“We witnessed amazing recoveries, and incredible sadness”

Posted on 05/28/10

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 first of a five part series.

Deb Pitts holding premature twins after an emergency C-section.


Holding hands with a patient after surgery.


I wanted to go to Haiti as soon as I heard about the earthquake. I remember watching TV and wanting to run over and help pull people out from the rubble. I can’t imagine what the people there felt like, hearing voices calling for help and not being able to get to them. As soon as I heard PIH was going to send nurses to Haiti, I volunteered. I’m an operating room (OR) nurse, I was an autopsy diener—a morgue assistant—in the army, I have lived in a tent and eaten next to nothing for weeks at a time. I knew they needed people like me, someone who can deal and help at the same time. My chance to go arrived on a Wednesday afternoon. I called my husband and he said, “go.” The next day I got my shots and precautionary medicine and left for Haiti.

As we flew into Port-au-Prince, we could see tent cities everywhere. The heat blasted us as deplaned. We unloaded the supplies, hopped into a PIH car, and headed to St. Marc.  We drove through the earthquake-ravaged parts of the city. It was horrifying. So many collapsed buildings, people everywhere. People were washing themselves in the gutters and cooking over makeshift fires in front of collapsed homes. A few people had a faraway look in their eyes, but most had a look of resignation on their faces. They were continuing on with life despite all of this devastation.

I took a few pictures but I felt embarrassed, almost morbid. I imagined the Haitians looking at us and seeing tourists with fancy hats and glasses snapping pictures while ooohing and aaahing. I put my camera away. Instead, I smiled and nodded at people. Some waved, most smiled, one or two turned away. On our way to St. Marc we could see glimpses of the ocean, so beautiful and blue. Such a stark contrast to the devastated land.

When we arrived in St. Marc, I felt like I was stepping back in time. The majority of vehicles on the street were motorcycles and donkeys. Old buses lay broken on the side of the road. Goats and chickens seemed to roam freely everywhere. A few of the streets were half paved, others were dirt and rocks. Buildings looked half finished. Some with roofs, some without, many homes lacked windows, and stonewalls surrounded plots of land.

We stayed in a PIH guesthouse. We slept on the floor in sleeping bags. At night we could hear all the different animals, as night ended, the sounds would blend with people talking and singing, morning activities beginning.

St. Nicolas Hospital’s courtyard was filled with people night and day. I was there to scrub and circulate in the hospital’s two operating rooms. It was hard to tell who the patients were at first—large families surrounded loved ones.  From infants to the elderly, our patients and their families were wonderful. The families did most of each patient’s daily living care. They helped us as much as was possible. It was not unusual to find a family member of one patient helping other patients. No one ever complained. Volunteers brought food. We gave away Power Bars and snacks we had brought from the U.S. to the patients and the volunteers.

We tried to be mindful of Haitian customs and procedures; we tried not to overstep our bounds. One thing we learned is that culture and beliefs play a huge role in how we can effectively care for a patient. Teaching is important, but we have to incorporate the culture and beliefs into that teaching, otherwise it will just go off to the wayside.

We witnessed amazing recoveries, and incredible sadness. I participated in an emergency C-section that saved a pair of twins (pictured above). Yet, several other babies brought in for dehydration, meningitis, and small bowel obstructions—all easily fixed or prevented in the U.S.—died. Watching the mothers run from the room was heart-wrenching.

We grew close to our patients and their families. It was hard to leave and not know what was going to happen to them. Would they continue to get care? How would they manage with an amputated leg or arm? Who will help little six-year-old Shama, who was dragged under a car and needs skin grafting on over 40% of her body? What about all the patients who still have pseudomonas in their wounds? How will they do in the future? I’ve come to care about these patients, and hope that the commitment to help them recover lasts long after the disaster fades from the headlines.

- Deb Pitts, RN
Brigham and Women's Hospital

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