Public Health

Haiti Diary: Camping With U.S. Emergency Medical Teams

Dr. Henri Ford uses a bullhorn to spread the word about the US medical clinic outside the presidenti i

Dr. Henri Ford uses a bullhorn to spread the word about the US medical clinic outside the presidential palace. Ford grew up in Port au Prince, but says the city is nearly unrecognizable to him today. John W. Poole/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John W. Poole/NPR
Dr. Henri Ford uses a bullhorn to spread the word about the US medical clinic outside the presidenti

Dr. Henri Ford uses a bullhorn to spread the word about the US medical clinic outside the presidential palace. Ford grew up in Port au Prince, but says the city is nearly unrecognizable to him today.

John W. Poole/NPR

I just got back from nine days in Haiti reporting on the U.S. government's medical assistance effort. NPR videographer John Poole and I traveled and lived with medical teams from Georgia and Massachusetts.

These teams train throughout the year — on their own dime — and they take two weeks off from their day jobs when a disaster occurs. Members include doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, communications experts, EMTs who can do everything from plumbing to saving lives, and the all-important logisticians who got us from place to place, with tons of equipment.

We started out with the Georgia team, on a plane that had a near-miss on its way in to Port-au-Prince. The plane ended up landing on a nearby resort island, where we stayed for three days, waiting for another plane ride in.

The team members were enormously frustrated, watching on CNN as people died without medical care. More than anything, they wanted to help.

When we finally got to Port-au-Prince, it was another wait, camping out on the grounds of the U.S. embassy with the other teams. There were mosquitoes, worms that purportedly would crawl in your ear at night, and heat in the low 90s.

But it was hard to feel sorry for ourselves. Just outside the gates of the embassy, people had lost everything.

Finally, a week after the earthquake, two Massachusetts groups got an assignment — to set up a mobile hospital in a former school. The school was right next to a medical clinic and also next to a soccer field where thousands of people were camping. The team was able to set up large vinyl tents and operating rooms within hours of arrival.

The first couple of days were kind of slow, as word got out. But by day three, they were near capacity, and the biggest issue had become finding a place to move people to recover. For many patients, it was a hallway outside the compound.

For the medical team members, life meant plenty of mosquitoes. Heat. MREs. A plastic bag for a bathroom. No showers. And I didn't hear a single complaint.

Outside the compound every night, in a nearby soccer, there were no riots. There was no screaming. People chanted and sang Christian hymns. The chant that will stay with me, "The earthquake struck, and God gave us a second chance."

The medical teams are swapping out members now. New crews will come in.

How long they'll stay has yet to be determined.

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