Monday, May 24, 2010

Haiti, I

How do I put a life-changing experience into words? I’ve put off documenting my experience in Haiti simply because I don’t feel I have the ability to transpose my feelings from raw, real-life emotions into two dimensional words which will accurately describe one of hardest, most challenging and fulfilling weeks of my life. I don’t quite know what to say, but I will try. So, here goes nothing…

Let’s start with the night before. In typical Stephanie fashion, I began packing for my trip the day before I was to leave. Ben and I are similar in the sense that the rush of an impending deadline is exactly what it takes to get our butts in gear. I had spent weeks gathering supplies and waited until the day before I left to make sense of the chaos strewn over our dining table and various parts of our bedroom and living room. After a few hours I managed to cram everything into my duffle only to find myself 6 pounds over the limit (Ben blamed the four pairs of shoes I brought. He said they were unnecessary. Silly man.). I shuffled things around and wound up with the heaviest carry-on ever and finally made my way to bed well after midnight.

I woke the next morning tired yet excited and nervous. We were both quiet as we stopped by Starbucks to grab breakfast and my final latte – a last little piece of indulgence. The weight of what I was about to do was heavy on my shoulders and I held tightly to my husband’s strong hand in an attempt to burn the feel of his warm hand upon mine. I don’t know what I was more nervous about: stepping so far out of my comfort zone or doing so without my best friend. I had never challenged myself like this. I’ve never put myself in a situation in which I had to rely on my own strength. Until this time I’ve always had my family, my friends and most recently, my husband. It’s an intimidating thing to know that you are on your own. But, of course, I know that I am not alone. I was very aware that He was leading me to this place and that He would be there with me, holding my hand and protecting my heart. Yes, I was scared, nervous and weak, but I knew this was what I was supposed to do and I knew that He would make me strong.

The airport was very crowded (which is not common for our beloved PDX), but I still managed to find a few other girls I would be traveling with. It was nice to connect with some familiar faces and know that we’d all be traveling to Miami together. We flew to San Francisco and then onto Miami. We traveled all day and arrived in Florida around 10:45 pm east coast time (it’s 3 hours ahead of the west coast). By the time we got our luggage it was about 11:15 pm. I headed out to catch the shuttle to my hotel (the Days Inn – DO NOT EVER STAY THERE!). I arrived at the hotel only to find out that there was a mix-up and my reservation was at the other hotel. I thought the mistake was mine, so I took the shuttle back to the airport to catch the other shuttle to the other Days Inn. I eventually made it to the other Days Inn only to then discover that the hotel had made a mistake and I was supposed to be at the first Days Inn. It was an issue because the second hotel didn’t have a 24 hour shuttle and I’d have to take a $20 cab to the airport at 3 am. The manager at the second hotel was very nice and said he’d take care of my room and arranged for the first hotel’s shuttle to pick me up and take me back to the first hotel. Well, that never happened. After waiting for a half hour, I finally took the shuttle back to the airport. I was frustrated, tired, sweaty (it was so muggy) and smelled like cigarettes (Miami smells like one giant ashtray). I called the first Days Inn and talked to the manager. He denied just talking to the other manager and said he had no record of me having a reservation. I tried to discuss my options with him over the phone but he just kept saying, “Come down here and we’ll work it out” in his broken English. I had little faith in him, but he said he was sending a shuttle for me. So I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, well after midnight, I gave up. I spoke with a security officer at the airport and asked where a safe place to spend the night would be. She directed me to the 24-hour subway where I got some dinner and settled in for a long night. Well, what was left of the night. You see, we were supposed to check in for our flight at 4:00 am, so at best, I would get three hours of sleep. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Try as I might, sleeping with one arm around your carry-on and your feet on your pack is not cozy and trying to tune out the group of chatty Cuban grandmas to the side of you is easier said than done.

3:30 am finally came and I made my way to the bathroom and whipped out my shower wipes and got ready for the day. I was really hoping to wash my hair one last time, but that was not an option. Oh well. My group slowly trickled in and we checked in with Project Medishare. They weren’t super organized, but we shrugged it off and thought nothing of it (little did we know that this was the most organized we would get). We waited the few hours before boarding the Vision flight to Port au Prince.

Flying over the sea before reaching Haiti was intense. I stretched over my neighbor to try to catch the first glimpse of this little island. I watched as bright blue waters sparkled. It seemed serene, peaceful. The large sinking ship seemed very out-of-place. I had to look twice to see if I really just saw what I think I did. I did. We flew over little of the city on our descent into Port au Prince and saw little destruction – that is not to say there was none – we simply hadn’t seen it yet. Upon disembarking the plane we were greeted with the most overwhelming burst of heat. The air was heavy with heat and I immediately began to sweat. We packed into the immigration building where hundreds of people waited in lines for entrance papers. I clung onto my passport and other papers knowing they were both my ticket in and ticket out.

After stating my purpose to the man behind the counter, our group joined together and made our way outside where we were met with a wall of faces peering in through the gates.
We finally found a Medishare representative and he sporadically lead a group of us out the gates and down the block to a waiting SUV. Though the Project Medishare field hospital was set up on the airport grounds, we had to leave the airport to get to it. It was at this point that I felt so incredibly out of place. I had never felt “white” before, but as the wall of people parted to let us through, I did. A friend of mine warned me of people who would try to grab my bags, not to steal them, but to carry them and then charge me for his services, but this didn’t happen. The men (all men, no women) simply moved out of the way and stared. I felt like Moses parting the red sea, only not as biblical or grand.

In culture shock I jumped into the first car waiting and soaked up the last little bit of air conditioning and the last second of cool I’d feel for a week.
After a short drive we arrived “home.” Our bags were being unloaded and we were instructed to go find a cot and then meet back out front for orientation. I quickly grabbed an empty cot, zipped the legs off my pants and kicked myself for throwing away the new, clean water bottle they had given me on the plane (the bottled water we were promised was used and dirty). Orientation was brief and not super informative. The director introduced himself and the Chief Nurse Officer (CNO), Jen and after the briefest “tour” imaginable, we waited as the CNO made assignments so we could get to work.

About 20 minutes later assignments were made and I was scheduled to work in day shift in the Adult tent. I was so overwhelmed. The chaos was making me crazy. I was scared, nervous, hot and way too tired (I was going on only 4 hours of sleep almost 48 hours). I began to panic. “Jen, I’m a peds nurse, I’ve never done adults!” I said. Just as an “Oh well” (she didn’t say that, but that’s about the meaning) was about to leave her mouth my hospital director saved me. She grabbed my arm and said “Steph, it’s OK, I’ll trade with you. It’s OK. You’ll be fine. Don’t worry. We’ll switch.” I’m so thankful for Ruby. I was about to lose it, but she brought me down and took the final straw off my back.

As the day shift nurses began their first shift, I tried to get myself settled for a nap. A woman from Seattle (Cici, our new logistics coordinator) helped me set up my bug hut and I laid down for a short nap that was anything but restful. There were more people than cots so they had to squeeze more in thus leaving me no room for my tent (which was awesome but very big). To make room for my tent I had to squeeze off the side of a walkway. It was an awkward spot and every time someone walked by I felt each movement. It was as though I was trying to sleep on the deck of a ship. After an hour or so I was seasick, sweaty and hotter than I had ever been in my life. I took a shower and relished in every drop of the cold water.

I never thought a palate and plywood shower with a shoddy spigot would feel luxurious, but it did. I walked out feeling refreshed and wonderful. I no longer minded my tiredness and I brushed off the new drops of sweat that beaded on my forehead. Those few minutes were what I needed to readjust my focus and gear up for a very long week.

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