Letters From Haiti: When Mountains Moved

The piercing roar of the C-17 jet engines rattled my skull as it went to full throttle and lifted off into the amber sky back towards Miami. The awesome machine had just delivered its precious payload of relief supplies to the earthquake-ravaged people of Haiti.

On the tarmac of the Port-au-Prince airport I stood beside the 737 jet that Eric Haymes had donated for the relief effort through his Air Lift Haiti organization. He’d just delivered a bunch of medical professionals who were there to relieve another bunch of medical workers, some of whom had been there for weeks.

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The sight at the airport was not to be believed. The activity…the sense of urgency…the cooperation -- amazing. It was organization without organization. Someone would yell "Hey over here -- unload!" And a hundred people would move en masse forming an impromptu 'bucket brigade' line -- and within a half-hour tons of desperately needed supplies were off-loaded from a jet’s underside. With little spoken except for whoops of exhilaration. The mood on the tarmac...a mixture of selfless abandon, determined purpose...and yes, love. For a longtime skeptic of basic human nature…it was cathartic...and beautiful.

These medical professionals, taking off from work (and in many instances, risking getting fired in doing so), and on their own dime, have been going for weeks with little or nothing to eat (subsisting on protein bars they’d brought with them). They’d been sleeping on the ground in make-shift tents and working literally to the point of exhaustion, allowing themselves to be relieved only at the point of collapse. These volunteers were amazing. Selfless, brave, dedicated...I fell in love with every damn one of them. Makes me so proud to be an American. But more importantly, it makes me proud to be human. Faced with the Herculean task of dealing with hundreds of thousands of homeless and injured victims in such an apocalyptic disaster, these dauntless volunteers persist against impossible odds.

How do the brazenly courageous move mountains? One shovel-load at a time.

As the dusk sun set on Port-au-Prince, and the exhausted doctors, nurses, and medical volunteers dragged themselves up the airstairs for the ride back to Miami…I was busy multi-tasking. Banging off as many photo’s as I could manage with my Canon digital in the waning light, and alternately slinging camera behind back and grabbing and loading boxes of supplies into awaiting trucks.

The bucket brigade lines were a vision of smooth, efficient operation. Not much was said; not much was necessary. The belly of the idling 737 was being drained of its precious cargo – life-sustaining medical supplies and food. I didn’t know many of these people and the ones I did I had met that afternoon. But for those energized hours of unloading we worked and sweated as one. The common cause united us in wordless dedication: Save lives.

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I don’t mean any of this to sound self-serving. I’m no one special; I was merely in the right place at the right time and was able to step forward and pitch in. Any one of us would have done the same. Most people are incredibly generous and loving and charitable. It’s in our hard-wiring. The Creator saw to it.

Some of the people I met –

A building contractor giving all he had to work there, having been back and forth many times. A cheerful can-do attitude that said, ‘they need it, I build it’.

A surgical nurse concerned that she may be fired from her hospital job for being in Haiti. But her concerns were dwarfed by her commitment to help in Haiti.

An anesthesiologist telling me she works at a hospital in Philadelphia so she can do two things: 1) Keep her kids in private school and 2) fly to disaster zones and help people. “This” she said “is my vacation.”

A couple of doctors from Puerto Rico barely spoke any English. No matter…trauma and disease know no language barrier.

And the U.S. military got high marks from everyone I spoke with -- all professional, working their asses off, doing whatever it takes to get the job done. I talked to a young Navy SEAL who had paired up with a pediatrician going around the city triaging kids, moving some to the makeshift hospital at the airport and treating all the rest in the field. Though trained with basic first aid skills as a part of his SEALs training, this sailor said he was doing procedures he'd never dreamed he could do as the doctor talked him through it, while he worked on another. They doubled their efforts and saved lives. The look of pride on this warrior's face...priceless.

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The pediatrician he had worked with, a Cuban immigrant now working through a non-profit organization that sends him all over the world, was Dr. Arturo Brito. He said what he concentrates on now is ‘post-disaster primary care’. What’s needed now, he says, three weeks after the initial quake, is preventative care. “We must be pre-emptive,” said Dr. Brito. After managing trauma, now the dangers are infections, disease, and complications that will arise after initial treatment. Kids walking around bare-footed in a disaster zone are prone to getting tetanus. Injured victims struggle to fight off infections or gangrene when there is so often a concurrent and complicating onset of malnutrition and/or dehydration.

All of these conditions keep Dr. Brito on top of his game, taxing his resources to the max and working him to his capacity and beyond. “And yet,” he says, “I love it, I absolutely love it. I am blessed to be able to do this.” In his late forties, he looks like a man fifteen years younger. Though obviously exhausted, he flashes a ready smile and confesses his passion: “I’m so lucky. I get to help people.”

As I write this I’m in Miami for a few days until hopefully our next flight back to Haiti on Thursday. I am ready to leave for Haiti at a moment notice. Once we get the supplies in and the passenger manifest of the medical aid workers. All we need is jet fuel.

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I'm trying to raise money for Air Lift Haiti to pay for the jet fuel so we can book more and more trips to accommodate the people who want to help out. The group Project Medishare headed by Dr. Barth Green, arranges for the doctors and med personnel -- and then Airlift Haiti shuttles them to Haiti -- and brings back those they are relieving.

Those doctors, nurses, medics returning are exhausted -- but at the same time exhilarated by their affection for the people, the camaraderie of their fellow volunteers, and for the sheer love for the work they do.

Dr. Green, the incredibly selfless doctor who has been down there working with the people for 20 years...says he has over 1,000 doctors and nurses who want to come over and help...but there just aren't enough jets available or funds to support them. Eric Haymes (who started Air Lift Haiti) says it costs a lot for each round-trip run to Haiti, and all money coming in to Air Lift Haiti goes to buy jet fuel, pilot fees, airport fees and jet maintenance. His company has three Boeing 737’s and two King Air turbo props and is donating use of these jets to help the poor earthquake-ravaged people of Haiti.

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Dr. Brito summed it up best as he showed me a short video he’d filmed of a young Haitian father clamping the placenta of his newly-born son that he’d assisted in delivering…”Man… In the middle of all of this… it doesn’t get any better than that.”

He told me that though he doesn’t get rich doing what he does; there are other rewards that don’t show up in a bank balance. He said that while he was changing the bandage of a little 14-yr-old girl whose arm he had amputated due to gangrene…as she was moving off to do his rounds she called to him, “Thank you, doctor… God bless you!”

He paused with thick emotion he was doing his best to contain. “Can you imagine… I took her arm off. And she’s blessing me.”

Please help out -- anything you can afford – and as I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t, I just now kicked them $100. If half the people who read this did the same, we’d be airborne with life-saving cargo for weeks.

Please pray for the people of Haiti. Thank you.

All photos courtesy of The Examiner.

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