no longer bodies along the main roads, many still wore masks to cover the odor oozing from flattened buildings where unreached bodied decayed.

Forty-five minutes later, our driver Servite pulled up to the gate of Mission of Hope, just three miles north of the mass graves covering over 110,000 corpses trucked from the nearby capital. Yet inside the safety of the mission, a different attitude existed. People still lived in tents, medical emergencies continued to complicate the situation, but the people remained upbeat and positive about what was happening on their 76 acre compound.

We began by dropping off our luggage at the guest house and having our medical supplies and infant formula dropped off at the orphanage. My wife Deborah had spent hours packing our luggage and wasn’t about to let her items not arrive immediately into the hands of those who could use them. Intending to work as soon as possible, we walked downhill toward the warehouse to help. To our surprise, the mission’s Haitian team was already unloading an enormous truck of boxed food marked “GAIN,” one of the 15-plus NGOs we encountered working in some way at Mission of Hope since the quake. With no English-speaking workers around, we headed further down toward the clinic where we knew many volunteers from Austin, Texas, had been volunteering.

A few minutes into our orientation, Dr. Cheryl, the long-term doctor from Canada who directed the clinic, received a call reporting that US military helicopters had patients on their way. Mission of Hope’s clinic, we had been told, was one of only a handful of medical facilities that General Hospital in Port-au-Prince was using to send their massive overflow of patients. Within less than 30 minutes from the time we had arrived, Andrew and I were carrying stretchers from military helicopters into the clinic for emergency treatment.

I cannot express how it feels to sprint up to a roaring chopper, reach out to pick up a stretcher, and realize the person I am picking up is missing a body part. Most of our eight patients flown in that day were amputees or had broken femur bones that had been untreated for over two weeks. Our medical team instantly began their process of treating amputations for infection, casting broken bones, and providing other necessary services to save the lives of those entrusted to our location.

Of course, the patients flown in via helicopter were not the only patients. Others were brought in with the clinic’s only ambulance or truck, with a few people simply dropped off at the front gate. That afternoon, a young man who looked about 17 arrived with his left arm missing just below his shoulder. While in otherwise excellent physical condition, the earthquake had left its permanent mark on this patient. His wound was cleaned, pain medication given, and we then moved him to the next building down, an elementary school now converted into what the clinic called “post-op” for treatment of patients after their initial treatment.

As the sun set that evening, Andrew and I joined the other volunteers returning from the region for a meal of gumbo, rice, and water. A simple meal, deep conversation regarding the number of meals distributed and particular patient stories from the day were the most common topics.

I had the opportunity to hang out with two Haitian sisters being adopted by Dr. Cheryl and her husband, Larenz. Their names were Anna and Amina. After our meal, they invited me to Friday “movie night,” which I found out was a big event at the House of Hope orphanage. I headed down with their big sister, a Canadian missionary girl named Tiegen, and watched Disney’s “Cheetah Girls” on a screen shot on the side of the orphanage building. The full moon, bright stars, and smiling faces helped myself and the 60 plus orphans with me forget that just down the road held the remains of more people than live in my entire zip code.

One of the highlights of this night for me was the joy of showing love to the children of the House of Hope. Though they are well-treated and physically fit, many are starved for personal attention, especially from any kind of male father figure. For the entire two-plus hours, I held and hugged little boys and girls, including a baby only a few months old named Matthew. He loved sucking his thumb and snuggling on my shoulder in the cool night air. I got him to laugh a few times, but soon had to give him up to one of the many preteen girls who enjoy playing big sister to him.

By the end of the film, one little guy who was about six years old had fallen asleep on the bench with his head on one of my legs while I had my left arm around another child who laughed with her friends throughout the movie. I picked up the little guy and carried him to his house mommy, found Anna, Amina, and Tiegen, and hopped on the forest green four-wheeler for a ride back to the guest house.

Andrew had turned down movie night and crawled into bed early that night, overwhelmed both by the actions of the day and the lack of any communications that evening. When I took the steps to the second floor, I ran into another volunteer who had just arrived. “Scott from Oklahoma” was how he had introduced himself. I discovered in our conversation he had spent a week driving from Oklahoma to Miami, Florida with tents for a thousand people, purchased through donations given through his home church. He then shipped the tents through DHL to Santo Domingo, flew to the Dominican on a commercial flight, took a bus ride to Mission of Hope, and found his tents arriving about the same time. I knew then I had found at least one adventurer just as crazy as I was and invited him to stay in our same guestroom.

After catching some much needed sleep, I awoke to the banging of pans from the Haitian cooks making breakfast downstairs. My phone read 6:37am. Without a real shower in the sense of American plumbing, I washed off in the bathtub faucet, changed clothes, and walked downstairs to join the other awakening relief workers. Some volunteers were headed to the airport to leave for the US and Canada, others were on their way in later that evening. Andrew, Scott, and I were assigned to sort medical supplies in the warehouse since the Haitian workers would not be able to read the French, English, and sometimes German and Spanish labels on the products. I could decipher the labels, Scott knew what the products were, and Andrew moved pallets and labeled them for easy access.

By late morning, we were closing in on completion of sorting 31 pallets of medical supplies that had been shipped from Austin (over 26,000 pounds of materials) when we again heard the familiar sound of a US military chopper approaching. We ran to the clinic where we carried more amputee and broken femur patients into the clinic’s triage area. One helicopter turned into two and then three, with I think eight total patients and their family members. On the last drop off, one military officer asked the name of our location to which I responded “Mission of Hope.” It appeared he had been pleased with our response both to carrying patients and the expertise of the medical volunteers at our clinic and wanted to keep us in mind for future flights. I later discovered this was exactly the case.

The remainder of that Saturday was a blur. We helped move amputees from stretcher to bed, from bed to their operations, from their operations onto either the ambulance or delivery truck to move into the “post-op” school building for recovery. At one point, I helped two other guys put five different people into a delivery truck who were either on stretchers or in wheelchairs because our ambulance was busy taking a patient into another hospital. The delivery truck was all that was available and new patients needed their space.

One of those patients happened to be a beautiful Haitian woman who we found out was a famous dancer. We only discovered this once two guys with the London Times arrived to hear her story. I talked with the main reporter named Ben for about 15 minutes while he waited to see the patient and walked him down to the post-op area to introduce him to the nurse in charge of patients. At that point, we had around ten patients plus some family members and medical staff in the school building, so we took some time to hang out with some of the orphans for a while. I again had a chance to hold baby Matthew, chat and play with some kids, and say goodbye before running into my friend from last summer named Samuel.

Samuel is 26. A Haitian native from nearby Titanyen, he is one of five children in his family and still lives with them to help care for his siblings and provide income for their needs. Samuel runs his own small business, selling souvenirs to the volunteers who visit Mission of Hope. We had bought a couple of items Friday, but didn’t have much time to stay and talk. This evening, however, we found out Samuel’s family are all sleeping in tents just two miles away from where we were standing. He had written me a short letter and asked me to take three other letters to mail to past missionaries he had met at Mission of Hope when I returned to the States. Andrew bought some more items and asked if Samuel could make a Haiti bracelet with his girlfriend’s name on it. Samuel promised to bring it to church the next day.

That night, I listened to every story I could at the dinner area. Doctors talked about their surgeries. Relief workers coordinated efforts for the next day’s deliveries. A filmmaker shared stories of the footage he had captured in the capital of a riot breaking out during food distribution and discussions from a meeting of NGOs in the capital. Everyone was tired. No one complained.

The next morning, Sunday, was church. With the exception of the night shift nurses who had stayed up until sunrise with patients in post-op, everyone attended the service. It was a much-needed break and spiritually necessary for many of the believers who had given so unselfishly of their lives since coming to Haiti.

Hope Church typically has about 500 people in an open-air building for its two-hour time of worship. This morning had over 700 hundred. Most were under 18, including several young kids who swarmed around me and Andrew either out of curiosity or in hopes of making a dollar. The service itself was amazing. The worship leader, Claudel, played many American Christian tunes on his keyboard using Haitian lyrics, though an occasional chorus in English or French popped up to involve the volunteers attending.

I had been practicing some Creole ever since before my last trip to Haiti the previous June, but had been limited to a few words and phrases until the worship service. The church used an LCD projector with the lyrics to the songs that allowed me to sing along in Creole, praising God in the local language in a very real and moving way.

During the sermon, a young Haitian tailor from Cabbare name Reginald sat between Andrew and I and translated for us. It made a huge difference to know the details of the message, which focused on living our lives with purpose. The recurring themes were living life like you have a mission, just as many of the relief workers who come to help for a limited time. The pastor emphasized that eternity is long in comparison with this life. We do not know when it will end, so we must live each day to its fullest.

At the end, to everyone’s surprise, about a dozen people walked up to the pastor when he asked people to do so if they would like to become a Christian. Even the pastor looked amazed at the response. In Haitian style, they asked the new converts to kneel in a time of prayer. An enormous cheer arose from the audience after the final “amen,” as these men and women started a new life in the midst of one of the most challenging times in Haiti’s history.

Afterwards, I fought off kids begging for money and candy after giving everything in my backpack away, and began walking toward the clinic, mentally considering whether I would grab some food before working or wait until later. Just then, a young man stopped me. His name was Michael, the brother of my translator Antony from the previous summer. We had been trying to connect, but kept missing each other due to poor cell phone coverage in the area. I was able to chat for about ten minutes and leave a small financial gift I had brought for him and Antony’s family. Michael had another brother of Antony’s there and one other friend who spoke a little English. All three men were in their 20s, I was excited to spend a few moments with some of Haiti’s young leaders who reminded me a lot of the students I teach back in the States.

But then it happened again. Another helicopter. I said my goodbyes and sprinted up the hill with my backpack bouncing each step of the way. As I reached the clinic, the first chopper circled to land. I dropped my pack and sprinted to the first stretcher, a young man with a missing foot being transported with his father.

Two additional helicopters arrived shortly afterwards, creating a near-frantic scene for many of the volunteers just starting work after the worship service. No one had eaten and beds were still being prepared with sheets when I arrived carrying the first stretcher with the help of another volunteer.

The original plan had been to eat lunch, see what work needed done, and then head into Port-au-Prince with our translator Rubin, Andrew, Scott, and I to check out the damages around the city to assess future work needs.

However, now Rubin was the only Creole translator and everyone else was quickly moving to keep up with the on-the-spot medical operations. After each surgery, I helped move patients to post-op, returning each time to assist with the next need. On one of my last runs, I saw a new Haitian girl weeping at the front entrance of the clinic. Lawrenz, Dr. Cheryl’s husband, stood beside her. I asked what had happened and discovered her dad had just died. He had been brought in with a broken leg with the bone sticking out. As they prepared to treat him, he died before the operation could even begin. The doctors believe he had a blood clot that had caused the sudden death. But I could only stay a few minutes before being called to transport another patient sitting in a wheelchair.
It was 4pm before the new team of volunteers from Austin had everything under control and were down to only a few remaining operations for the evening. Rubin, Scott, Andrew, and I jumped into the SUV of Rubin’s brother, who happened to be the worship leader Claudel, and exited the gate for the first time since our arrival.
We first stopped at the mass grave area three miles south of Mission of Hope near Titanyen. The earthmovers were not in operation that day, so we expected to simply wall around, pray, and snap a few pictures to say we had been there.
While walking with my flip video recorder, I noticed an area that had not been covered up. I thought a shot of an empty hole would be a nice addition to our footage and proceeded to walk toward it with camera in hand. As I neared the hole, I spotted something brown in front of a mound of rubble. At first I dismissed the idea that it could really be a body. Those would have all been buried by now.
But as I neared the area, the unmistakable smell of death entered my nostrils. I have seen dead bodies before, but I was not prepared for the lump of decaying flesh at my feet from an earthquake that had happened over two weeks ago. Today was January 31st, 16 days since the 7.0 earthquake that had started this tragedy. Andrew yelled out for me to stop, but I had already seen the rotting corpse by that point. I veered to the right as soon as the smell hit, shielding my face from the putrid stench.

There are no words to express how it feels to walk on rubble that covers over 100,000people who have died in one day. The biblical concept came to mind, “Weep with those who weep; mourn with those who mourn.”

The rest of our drive into the capital and surrounding area only heightened my grief. At first, I was in an odd way excited to capture photos and footage of flattened buildings. But after about twenty minutes of crushed structures, one after another, I was left speechless. What I had experienced in my original trip from the airport was only a portion of the destruction. Much of the capital was in ruin.

No other place illustrated this widespread devastation better than the scene outside the presidential palace. Haiti’s equivalent of the American White House had collapsed. The entire government building lay in ruins. We stepped out of our vehicle onto the sidewalk there alongside another film crew where we felt the safety of numbers near the sprawling tent city behind us. Here I experienced another smell

I will not soon forget—the smells of the living—food, urine, human excrement—all mixed together among the voices of thousands of souls living in conditions I would not wish on my worst enemy.

At this site, we spotted people bathing in buckets of water while completely naked. Children urinated on the sidewalk only steps away from where we stood. Most men and women simply walked around in a hopeless stare, not certain if they would live to see another day.

From there, we headed back to the mission, but not before driving through Cite Soliel, the poorest slum in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Rubin passed quickly through this area, admitting that he had been carjacked in this area several years ago. Mostly a multi-acre field of rusted corrugated metal shacks and sticks with tarps, we spotted only one water truck crowded by a line of bucket-carrying women hoping to survive another evening in the most extreme poverty imaginable.

We arrived at Mission of Hope just as the sun was setting, a gorgeous blend of yellow, orange, and gold over the waters of the Caribbean. Too shocked to process what I had seen, heard, and smelled during the daylight hours, I ate little, conversed only briefly that evening, and packed for our departure the next morning. My last thoughts of the night were simply, “God, heal this land.”

Monday morning, day four of our time in Haiti, was to be our return flight with our relief agency. However, we had been told Friday our return flight had been overbooked and that they could not be certain if they would have a plane large enough for us to return that day. In other words, we were flying standby in a city full of rubble. Not good.

Our backup plan had been the US military. We knew they had been evacuating US citizens via the embassy tent at the airport. Our new friend Scott took a chance and travelled with us and our friends from the relief agency Convoy of Hope instead of returning to Santo Domingo to lose another day of travel.

To our surprise, the military option was very user-friendly. We gave our fingerprints, signed some waivers, and sat with about 40 other Americans to wait for the next flight to wherever they were headed next. We were told Orlando, only 90 minutes from Andrew’s car in Fort Pierce, but better than JFK in New York where other planes had been traveling. During this time, I met Mara, an NBC reporter who was also flying out. I spoke briefly with another Haitian American family from Brooklyn who had returned to Haiti for the Christmas holiday and were still there when the quake had hit. Everyone had their own story; some were excited to share theirs; others were simply too exhausted to talk and thought only of a flight home.

An hour later, we were to board a military C1-30 transport. At the last minute, we discovered there was an elderly Haitian American lady there with a cane in need of assistance. I volunteered to push her to the plane, which happened to be over a hundred yards away and ended up separating me from Andrew and Scott who were seated in another part of the plane. I sat next to the same elderly lady between an Air Force captain and two other Air Force guys who handled the details in the back of the plane. We talked a bit, but they seemed just as tired as everyone else. The captain I spoke with had already made six trips to Haiti since the earthquake. Many slept. I prayed.

We landed at Orlando-Samford Airport a few hours later to a heavy downpour of rain. After passing through immigration, Scott, Andrew, and I headed to the car rental area, trying three companies before finding an available car. At the last minute, a guy named Bill told us his car was at the same agency in Fort Pierce we were driving to and joined us for the ride. Our first stop was McDonalds.

The other guys in the car were excited about some American fast food. I could still barely eat, but got a little something so I didn’t look too weird. I still had dust on my shoes from our visit to the mass grave yesterday. It was still influencing my lack of appetite.

By 2:30am Tuesday morning, Andrew, Scott, and I had said our goodbyes, and I was crawling into bed beside my wife after my first hot shower in a week. While thankful to be home, my mind continued to replay the tragedies and the changed lives I witnessed in Haiti as I drifted to sleep.

I know for certain I am no longer the same person I was before my trip. What remains to be seen is what God will do following the time I have spent there. I’ve returned from my third trip to the nation, have a list full of phone number and contacts in Haiti, have people emailing and calling me every day about getting people or supplies to some part of Haiti, and all I want to do is return. I’m not sure what this means, but God does, and I plan to keep following Him each step of the way, whether it means helping from my office or going back again and again until God’s plan for me in Haiti is complete.

DILLON BURROUGHS is a writer on issues of faith and culture. For more, visit or contact

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