Embedded with other journalists on the US Naval hospital ship Comfort, I was among those who ventured ashore to document the stunning medical crisis that had unfolded in Haiti in the wake of the January 2010 earthquake.
(January 22, 2010) Jugard DeCastillion lay dying before my eyes. The 21-year old man’s mother fanned his face as if it might force more air into his failing lungs. He gasped. An embolism, the doctors said. He’d been crushed by falling walls when the earthquake struck in Port au Prince. Eight days on, it had come to this.
A portion of one hand was amputated. His organs were likely damaged and failing now.
Infection. A young man’s last hours. There was struggle to breathe but no panic.
He gasped again, and rolled his eyes toward me. Who was this guy standing over him with a video camera asking his mom muted questions in broken, elementary French?
He was lying in a steel-framed hospital bed apparently salvaged from the wrecked hospital. It had been carried outdoors into the courtyard of the St. Francois de Sales hospital in Port au Prince. The blue plastic tarp that shielded him from the sun gave the light a surreal tint.
Thank God it hadn’t rained.
At least 86 other men, women and (mostly) kids shared this outdoor hospital ward. Mercifully, a light breeze carried the stink away.
Women sang rhythmic hymns in Creole as they wrapped bandages.
Less than 50 meters away, the main hospital building was a stack of broken slabs. The bodies of at least 35 patients and staff had been buried somewhere under the ash-colored rubble, according to one of the doctors.
The survivors couldn’t get to all the victim’s bodies. But they did find a way to tunnel through a section of the pancaked building’s remains to break into the wrecked pharmacy and recover what medications and supplies they could.
I visited other makeshift hospitals too. Places where amputations, Cesarian sections and even brain surgery had been performed, by necessity, outdoors in shocking, non-sterile conditions. Volunteers pulled doors out of rubble and used them as litters and operating tables.
Thankfully, I didn’t witness any of this horrible surgery in progress. But I saw the survivors who would either heal or die under tarps, with their families clustered around to shoo the flies away, feed them, and carry off the stinking bedpans. There were tens of thousands of horribly injured and sick people all around Port au Prince.
Back at St. Francois de Sales, several one-story wings and annexes to the original main building still stood on the hospital grounds, but frequent aftershocks reminded patients and doctors why they preferred to stay outdoors despite the flies.
Some Polish soldiers had arrived with relief supplies. Volunteers from Catholic Relief Services and the Archdiocese of Baltimore had found their way here to help.
A padlocked iron gate kept the chaos outside the hospital grounds away.
The wounded at Gettysburg or Shiloh had it about the same nearly 140 years ago, I thought.
Maybe a miracle would save the man gasping for breath who was lying before me.
Working alone, now it was time to shoot the video, knock out the interviews. Show the world. Give ‘em a look at reality. Keep your cool. This was just one tragic vignette and our local guide was offering to take a small group of us to see more of his shattered city if I hustled. A fellow reporter held the camera for two quick standups. Above all, I had to make it back to the landing zone for a flight back to the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort to write, trac, edit and feed before 11 p.m. back in Washington.
News doesn’t sleep. After witnessing this, sometimes neither do I.
Video: the following report aired about 10 hours after I visited St. Francois De Sales. A second report summarizes much of what I witnessed in Port au Prince and on the USNS Comfort.
Postscript: James Lea, a North Carolina-based freelance journalist who is also in his third year of medical school consulted with doctors at St. Francois de Sales about DeCastillion. A decision was made to have Lea accompany DeCastillion in an ambulance back to the field medical evacuation station at Verreaux where the Navy had dropped off embedded journalists by helicopter that morning. Thanks to Lea’s advocacy, DeCastillion was flown to the ship. However, the Navy’s admissions records do not match the ID information DeCastillion’s mother gave me. As a result, his fate is a mystery to me.