This is the first in a series of accounts of Wanjira Banfield’s missionary trip to Haiti.
In a makeshift hospital near Sacred Heart church in the center of Delmas, Haiti, Dr. Julie Manly leaned over 7-year-old Flore and examined her bandaged left foot.
Her entire back ankle was severed during the earthquake. With less than a week gone by since this disastrous incident and without the necessary medical attention, Flore's wound became extremely infected.
Dr. Manly looked up at Flore's mother, and matter-of-factly stated, “We have to either amputate her left leg from her knee down or she's going to die. What's your choice?"
With obvious disdain and a heavy heart, Flore's mother tearfully whispered in Creole, "I just want her to live."
That was just day one in Haiti.
We arrived at the Aeroport Internacional Toussaint Louverture (Toussaint Louverture International Airport) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti very late on the night of January 17th, 2010 on Insel Air Flight 9002.
Non-profit humanitarian organization Airline Ambassadors sent a group of medical professionals, surgeons, nurses, organizations such as Planting Peace and Organization Haiti Rome along with a few of South Florida's prominent media affiliates to assist in the relief mission for the Haitian people. Much of the medical team was set to be stationed at area hospitals while others planned to distribute a plane load of medical supplies, food and water throughout the region.
I'm no stranger to the selfless work of Airline Ambassadors.
In December 2008, I joined a group of medical and media professionals who assisted the organization on a similar relief mission after the Collège La Promesse, a three-story school in Port-au-Prince, collapsed as classes were in session, killing over 90 children and adults.
Consequently, when I received confirmation literally hours before the 4 p.m. scheduled flight on Sunday, I didn't hesitate to go. Somehow sending a text message as a means of donation or dropping off a canned good here and there just didn't seemed to be enough for me.
Perhaps it was the continuous disturbing images across the TV screen that led to my personal battle of feeling helpless and useless at home, that prompted my decision to get on a plane to Haiti.
My intention, though, like that of many of the media professionals on board, was just to stay for a few hours, assist with unloading the plane, then head back to South Florida the same night.
But once we arrived, those plans changed dramatically.
We stepped out of the plane, and immediately you could the feel the uneasiness and fear in the air. There were crowds and crowds of people lined up outside by the tarmac, still attempting to evacuate. Others were crammed around a U.S. Military C-130 aircraft, trying to flee the country as well. Everyone appeared desperate, nervous, afraid, and with a glaze in their eyes that could not even begin to tell what they witnessed in the past few days.
Planes full of medical professionals from nations all over the world – Colombia, Brazil, South Africa, Russia – were onsite. White vans marked with “U.N.” zipped passed us on the tarmac as we made our way across the damaged airport. There were many large cracks and large chunks of the building missing. The staircase at the end of the airport was completely destroyed. As we walked out the back side of the airport, people had already created tent cities along the perimeter of the building. Some of the Haitian authorities tried to maintain some type of order by barricading certain areas off for security measures.
A young woman sitting by the edge of the airport could be heard shouting, “It’s a disaster! The jails are destroyed! Criminals are running free! My country …Peyi mwen!”
In the distance, a baby was crying. Elderly men and women walked around as if they hadn’t slept or eaten in days. Haiti, as a country, was crying out in pain; a pain seeking a strong dosage of hope, care and an immense relief package of patience.
All the media personnel began to make their way back toward the airport to re-board the aircraft. I decided not to join them.
As I looked up and saw the plane flying off into the tenebrous night sky, it was then that I realized the difficult journey that lies ahead. To this day, I don't know exactly what compelled me to stay. I had no idea where I would sleep or when I would even return to the states.
All I did know was that there's a nation of people in need and it's going to require me to dig deep to find the strength to face it, even if it was with only a burning desire to help, the clothes on my back and my passport in my right hand.
With the medical supplies unloaded and on standby ‘til the morning, the teams began to disperse to their respective locations. My team, which was eventually dubbed “Team Shwazo” led by Greg Gourgue, included me, Daniel Sheth of Airline Ambassadors and Frantz Charles.
We took off into the night and drove about 20 minutes outside the capital to Martissant, where we would set up home base. The streets were pitch dark. On one side, a few cars made their way up and down the roads. On the other side, rows and rows of people slept in the streets of jagged cement, with nothing more than thin bed sheets or pieces of cloth covering their bodies.
The stench of death and decay was overwhelming. My eyes began to tear. With only the headlight gleam of the pick up truck we were in, there wasn't much to see but shadows of debris piles illuminated as we drove along. Stray dogs meandered throughout the streets, seeking shelter in the open crevices.
Among it all was a stillness. Streets that were often bustling with people are empty, deserted in a distressing war-like state.
When we arrived at Martissant, people looked to the heavenly skies for safety, sleeping in the street in front of our building.
A young man named Jean, who was lying by our staircase, draped in a thin blanket, said, “We are just afraid. There has already been a few aftershocks since the ‘quake and we just don’t want our houses to collapse on us again.”
It was an understandable fear after such a turbulent catastrophe.
“Our strength is in our faith,” he added.
Even in the midst of devastation, that was evident. While we settled in to prepare for the long day ahead, we could hear their songs of praise as they sang throughout the night until the sun came up.
Editor’s note: Look for the second part of Wanjira Banfield’s missionary trip to Haiti in next week’s edition of the South Florida Times.
AP Photo/The Miami Herald, Patrick Farrell. A Haitian woman prays at a small service outside the collapsed National Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.