UAB nephrologist Zipporah Krish-nasami, M.D., is a veteran mission worker, having taken several trips to Africa to aid those in need.
But she didn't know what to expect when she went to Haiti in March to work in a Port-Au-Prince hospital some eight weeks after a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake wreaked havoc on the tiny Caribbean country. She saw total devastation of a nation and many people without hope.
|UAB nephrologist Suzanne Bergman, left, traveled to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, as part of an 11-member team sponsored by Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Homewood.
"When I came back, I called my sister and when she asked me how it was, I just started bawling," says Krishnasami, who traveled with a team from Loma Linda University. "You hold up all of these emotions while you're there because you do what you have to do. It's a lot like you do in the hospital here."
Krishnasami is one of several UAB caregivers to make the trip to Haiti since the earthquake struck, killing an estimated 225,000 people, injuring another 75,000 people and leaving what the Haitian government estimates is 1 million people homeless.
Krishnasami spoke of her experience along with nephrologist Suzanne Bergman, M.D., physical therapist Mary Jane Wells and CICU nurse Lawana Salley at a recent Department of Social Services event, "Return From Haiti: Perspectives From Medical Relief Workers." The event also was a departmental fundraiser for Partners in Health, a non-profit organization that works to bring health and social justice to poor communities in 12 impoverished countries. More than $1,730 was raised.
One of the nations Partners in Health reaches out to is Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti already lacked key resources including drinking water, food and medical supplies in many areas before the earthquake. The event has exacerbated those needs and added new ones, including the need for high-quality health care.
Bergman and Wells traveled to Haiti as part of an 11-member team sponsored by Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Homewood. They joined a mission team sponsored by an Arkansas church that already was established in Gressier, a small town approximately 15 miles west of Port-Au-Prince.
They stayed at a place known as the Joy House, which provided the community with health care. The initial quake did not damage the house, but an aftershock a few days later did inflict significant damage. When Bergman and Wells arrived, they found the house being held up by jacks and the front wall of the home destroyed.
"They did have two functional bathrooms, which was nice," Wells says. "Some folks, like Suzanne, were brave enough to sleep in her tent in the yard. I stayed on the roof of the house because I figured if we went down in an aftershock I'd at least end up on the top of the pile."
The clinic at the Joy House mostly focused on primary care, although they did see a few traumatic injuries. Clinic was held outside of the walls that enclosed the Joy House, and the pharmacy was set up inside the walls. Some Haitians from the local neighborhood would take a small school bus to areas around Gressier and bring the sick back to the clinic.
"We were instructed not to go outside the wall without this group of young men who served as our interpreters and security guys," Wells says. "Still, we felt safe where we were."
The clinic had its share of challenges during the week Bergman and Wells were there. Bergman had one encounter with a woman who practiced voodoo and was trying to steal a patient from her.
Bergman administered antibiotics and pain medicine to one man battling a urinary tract infection, and she wanted him to stay for a while to observe his progress. The woman who practiced voodoo had other ideas and tried to take him away from the clinic.
"Three times she came in and drug him out, and three times this got to be an issue with me," Bergman says. "I would run down the street, grab him and bring him back in. He was extremely thin, dehydrated, had a fever and needed help. At the end of clinic that day she was standing outside with real anger as I walked by her."
On the last day of clinic, however, the voodoo priestess returned and asked if Bergman would care for her.
"She was smiling," Bergman says. "I interpret her initial behavior as reflecting the fear and suspicion that is part of voodoo. But when she saw we were there only to help, she was grateful."
Another day, the caregivers traveled three blocks from the Joy House to a large or-phanage to treat the approximately 200 children who lived there.
What they saw when they arrived was heart-rending. Part of the building that the orphans lived in collapsed during the earthquake. The part left standing was unsafe. Consequently, the children were living in the yard.
"The boys had taken their bunk beds into the courtyard and were sleeping on them, many of them with no mattresses," Wells says. "There was a school bus parked in the courtyard where the girls were sleeping."
The caregivers set up a clinic at the orphanage and treated the children for dehydration, fever and other ailments.
Salley went to Haiti within the first three weeks of the earthquake with a group called Mission to the World.
Salley was transported back and forth to the clinic where she worked in the back of pickup trucks.
"There were lots of people around us, and at times it was a little hair-raising," Salley says. "At any point of time we could have been overtaken. One day at the clinic there was a rice distribution, and it really sounded like a riot. I didn't really feel threatened, but there were a couple of times when I was on edge."
Salley says the destruction was unimaginable. The Haitians, she says, were clearly heartbroken. Salley says her team had counselors, "and I think with the vast destruction and family loss that people endured, it was needed."
Each of the caregivers saw a wide range of ailments. Typhoid fever, congestive heart failure, strokes, enlarged thyroid, hypertension, diabetes, malaria, cerebral malaria and hernias were the most common illnesses treated.
And Krishnasami says the people of Haiti will need even more care in the coming months. The rainy season is approaching in the country, and the country's problems with flooding compounded by the homelessness and the HIV epidemic will lead to more problems.
Bergman says she wants to go back to Haiti, and Krishnasami plans to take a UAB team to Port-Au-Prince in July and later in the fall.
She currently is recruiting general medicine physicians, pediatricians, surgeons (orthopedic, general, urology), OB/GYN, physical therapists, nurses and counselors to be a part of the team.
"Anyone who wants to go will definitely be used, and you will feel like you get something out of the experience," she says.
If you are interested, contact Krishnasami at email@example.com or 975-9676.