For Dr. Ruth Berggren and medical student Beth Melia, returning from Haiti on Sunday, two days before the January 12 earthquake, offers no consolation.
“I felt a multitude of emotions when I found out about the earthquake,” Melia told the QueBlog, “but I'd say my very first concern was about the people we worked with and who were still in Port-au-Prince.”
For Melia, a second-year medical student, it was her second trip to Haiti. She was part of a group led by Berggren, director of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. The delegation, consisting of 10 medical students and four doctors, is part of the center's "Project Haiti," which twice a year sends medical students and doctors to conduct mobile health clinics in rural areas of Haiti. This time, the group stayed in the island country from January 3 through the 10th.
“Since we came back, it's been email after email trying to find out who had heard from which person and if we could account for every person we worked with,” said Melia. “Fortunately, we were able to account for most people.”
One of those people was a Haitian-American translator named Emanuelle Charlier, a Wellesley College student Dr. Berggren had hired as a Creole translator and who missed a charter plane back to the States in mysterious circumstances. After days of great anxiety, Emmanuelle was found safe in the Dominican Republic waiting to return to the U.S. But the fate of others is unknown.
“There's actually students from `Florida's` Lynn University where half of them are missing,” said Berggren. “Six students showed up at the `U.S.` embassy `in Haiti`, eight are missing and there is a search organization that is now looking for them. My thoughts and feelings are with all those people who have missing loved ones. This is a time of great anguish.”
Besides being the head of a department that “helps heighten students' sensitivity to the patient's experience and preserve their innate empathy,” according to its website, the Haiti tragedy affects Berggren in a deeply personal way: She lived there from ages four through 14.
“Haiti is a country that nurtured me during my childhood, and it was very good to me,” she said. “I have great love for the country and the people of Haiti. They're my brothers and sisters, they're my family.”
Berggren stressed the immediate need for medical volunteers and said in “three or four weeks' time” people skilled in engineering, water technology, and construction will be needed as well.
“But now we need medical people, and Remote Area Medical and Partners in Health could both be possible portals for people, and they have set up systems where you can send email inquiries,” she said, adding that it is better to send emails instead of trying to reach them by phone. “It's not a good time to make any phone calls to these organizations because they're completely swamped. Even when I have inside info and I know who I am calling, I have to be on hold for a long, long, time.”
One of those potential volunteers is Wayne Herrell, who Berggren calls “my closest tie to Haitian community `in SA`.”
Herrell served in the Peace Corps in Haiti from 2000 to 2002 as an agricultural volunteer. He met his wife (and mother of their two Haitian-born daughters) on the first year and now they both run a plant nursery in San Antonio.
His wife Henriette, who became an American citizen but holds dual citizenship, spoke to her side of the family away from the capital and everybody is fine, but several relatives in Port-au-Prince are unaccounted for.
“We know for sure we've lost three cousins and an uncle,” said Herrell, “and we haven't been able to contact a number of people in Port-au-Prince: A sister, a brother, nieces and nephews that we don't know their whereabouts at the present time.”
Herrell says he's ready to go back to Haiti both to help and to try to locate his wife's relatives.
“My wife is tough,” Herrell said. “From the two of us, I'm having a tougher time emotionally, and I'm trying to get in touch with people who'd need somebody to go. I understand the people, the language, I know my way around Port-au-Prince really well. I'm trying to get an organization that needs someone like me to go help. I'm ready to go today if somebody calls me.”
Henriette Beauvil, his wife, would surely appreciate that.
“I'm really worried about my family, I don't know what happened to them,” said a tearful Henriette at the nursery she runs with her husband. “I'd love for him to go and see whether my sister is OK or not. But I'm trying to be strong.”
Berggren told the QueBlog she was leaving for Atlanta on the night of January 15, arriving in Santo Domingo on the 16, and from there she will drive across the border into Haiti to work in Jimani with Remote Area Medical.
“Text messaging was working, even when you couldn't receive a phone call,” said Berggren. “I imagine the reason people lose contact is because batteries die and there's no way to recharge. That's something I learned and have to put on my list right now: Lots of extra batteries.”
Whenever the time comes for new medical students to go to Haiti, they will be able to put basic Creole skills to use, thanks to Berenice Nadal, a 22-year-old Haitian-American who will teach them the language.
“In a place like San Antonio, people don't even know where Haiti is,” Nadal said. “When I tell them I'm from Haiti, they say, â??Oh, Katy, Texas?' It's pretty bad. So anything we can do to spread the word and help people get informed, it's always a good thing.”
For a country that was in dire straits to begin with, the earthquake only made matters much worse.
“This is a country with most of the people live on less than $2 a day, about $400 a year,” said Melia. “Portable water and food are already scarce, and it'll be more scarce now. For those who don't have money it'll be difficult to be treated or to maintain a healthy status.”
But, will the money and goods reach the intended destination and in a timely fashion? The corruption in and out of Haiti is another problem earthquake victims and potential donors have to deal with.
“A lot of people got a website saying, â??I'm helping,' but they `aren't`,” said Beauvil. “So be careful where you donate.”
“You need to be looking at who's recommending the donations,” said Berggren, who personally recommends Partners in Health, a Boston-based organization that has been in Haiti for 25 years and was co-founded by her former classmate, Dr. Paul E. Farmer. “I have complete confidence in them, and I personally made a donation there already with my credit card” said Berggren.
“These organizations have the man power and the connections in Haiti to effectively and efficiently mount a relief effort in that country,” said Melia.
Even though early reports of looting of destroyed homes and even a UN food warehouse in Port-au-Prince, as well as increasing volatile tempers among the locals, suggest that a considerable portion of donated money and goods will end up in the wrong hands, if people don't donate then there is absolutely no hope that help will get to the right people.
"So donate 'till it hurts, because Haitians are hurting,” Berggren said. “I really feel that it is urgent for all of us to mobilize and help as soon and as much as we can.”