MIDDLEBURY — Flying into Port-au-Prince’s single runway airport nine days after an earthquake devastated Haiti, Dr. Jean Andersson-Swayze looked down at the dark swath of land uninterrupted by lights. For a city of more than 2 million residents, Andersson-Swayze thought, Port-au-Prince looked awfully dark from the sky.
The Middlebury Family Health physician was crammed into a seven-seater charter plane loaded down with more than 2,000 pounds of medical supplies. Suitcases tumbled into the narrow aisle of the plane. Andersson-Swayze was one member of a team of five Vermont women — including Porter Hospital emergency room nurse Kathy Pominville — who hustled in the days after Haiti’s massive Jan. 12 earthquake to respond to the disaster.
Nine days after disaster hit, these women found themselves in a tiny plane above what had temporarily become one of the busiest airports in the world. But Andersson-Swayze said she knew right away that Haiti was the right place for her to be at that moment.
“When the earthquake hit, we knew we had to go,” Andersson-Swayze said. “We had the skills that were required.”
ON THE GROUND
The team of medical workers returned to Vermont on Sunday after nine days on the ground in Haiti, where the doctors and nurses treated infected wounds, broken bones, and diseases that cropped up in the wake of the disaster.
Andersson-Swayze had been to Haiti once before, in October, to work with Burlington doctor Patty Fisher in a clinic in the mountains. Fisher is the director of the Community Health Center in Burlington, and has volunteered in Haiti many times.
But once on the ground in Haiti, Andersson-Swayze, Fisher, Pominville and the other nurses didn’t head up into the mountains, as Fisher typically had. They made their way to St. Damien’s Hospital instead — that is, once they made it out of the chaos of the airport, where military planes and huge mountains of supplies were crowded near the single runway.
Then, a driver took the medical team to St. Damien’s, a children’s hospital being run by Italian aid workers. It was late in the day by the time they arrived, but even so a volunteer popped his head into the women’s tent and asked if someone could do a shift that night. One nurse took the shift, and by the next morning the team was at work.
Fifty-three-year-old Pominville spent most of her time in the hospital. An ER nurse in the United States, Pominville is used to emergencies — but the situation at St. Damien’s was unlike anything she’d known before. Supplies trickling in meant it was difficult to find the materials or medications she wanted. Meanwhile, the slower pace was frustrating for a nurse accustomed to the quick responses of the American medical system.
Mostly, Pominville treated infections that cropped up after quick treatment of lacerations in the field. She also realized that many people lost their medications in the earthquake, which meant that patients managing chronic diseases were trying to get by without their usual prescriptions.
Pominville doesn’t speak French, which meant she had to rely on interpreters in the hospital to communicate with most of her patients. But she was on the ground long enough to see patients improve, she said, which helped ease the burden of caring for so many injured people.
She did venture outside the hospital a few times, once to a camp set up by the U.S. military on a hilltop in Port-au-Prince.
The military outpost was perched on the top of the hill, Pominville said, and as many of 40,000 or 50,000 homeless Haitians had set up makeshift tents on the sides of the hill. She watched the military distributing food, including hundreds of bags of grains and gallons of vegetable oil for cooking.
“There’s so much need, it’s really hard to put your finger on it,” Pominville said. “If you can find a reputable organization to donate to, it’s a really good way to go. I was lucky, because I could offer what I do for a living. It’s going to be a long time before they are on their feet again.”
IN THE CITY
While Pominville worked in the hospital at St. Damien’s, Andersson-Swayze, 38, headed out to conduct mobile clinics with Fisher. Moving through Port-au-Prince, she said, she quickly realized that “building after building was just pancaked.” But alongside buildings that had collapsed entirely, others stood untouched.
By the time the doctors arrived, Andersson-Swayze was seeing signs of life returning to Port-au-Prince. Little impromptu markets were beginning to spring up. At the same time, though, signs were clear that things were still terribly awry in the city. People had blocked off streets with boulders so they could sleep on the roads at night, and makeshift shanties occupied even the narrow medians between lanes of the road.
“Life like that will be OK until it rains,” Andersson-Swayze said, but then diseases like cholera and dysentery could well set it. “It’s just a time bomb.”
Another problem she quickly noticed is that, with just one road leading away from the airport, aid workers were struggling to effectively distribute supplies.
Every day, she and Fisher would pick up boxes of United Nation food supplies along with their medical kits before heading out into the city. At a mobile clinic set up by Haitian community organizers calling themselves the Haitian Solidarity Association, the women turned over the supplies to the organizers, and the young men distributed them to the people in these communities.
All in all, Andersson-Swayze estimates that the team of five Vermont women treated more than 1,000 patients during their time in Haiti. Many of those patients were facing amputations or serious broken bones, and the country faced a real need for orthopedic surgeons in particular.
She also dealt with many cases of tetanus, typhoid fever and respiratory problems caused by the rubble and dust in the air.
“The Haitian population is not very healthy as it is,” Andersson-Swayze said. “Haiti is bad on a good day.”
Now that she’s back in the United States, Andersson-Swayze’s goal is to begin raising money for the Haitian Solidarity Association. She and the other doctors and nurses have headed back to work in the meantime, and spoke highly of employers that were flexible enough to let the medical team take off for Haiti on such short notice.
“All our employers were just so amazing, letting us go spur of the moment,” Andersson-Swayze said. “People on this end wanted to do everything they could do to help, and by helping us they felt they were helping Haiti.”
To donate to the Haitian Solidarity Association, contact Jean Andersson-Swayze at email@example.com or 802-578-3955 for more information.