I can bear the adult patients with amputated limbs, red and raw stumps oozing, waiting stoically on cots spilling out into the hallways. The toes missing from diabetes. The necks broken in motorbike accidents. But as the afternoon ticks by, the ages of the suffering in the Hospital Albert Schweitzer seem to get progressively younger, and the air grows increasingly heavy with heat and humidity and mosquitoes and despair. And my knees grow weaker.
It’s been a month and a half since the Jan. 12 earthquake killed 200,000 in Haiti and the initial trauma has passed, allowing the hospital staff to catch their breath as the thousands of refugees who rushed here from Port-au-Prince begin to disperse. The number of patients has dwindled from the peak of 800 down to 160, which is still twice the hospital’s normal capacity.
The families of the patients fill all the empty spaces of the hospital. They sleep on pads beneath the hospital beds. They wait in rows on hallway benches. In the courtyard outside the patient’s windows you can see them washing laundry and hanging it to dry on bushes and over railings. In the corridors, the smell of bouillon and Haitian stews further thicken the air. Mothers and grandmothers prepare lunch for their damaged children and their husbands and sisters and brothers.
It’s the questions of what to do with the amputees, and the paralyzed, and the homeless, that now hang heaviest in the air.
I’d been told repeatedly the Haitians are a resilient people. They’ve survivors. Some refused pain relievers in the operating tents in Port-au-Prince in the days following the earthquake. They don’t complain. “They’ve had so much thrown at them, they just get up and go,” explains one of the hospital doctors.
On my afternoon tour of the hospital on Friday, from the post-op ward to the pre-op ward to pediatrics, as the tragedies multiply, it’s this strength of the Haitian people that weakens me most.
The smile of the horribly burned teenage girl who we repeatedly pass in the hallway. The patient eyes of the young man holding the stump of his right leg in the air for the doctor to examine. The single mother of the young woman lying paralyzed in a hospital bed, holding her fifth child, a baby boy, in her lap and singing soft lullabies. And I can’t catch my breath.
The little girl with the orange ribbon in her hair that matches her orange socks. The teenage boy turning his back in a hospital corner to apply deodorant. Injured mothers nursing babies. A 5-year-old boy helping his horribly burned 2-year-old sister do her physical therapy.
The heat becomes nearly unbearable.
Finally at the end of the hallway, an adolescent boy, near my son’s age, allows the therapist to move his burned arm up and down, up and down, while smiling bravely to hide the guttural moans of pain that fill the room. And I turn away to hide my tears.
The patient above lost his leg and four fingers in the earthquake – he was studying at a professional school that collapsed and was one of the few survivors. His photo is published with his permission.
Tracie White is a Scope contributor and writer in the medical school’s communication office. She is presently in Haiti to write about the situation there. You can see all of her updates in our Haiti category. More details on Stanford’s Haiti relief effort are available here.