Patient Safety / Quality

Giving from the heart

The December calendar lights up with many religious and cultural celebrations such as Hanukkah, Islamic New Year, Christmas, and Kwanza, times for gathering with family and friends to spread cheer and share thanks. Christmas has always been a festive tradition in Haiti, where about 80% of the people are Roman Catholics.

But this year many Haitians won’t be snug in their beds following the catastrophic 7.0 earthquake that dealt an indelible blow to the poor island country of Haiti almost one year ago on January 12, 2010. People fled from their houses to sugarcane fields and mango swamps to escape the torrent of falling concrete. Eventually we learned that more than 200,000 people lost their lives, and another 1.5 million people became homeless. Today, many still live in the more than 1,000 camps that provide temporary shelter. But all was not well before the earthquake. Half the population has no indoor plumbing or access to a latrine, electricity is limited and unreliable, and only one third have access to tap water; most people buy their own water to be safe.

Legoane, the epicenter of the quake, was about 12 miles from the capitol city of Port-au-Prince. Like blood supply diverted to essential functions in a failing body, the devastated areas of Haiti consumed the attention and resources of the world while other rural Haitians also suffered from losing communication and services to their communities. The effect was stifling for the entire country and no one’s life would be the same again. Families across the country couldn’t find loved ones, travel came to a halt, the government was in disarray, and after-shocks kept people from sleeping inside for fear that structures weakened in the tremors would collapse. Children couldn’t play; parents couldn’t provide for their families.

The call for help was answered immediately. Nurses, other healthcare providers, and all types of relief workers are known for their prosocial behavior meaning they willingly help another person expecting nothing in return. What we hear from those who help, however, is that they are moved and forever changed by the experience of seeing the resilience of those who have lost everything waking up happy to be alive the next day. Next month, American Nurse Today will cover one nurse’s experience on the ground in Port-au-Prince, where resilience and stoicism shaped the intense relationships with grateful Haitians receiving care.

One of the early US groups to provide assistance in the aftermath of the quake was the United States Navy hospital ship, the Comfort. With 1,000 beds, 12 operating rooms, imaging, telemedicine, and a staff of 850 healthcare providers, the former tanker anchored off shore ready to accept patients. I had the opportunity to talk with two nurses who were part of the Comfort’s historic mission. Their paths never crossed, their work was quite different, yet they too would have lasting memories from the experience.

Navy Ensign Gwen Mayhew was a new graduate still on orientation when, upon hearing about the planned Navy relief team, she made a decision in a matter of hours to volunteer for the mission. From National Naval Medical Center she travelled by bus to Baltimore where the Comfort was anchored. During the three-day trip to Haiti, crew transformed the ship that had been in dry dock to be ready to accept patients with no certainty of the number and type of injuries.


Once in place, patients arrived by boat and helicopter with IVs in place and nametags of adhesive tape. Numbers of patients quickly swelled such that nurses were looking after 15 to 20 patients. “You can’t be scared. There’s no time to question your confidence; you just have to jump in,” Gwen reflected. Translators were on hand to help with scripts to assess pain and provide basic instructions. The experience was emotionally and physically challenging; trying to sleep in a noisy chaotic environment and working long shifts was tough. The sobs of a woman who lost portions of both arms made it impossible to not think about being in her shoes. “The people were high spirited. One day a woman with a bible started preaching and singing a familiar hymn. Everyone joined in, waving their arms. It transformed the room from despair to hope.” For the dying too, the staff sang hymns along with the Navy chaplains who held services. Returning to her regular work was difficult. The intense interaction with highly spiritual and resilient people and the sense of purpose and fulfillment were coupled with the opportunity to apply a wide range of nursing skills.

Diana Whaley, a retired public health nurse, and active Red Cross volunteer, is a 10-year veteran of mission work in a Haitian orphanage. She has seen the ravages of poverty in the rural countryside of Haiti. The area she routinely visited was one of the most devastated near the epicenter of the quake. Diana’s initial work was helping welcome expatriate children who were flown to Miami. She then was assigned as the only Red Cross nurse aboard the Comfort where she was in charge of the interpreters and mental health supervisors who were critical to patients and staff. She also helped with the care of children on the ship.

Diana reflects on the relief efforts as helping the country move forward. “What’s essential is that we are enablers so we help the people learn how to exist once the help is gone. Help must be consistent with native ways, and people have to own their own recovery.” She advises nurses interested in disaster preparedness to seek formal preparation so you are ready. Find an organization that fits with your lifestyle and timing so you can donate your time.

The last few months have brought more hardship to beleaguered Haiti. An outbreak of cholera was confirmed on October 21, 2010, the first epidemic in more than a century, with a death toll already exceeding 2,000. Political unrest has been high with more than 20 candidates seeking election as president. Humanitarian groups have threatened to pull funding if duly elected winners are not recognized.

Despite more than ten billion dollars of aid pouring in from around the world, a decade of rebuilding looms ahead. One nonprofit nongovernment organization that helps find lasting solutions to poverty, Oxfam America, has named their Haitian recovery strategy, “Rebati lavi,” Haitian Kreyol for “renewing life.” Teams of nursing students, faculty, hospital and healthcare systems’ staff, along with volunteers from health relief and humanitarian aid groups, have brought nursing care and social support to help the people of Haiti rebuild their world. They have been giving all year to help renew life. At this charitable time of year may we realize the life lesson eloquently described by Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Pamela F. Cipriano, PhD, RN, FAAN, NEA-BC?
Editor-in-chief?
American Nurse Today

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2 thoughts on “Giving from the heart”

  1. Barb says:

    There is little to fear — and the people give you so much more than you give! It is a privilege to be there!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I so admire the people that get up and jump in to help when a disaster happens. I for a long time now have been accumulating clothing, etc to give back in my own not for profit business but cannot seem to get the confidence to actually get started. I feel like I am holding myself back. Is itsome sort of fear? I send gifts to different organizations periodically but I truly want to do more like you brave people out there.

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