“I am a nurse and that is what nurses do”

Posted on 06/08/10

In response to the earthquake that ravaged Haiti’s capital on January 12, 2010, Partners In Health helped to send hundreds of volunteer nurses, doctors, and other medical and logistics professionals from around the United States and Europe to help support our roughly 5,000 staff on the ground. The following essay is from one of those volunteers, and the fourth of a five part series.Read the previous post in this series.

Denise Lauria in Haiti.


Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and it is our neighbor. I went to Haiti because I felt that if my neighbor needed help, I would rise to the occasion, no accolades needed. I am a nurse and that is what nurses do. What I saw in Haiti was overwhelming. I was not prepared for the poverty, the lack of infrastructure, and the general chaos. I have seen poverty on TV, but I've never seen such widespread abject poverty as I did in Haiti.

We were deployed to St. Marc, a city located 60 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, where many displaced people from Port-au-Prince had relocated.

We treated hundreds of patients with multiple trauma including crushing injuries, open wounds, open fractures, and rhabdomyolysis—the rapid breakdown of muscle tissue caused by crush injuries. We set up a triage system: first we save life and limbs, second we treat open wounds and fractures. We put together records for each patient; we organized patients by wards. We worked twenty-hour days. I saw so much infection, pus, flies, purulent odors, and human suffering. I saw diseases that I had never in the U.S., including tetanus and pyomyositis—a bacterial infection of the skeletal muscles that results in a pus-filled abscess.

During those two weeks, I participated in roughly 150 surgeries. The team worked together to clean the operating rooms after surgeries and to fix things when they broke—like the anesthesia machine.

The only lab work available were H&H (hemoglobin and hematocrit, two very common and important blood tests), syphilis, and HIV testing. No mobile x-ray machines, no tourniquets, no ventilators. We learned quickly how to adapt, how to evaluate our outcomes, and how to change our practice accordingly.

What we didn't need to change was what we brought with us, respect for human dignity and informed consent. The people of Haiti are a people of enduring faith, hope, and resiliency—they deserve our continued support. I went to Haiti expecting to see wailing and depression, but I found strength, hope, and warmth. What I saw were children laughing and people smiling. I carry a special place in my heart for the people of Haiti.

- Denise Lauria, RN
Massachusetts General Hospital

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