Yesterday I was headed to team housing after picking up my truck. I was nearly there when my phone rang. It was Nick. He was calling from team housing. There was panic in his voice.
“Gwenn. Where are you? Get here right away. The house next to team housing is on fire.” There was then some commotion in the background and Nick said, “Oh my God, oh my God, Gwenn get here quick--- he’s burned. Oh, he’s bad... Oh my God, Gwenn, get here!”
My heart was racing and I remember swearing under my breath. Sarah was in the car with me and so was Nia. We turned the corner and saw a huge crowd of people gathered, black smoke billowing from the house, tons of people throwing buckets of water, and some people frantically working around a man on the ground. I handed Nia off to someone on Barton’s team so she wouldn’t see what was happening and then got help clearing the crowd so we could load this man into my truck.
About 4-5 people jumped on the truck from Barton’s team along with the injured person—including a nurse, a surgical tech and a physician’s assistant. I talked to a few people real quick to decide where to take him, and we all agreed that the hospital in Cay Jacmel (though about 20 minutes farther away) was a better option. So we sped down the road to Cay Jacmel, I leaned on my horn and flashed my headlights nearly the whole ride—my way to degaje a siren and emergency lights. (This isn’t the first time I’ve been an ambulance since the quake, so I have it down pretty well by now.) The team was in the back holding him and holding on and talking to him. When we arrived at the hospital, I hopped out of the truck and finally got a look at the patient… a middle-aged man—maybe mid 50’s. He was totally covered in filthy sheets and the smell was horrifying. It smelled like charred flesh, urine and feces. (I later learned that he had lost control of his bowels in the back of the truck on the way to the hospital.) I yelled that we needed a stretcher and quickly one was brought.
Upon entering at the door to the hospital, a woman at the door took one look at the patient and said, “You should really bring him to St. Michel. There’s nothing we can do with him here.” Having spent a decent amount of time at both the Cay Jacmel hospital and the St. Michel hospital, I knew she was wrong. I looked at the woman and looked at him and said, “No, there’s nothing they can do for him at St. Michel. We just came all the way from Jacmel. He will not live the 30 minutes it will take to drive there. We NEED him to be seen.” She reluctantly agreed to let us in, but we were basically on our own. There was one doctor there at the hospital who wasn’t currently in surgery and he was occupied with the dozens of other patients awaiting care. So Barton’s team stepped in and did what they needed to do. They raided the supply closet and got him started on IV’s (one in each arm), antibiotics and morphine. I kept my face close to him—I don’t know how he was still conscious, but he was and tried to keep him talking. I learned his name was Jean Claude. I prayed with him. I sang quietly to him. I asked him about his family and told him about mine. They unwrapped him from his cocoon of sheets to further asess things and I. WAS. HORRIFIED.
The doctors there estimated that his body was at least 60-70% covered in 2nd and 3rd degree burns. The images of what I saw in the next two hours are haunting me. I can’t make them leave my mind. Jean Claude’s flesh was melted off of his legs and his arms and his stomach, and his back and his butt. Basically just his hands and his head were the only places where he had larger chunks of skin that weren’t burned. Which was good because I kept one of his hands in mine nearly constantly. I whispered prayers to him and tried to keep eye contact.
There’s no burn center in Jacmel. Nor in Haiti as I am aware. The only thing to do was clean the wounds, spread burn cream and dress them. And, of course, treat the pain. Which was obviously excruciating. In order to clean him up, they had to splash bottles of peroxide and betadine all over him. We couldn’t find clean sheets and so we had to have him sitting in his feces for an hour or so. We found a pack of diapers that we were able to place under his head to use as a pillow. And I just kept sitting staring into his eyes and whispering, “Mwen pa komprann sa a, men m konnen Bondye fidel.” (I don’t understand this, but I know that God is faithful.)
Now, before I get any credit (or accusations) for what probably appeared as me trying to proselytize a most-likely dying man, know this—I was saying that for me, not for him. The 100% transparent truth is that I knew I needed to stay there next to him (as I was the only person there who spoke Kreyol and English—well, at least for the first hour or so), but I was absolutely, utterly, and totally horrified.
I stayed there beside him (as all the team members did) while huge chunks of melted skin were trimmed off of him. And again I found myself in a completely helpless position. Again I found myself in a place where I was wondering if an effort to try to preserve life was really the best thing. I have been there far too often lately. I was in this state where one second all I could think was, “God, please, please help him. I know this is hard, but you overcame death. You can heal him.” And the next minute I was praying, “God, take him away. Oh God, take him. Just take him. This is awful. Don’t make him bear this a minute longer…”
After about an hour and a half his wife arrived. She was remarkably calm. She took over holding his hand. I went out, sat down, drank some water and mustered all the strength I had not to puke. More time passed. I held his hand more and pored tiny sips of water into his mouth. Jean Claude finally got officially checked into a hospital bed. He was “handed over” to hospital staff and given a private nurse to keep watch on his fluids/pain level, etc. All we could do was hope she was attentive and truly advocated for him.
And then (about 3 hours after arriving) we left. We planned to return the next morning to check on him, bring clean sheets, etc. But those plans did not come to fruition because at about 10 PM last night Jean Claude died.
I am so not sure how to feel right now. I am really struggling with this— I know (without question,) his life was prolonged (at least a few hours) by the immediate medical attention he was able to receive. And he was able to receive immediate medical attention because there were doctors/medical supplies on hand because of the earthquake. That most likely wouldn’t have been the case on January 11th. But who cares? Was that REALLY the best thing? He had 2nd and 3rd degree burns covering 60+% of his body! I am not sure I would want my life prolonged if I was in that situation. No actually I am sure. I am sure that I would NOT want my life prolonged if I was in Jean Claude’s situation.
So I have lots of questions. Lots. And I have no answers. None. Not even one.
Sorry for the total downer post today. I am really not depressed. Just really reflective. Because I live in Haiti and run an orphanage I feel as if I have a pretty decent capacity for handeling traumatic and heart-wrenching situations. I’ve had a lot of OJT in this during the past 10 months of living here. But man, I feel so ill-equipped to process all the trauma and death I’ve seen lately. Feels like it’s time to get back to the stuff I did pre-quake. You know, the “easy stuff”—orphaned, abandoned, and enslaved children. Never thought I’d be thinking that would be the “easy stuff.”