Sunday, April 19, 2009

Part 1 - Killick Coast Guard base

A month ago, I received word from a friend that a US navy ship named the Comfort would be spending 10 days in Haiti. The ship was medical and they were looking for approximately 500 candidates for surgery. I had 1 day to locate any potential candidates that I knew and email their pertinent information to the ship. Dannae had told me of 2 children at her school that needed hernia and hydrocele surgery, so I enrolled them. Within a few days, I was contacted and asked to report to Killick Coast Guard base in Carrefour on April 10th or 11th with the kids so they could be screened for surgery.

The USNS Comfort is essentially a floating hospital. For the next 4 months she will be visiting 4 countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America to provide free medical care. On this mission, the surgical staff will be using 4-8 operating rooms, and offering specialties such as optometry, orthopedics, pediatrics, plastic surgery, urology, ENT, opthamology, endocrinology, and infectious disease. The ship can house 1000 patients and 1000 crew members.

On Friday, April 10th, we arrived at the base at 7am to find a mob scene. Hundreds of people were crowded outside the gates, with no clear separation between those who had appointments, like us, and those who did not. Haitian coast guard and US military were posted at the gates but they weren't letting anyone in or giving comprehensible instructions. For over an hour, we waited in the hot sun, unsure where we ought to be or how to maximize our chances of getting in.

And then the first little miracle happened. Students from Quisqueya Christian School had been enlisted to work as translators with the navy medical staff and as I stood waiting, the bus pulled up full of students. I have gotten to know a lot of those kids from subbing for them, from youth group, and from playing soccer at the school in the afternoons. So when they saw me, they started clamoring for the bus driver to open the doors and let me on. He did, I jumped on, and seconds later, I was inside the impossible-to-enter gates. My surgical candidates had their parents and Mr. Nickson, the TLC school director with them, so I could safely leave them and go hunting for information.

I quickly discovered where my candidates needed to be, but the line was still insanely long and moving very slowly. So I left them and went to see if the Quisqueya students needed more help translating. For the rest of the day, I went back and forth between translating and moving my candidates along. I got to know some of the navy doctors and some of their support staff, and I got one of my kids confirmed for surgery. The other did not make it through the whole process and we were told to bring him back on Saturday.

On Saturday morning we arrived and I saw through the fence one of the doctors I had gotten to know the day before. I yelled to him to please come let me in. Next thing I knew, he had cleared me past all the guards and was marching me into the middle of a circle of serious men in uniform. "This is Kez," he introduced me. "She's a nurse who works with an NGO here and she was a big help to us yesterday. She'll be here to help again today." And just like that, I was no longer the stowaway who had managed to get through the gates illegally; I was the go-to girl for questions about Haiti, for translation, and for whatever random tasks needed to be done. At one point, the surgeons sent me into the crowd outside the gate looking for cataract surgery candidates. The military were not allowed outside the base, but I was, so out I went. At another moment, I was assigning volunteers to their positions and delivering water to the optometrists. Later, I was explaining to several brilliant physicians how I dose albendazole when I use it for deworming in infants and they were taking notes so they could use the same formulary. I taught an MD how to drain a ganglion cyst with the least risk of infection (and watched her botch it. Oh well.) I also remember going into the surgical screening room, marching straight up to Commander Donahue and telling him, "They're rioting at the gates, Donahue. People are passing out and being trampled. You have to do something!" To which he responded, "Well, what do you think we should do?" By evening on Saturday, it seemed like everyone knew my name and I had been asked to come back daily for the remainder of their stay in Haiti.

Sunday was the same deal. I got a ride to the base with the Quisqueya student translators and spent the day translating, organizing translators, explaining Haitian excentricities to the physicians, and just generally being used everywhere. The surgical staff was all on the ship performing surgeries now that the screening was over, so I was working exclusively with the medical staff and all the support personnel that kept things safe and functional on the base. Several people began asking me why I wasn't staying on the ship, and I got officially invited to come on board later in the week. I assumed that my translation abilities must be needed overnight with the inpatients.

During the morning on Sunday, a woman was brought in with severe uterine bleeding. The attending physician turned to me and Stephanie, a Haitian who was overseeing much of the logistics (buses, water, some volunteers). Together, Stephanie and I were able to get a police ambulance to come and take the woman to General Hospital. From that, my role morphed into the medical point of contact person - whenever a doctor needed to know what resources were available, he or she would call me. "Kez, this patient needs a hernia repair but we can't do it on the ship. Where can she go?" "Kez, is there anywhere to get physical therapy in Port-au-Prince?" "Kez, I'm putting this man on blood pressure meds but he will need follow up. Where should I send him?"

I worked with some fantastic doctors. They were smart and they really knew their stuff. It was such a treat to be able to just be a nurse for a week and to let someone else do the diagnosing and prescribing. I know circumstances were not ideal for them, having to work with a translator in the Haitian heat while people rioted outside the gates every day, but they seemed to genuinely want to serve the Haitian people. I stood with one physician as he cried over a woman with end stage breast cancer and I watched another cry after diagnosing a child with lymphoma. They may have been a bit embarassed, but I was touched and I know the patients were too.

Fun fact: we got a police escort to and from the base every day! It was terrifying but super cool.

Me and the Sunday medical team:

I took Monday off to take care of things here at the house, but Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I was back at the base, working with the doctors every day. It was exhausting to the point that I completely lost my voice and I am still recovering from the general fatigue. I would go through 3 water bottles in just the first hour of work and I was lucky if I got to take 10 minutes for lunch at midday. Exhausting, but absolutely worth it.


The Haiti Lady said...

Sounds awesome...I am VERY jealous, but so happy that you had the opportunity to show the Comfort that you know what you are doing and that you were the go to woman!!
Love ya,
LeAnne The Haiti Lady

Bernie said...


THANK YOU! I've been following the work of the Comfort for persoal reasons. My spouse is one of the Corpsmen on board. I'm glad that all of the medical staff were able to do as much work as they did. Your words show the greatest appreciation that could ever be shown. I'm proud that she went and that she was able to help your local "family".

I know that taking the time to blog this took time out of your day, but we love it. Thanks!

On a personal note, thanks for the last picture on the first blog entry for Comfort with the Sunday crew (Was that Easter Sunday?). You got us a great picture of her (the blonde in front).

Bernie --Navy HUSBAND

Keziah said...

Bernie, your wife was fantastic. Shoot me an email ( and I will tell you about working with her on Easter Sunday.