Monday, September 28, 2009

My Army family

I was amazed last year by the Navy and their caring attitude towards the Haitians they were serving. This year, I was even more deeply amazed by the compassion and patience displayed by the members of the MEDRETE. On the USNS Comfort, there were so many medical personnel that I rarely worked with any one for more than 2 days. Here, though, I worked with the same 40 people, and very closely with the same 10, every day for 2 weeks. And I was impressed again and again by their kindness and selflessness.

Lt Andy Harer was the first person I pinned as a softy - I mean, a compassionate male nurse. A young man was admitted, weak and very skinny and sickly looking. His blood sugar was over 500 and he was close to a diabetic coma. I explained to Harer and the others that there wasn't much we could do since we didn't have insulin, we couldn't get it locally, and the boy's mother couldn't afford to go to the hospital. Andy immediately pulled me aside, "Kez, if I give you the money for the hospital, can you get him there quickly enough?" He pressed a $100 bill into my hand and 5 minutes later, the boy was in one of our cars and headed for St Michel in Jacmel. Andy asked me for updates on that boy every day until the end of the mission when we visited the hospital and heard that he had survived.

The pharmacist and pharmacy tech became good friends of mine too. On our third day, I made my first trip to the pharmacy in the late afternoon. When I appeared in the doorway, both of them hailed me with enthusiastic hello's and "Oh, now she graces us with her presence! Where have you been all day?" There's nothing like feeling wanted, so I started to visit them more often. And as things got busier and I got more tired, I would retire to the back corner of the pharmacy where I could hide to eat my lunch and reduce the amount of times that I got called away for referrals, translation or other needs.

Ironically enough, the reason that I became close with Harer and with Sergeant Ross was that friendly rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Both Ross and Harer are Yankees fans; I'm a diehard Sox fan. We should have hated each other, but in actuality, the connection gave us something to tease about and teasing later gave way to real friendship. Andy even hung a Sox hat on the door of the room where he was working, just for me.

While I did make rounds every day to check on the volunteers and spend much of my free time in the pharmacy, all my working moments were devoted to the general medical area. After a few days, the company had christened the other doctors The Mayo Clinic, because they were very careful about documenting and about full physicals. Where I worked, though, we went fast and furious, busting through patients as quickly as possible to try to serve as many of the huge crowd outside as we could. The entire team was male, except for me, so Dr Pitman named us the Stud Farm. We never thought it would stick, but soon everyone was calling us Stud Farm or the Ranch. We became the screening point for all the other aspects of the clinic: we would diagnose and treat medical conditions, but we also screened for dental problems and did eye testing on everyone with eye complaints. By the second week, that bag of surgical supplies that I had worked so hard to obtain from the US arrived, and Stud Farm began doing minor surgeries too: cyst and lipoma removals, debriding and stitching of wounds, even a few hernias. We did it all.

Dr Pitman was the king of Stud Farm. He gave us nurses complete freedom to treat within our expertise and experience, but he was always available for advice and direction. He took me under his wing from the first day, always making sure that I was drinking enough, choosing the better MREs (specially conserved Army meals) for me, and giving me the Tootsie Rolls and other treats from his MREs. He was a huge encouragement and has promised to be a resource for me when I start working with the Angel Missions surgery center sometime next year. One day, I got onto the volunteer bus in the afternoon, and one of them asked if I had family in the company. "Isn't Dr Pitman your father?" they asked. He isn't, but for those 2 weeks, he did a pretty nice job of assuming the role.

Pitman gave all of us Stud Farmers nicknames. I became NGO, because that's how I'd introduced myself to him at the beginning.

Lt Ken Dean was Warpspeed. He and Harer, nicknamed I&D (a medical abbreviation for incision and drainage) because he did most of the minor surgeries, were from the same unit in New York and they were partners in crime. I did not see anyone in the entire company work as hard as those two, whether it was at the clinic during the day, or back at pill party in the evenings, during set-up or tear-down, loading and unloading. Wherever there was work to be done, Dean and Harer were there.

Meisemer, aka Impulse Power, was a late addition to Stud Farm. We brought him in because he speaks French very well so he could communicate without a translator most of the time. We were always short on translators. Frequently, I would be treating my own patient, translating for Harer to my left, and telling Dean's patient on my right how to take her meds. But Meisemer used his French and quickly learned the important Creole phrases that I taught him and helped us out immensely.

Sergeant Dan Barnes worked with us, getting meds ready, fetching meds from the pharmacy, and helping with emergency care as needed. He was the medic who suffered from severe back pain at the beginning of the week, so when we realized that he was not present at breakfast one morning, we got worried and sent Dr Pitman to find him. Pitman did indeed find him...sitting in his room, the only air conditioned one in the entire hotel, eating a pop-tart. Yes, Pop-Tart earned his nickname.

I don't have photos of the other members: Washcloth, Proline, and Silent Bob. They were all wonderful and sweated over patients with me day after day. Proline, like Impulse Power, was a late addition, and a welcome one to me because she is female and only a few months older than me. We got along very well and roomed together at the super fancy hotel in Port-au-Prince on our last night.

The nicknames were a blast, but I took even more pleasure in hearing soldiers calling each other by their first name. US Army uniforms have the soldier's last name on the breast, so that was easy for me but I couldn't keep anybody's rank straight at first, so I always called them by just their last name. That felt disrespectful and impersonal, so I started asking for first names. For a while, I was the only person talking about Andy or John or Harold, but by the end of our mission, a lot of them were, especially the 5 who made up my little family: Andy, Ken, Shanna, Harold and myself.

If you're like me, you've seen dozens of movies about the Army and so you have a picture in your mind of what a soldier should be like. In my experience, they are far kinder and far more loving than anything you will ever see on the big screen. I truly felt like part of a large family. The women giggled with me and talked seriously with me. The men looked out for me, acting like my older brothers, espeically when they heard about Haitian men hitting on me. I cannot tell you how many times Harer or Ross would ask me very solemnly if I was going to be safe after they left. Men and women alike treated me to meals at the restaurant, gave me hugs and words of encouragement, promised to stay in touch and send me supplies whenever I need them, and got teary eyed when we said good-bye at the airport. I have been royally spoiled.

No comments: