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.
When I first started in the TV business back in 1983, every now and then I’d “phone a friend” to alert them to a hot story that I was working on so they could watch it on the nightly news. Perhaps they’d even tell some other friends to watch.
My motivation at the time was vanity, not running up the ratings.
Now, its the other way around.
As a modern “digital correspondent”, not a day goes by that I don’t alert every “friend” I’ve ever had about what I’m doing that day, thanks to Twitter.
I Twitter the world (or at least my growing phalanx of followers) whenever an interview is imminent. “Questions for the Governor?” I’ll Tweet, in hopes of getting some “friend” engaged enough in the story to see if I’ll actually ask his question. Then hopefully that “friend”, and many others, will follow up by clicking through to my latest dispatch, photo or video as soon as it’s urgently posted on the television station’s website, and of course, Twittered again.
Later, maybe – just maybe — some of those people will actually watch the report with the Governor on the news that evening ! As they say on Twitter, “OMG!”
And then there is the Holy Grail. Something goes viral. All of a sudden your employer’s website recieves millions of hits from around the galaxy, all because your followers started forwarding to everyone they know about some snippet of “must-see” video that you just posted.
This is what I call the new micro-marketing of television news. Micro because each day it begins with a “tweet” to that first list of “friends”. It’s personal. It’s up to the individual reporter, not the organization, to drive eyeballs to the product. I’ve even been tinkering with live web cam chats out of my news car while driving to a story. I alert followers to log-in by Twitter, and sure enough, they come.
There’s no promotions department involved for this kind of personal reporter-to-friends mico-marketing. But there is a “Digital Development Director” who preaches the Twitter gospel and teaches staff all the tricks.
My colleagues and I use Twitter, Facebook, Linked-in — whatever social media is at our disposal to tell followers what we’re up to in near real time. It’s all in desperate hope of driving ever-so-fickle eyeballs to our employers’ websites and HD broadcasts. The vanity of phoning a friend is over. Now its about staying employed.
I’ve become a one-man personal promotions machine. On some days it seems, actually reporting the story is last on the list. Instead I’m scheming to churn out another little tease, er, I mean Tweet, to get the audience in the game. I try hard not to waste anyone’s time. It’s all news. (There are no “OMGs” about long lines at the bagel place, for instance).
Of course, this works in both directions. Followers send news of their own all day long. I’ve always said; “News doesn’t happen by magic. Somebody’s got to tell us.” Well, they’re tweeting away out there. The biggest challenge is finding the diamonds buried in the never-ending Tsunami of texts. “Send direct when u see news,” I like to Tweet to a new follower.
Many of those followers are PR professionals or marketers. Everybody’s in the game for their own reasons. I figure PR people and real estate agents have computers and TVs too. If that’s the audience, so be it. Tweets away!
For the following report, page views and comments jumped as Twitter was used to both solicit reactions and inform viewers when and where to see it: