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Helping Haiti: An on the Ground Report From Mai Alyschild, RN

by Julie Schwietert Jan 28, 2010
RN Mai Alyschild describes what it’s like to provide medical assistance to earthquake survivors in Haiti via Facebook status updates.

Mai Alyschild retired from her job as a psychiatric nurse at San Francisco General Hospital when she turned 60.

That was five years ago.

Rather than join a bridge club or take up knitting, Alyschild began pursuing a different pastime: humanitarian work in the developing world.

Alyschild has conducted a study on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in rural Afghanistan; worked in Nairobi’s Kibera Hospital and AIDS Clinic; and has gained extensive experience in disaster relief, having provided medical assistance after an earthquake in Peru and a flood in Villahermosa, Mexico.

Alyschild, the mother of a friend of Brave New Traveler co-editor, Christine Garvin, has been on the ground in Haiti helping with earthquake relief efforts since January 21. She has been keeping a running journal of her impressions and experiences on Facebook, where her status updates give the rest of us an unedited, unscripted sense of what it’s like to be volunteering in Haiti right now:

Thursday, January 21: Oh.My.God

“We made it through the 7th level of hell (immigration bs/customs at the border). We were besieged by desperate hungry children at every turn….

…[W]e are …at the UN compound at the airport in Port-au-Prince. The Turkish NGO, Helping Hands, is feeding us dolmas and dates and grapes – after going hungry all day…. We will start work at the Hospital near the palace Nacional tomorrow.”

Friday, January 22: Greetings from UN Hospital

“I no sooner got my scrubs on this morning at 6am when I was immediately coopted by the UN hospital here on the airport grounds… they were desperate for nurses… over 100 pt’s in the post-op recovery tent and 45 in the Pedi/Kids tent…(eek) and a full surgical theatre… with choppers airlifting in more pt’s every 1/2 hr from ground zero with gangrenous open wounds.

I was assigned vitals, wound care and hydration/nutrition… wound care was a bit daunting but the other nurses and I all pulled together and no one died…

[W]orked 12 hours running my ass off…and there was never enough time…everyone hollering “Doctora” “Doctora!” at me…. (This place makes “Mash” look like a 4-star hospital).

We even conscripted carpenters to ma[ke] us more OR surgery tables… as we needed them!
One funny thing: a team of Scientologists showed up to feed the Dr.s and Nurses hot chicken soup (bless them).
I may be here for awhile.”

Saturday, January 23: Day 3 at UN Hosp Hell City

“It is NOT getting any better…. The CDC would shut us down in a heartbeat for (absent) infection precautions… but what can we do??…. I want to scream at all the voyeuristic media hanging around, ‘Go home and send us nurses!'”

Sunday, January 24: 3-dot journalism

“passing soup across the cracked lips of a 96 yr old Creole woman…
one constancy intrudes: the whup-whup-whup of incoming choppers
and your gut tenses, wondering What now??

Untenses in the brief respites around coffee urns with colleagues
14 lenguas…two phrases in common:
‘What do you need?…How can I help?’

One certainty: I am where I need to be
You’d have to drag me away from here

Every moment you are ‘in the moment’
paying attention to the need in front of you.”

Monday, January 25: UN Hosp…

“Checking charts: (well, ‘charts’ is a bit of a stretch…stapled together sheets of paper)
‘TB positive’…’sickle-cell crisis’…’Hypertensive’…’rule out Typhoid’…’chicken pox isolation.’

How many ways can the human body crump [sic] on you aside from earthquake trauma?

Don’t ask.”

Tuesday, January 26: How long have I been here?? IT FEELS LIKE A MONTH.

“Received ‘NO Code’ patient in advanced AIDS with advanced tetanus… prognosis: 24 hrs. Family at bedside
I gave him care and had a translator explain that this was their time to say goodbyes….

…[T]his is going to be Hell for the foreseeable future….

Tuesday, January 26: Reality bites

…Tonight a Haitian band came in and played some rousing gospel music and the patients families got up off the floor and began dancing and shouting in all the available open spaces…it was a sight to behold. Somehow they find it in their heart to be joyful for just being alive in the face of such dire adversity.

There is surely a lesson there for all of us….

Wednesday, January 27: Stress rears its ugly head

“I resorted to sneaking food from the mess to patients families who are here overnight without much to eat. Officially we have ‘only enough for patients and staff’ but there are cargoloads of donated food/supplies coming in every day marked ‘For the people of Haiti’ (I didn’t see any marked ‘for patients and staff only’).”

Wednesday, January 27: Greetings from (now) an armed camp

Previously known as the UN Hospital.
“The Army has taken it upon themselves and in a matter of 8 hours pounded posts in and hung a 6 foot chain link fence around the hospital to prevent locals and looters from coming into our camp.

I asked one: ‘Is that to keep the nurses in here from fleeing this scene?’ He laughed out loud.

Big problem: Cargoloads of donated items flown in in crates and dumped on our doorstep but no time or personnel to go thorough [sic] them and find what we need and get it on shelves… too busy with the need in front of us.”

Community Connection:

Another perspective on Haiti in this post-quake period is provided by students at the local film institute in the town of Jacmel. Check out MatadorTV’s video: After the Earthquake: A Compilation of Cine Institute Coverage.

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