As soon as I heard about the medi for help project in Haiti I knew straight away that I had to be part of it! At last I had been given the opportunity to take an active part in a relief project. Thanks to the support of my wife and my employer (who gave me a week’s holiday for free), the concrete idea suddenly became reality. So off I went to the doctor, picked up my vaccinations, applied for my passport, etc, etc.
My two-week trip started in Düsseldorf at 1 pm on 01/09/2012.
After a very short night in Miami I arrived at Port-au-Prince airport with three huge travel bags (two of them full with material for the workshop) and four hours delay. The chaotic conditions at the airport and my lack of Creole and French soon had the beads of sweat running down my forehead! Or was it only the high temperatures that were the other side of 30°C (86°F) and without any air conditioning?
But somehow I easily found my way to the car that was waiting for me. Joel, a member of the workshop staff, had come to pick me up. So we heaved the bags into the back of the pickup and set off for Deschapelles. Because Joel spoke English so confidently we got on well and he explained some of the things we saw to the left and right of the road.
If you didn’t see the sea every now and again while you’re driving across Haiti you’d hardly believe you were in the middle of the Caribbean! This is a very barren region, and the landscape is marked by villages and towns made up of ruined houses, tin shacks, and tents cobbled together from tarpaulins. The traffic is absolutely chaotic. Pedestrians and their animals run hither and thither across the roads, and there doesn’t seem to be a highway code for the cars, all of which MOT inspectors would have a field-day with. On some roads you can’t get anywhere at all without 4×4. I was already aware of the fact that Haiti is one of the poorest countries, but somehow I had imagined the Caribbean to be a bit different.
When I arrived at the Hopital Albert Schweitzer (HAS) campus I was greeted warmly by Michael Beck, the German head of the workshop. He showed me my room straight away in the house that he, Susanne (a German paediatrician), and I would be living for the next few weeks. I was introduced to the rest of the campus and the other people living there and, of course, we went straight to see the workshop. After we’d safely put away all the things I had brought with me we went off to cool off in the pool.
Luckily there wasn’t too much to do on my first day at work so I had the chance to get to know my colleagues, the work processes, materials and the tools. The workshop is really very well equipped, the materials are functional, and working together with my colleagues from the island was great fun. Their happy and open nature makes it easy to feel part of the team very quickly. The atmosphere is very easy-going, we chat about private things, and laugh a lot.
My jobs in the work shop workshop were mainly making up, and adapting and modifying prostheses, below-knee prostheses, and wrist supports. Of course you can’t compare these prostheses and orthoses with those in Germany, but in view of the financial means available to a relief organisation, the country’s poor infrastructure and the climatic conditions, the results were truly most respectable. Improvisation is often the order of the day! But it’s exactly this that I love about my profession! And another thing, working under the climatic conditions there really has to be seen to be believed.
In our spare time we dealt with the things we had kept for a rainy day: for instance making boxes for the workshop, sorting the stump socks that had been donated, repairing the drain on the plaster of Paris sink, and much else besides.
Every Tuesday and Thursday we were visited by a small van from the CMMB (Catholic Medical Mission board) with an average of 6 to 12 patients from Port-au-Prince. All these patients have to be cared for by 4:00 in the afternoon of that day so they can get back home to town before it gets dark. Work on these days was quite exhausting. But the patients’ endless patience, their gratitude and joy in life lend us wings! And after a hard day at the workshop you look forward even more to a couple of relaxing circuits in the pool.
During my second week Carsten Stauf (medi for help project leader) and Nick Vogel (CPO medi USA) came to Haiti to spend a week with us. Nick helped us in the workshop, and Carsten lent us a hand too whenever he didn’t have to deal with organisational matters.
Three days before they were due to leave, while we were having our evening meal (when I was to leave too), I suggested to Carsten that we could simply prolong my mission by two weeks. After all, there was still plenty to be done (the workshop, the wrist splints project, the boxes…), and somehow I felt I had helped far too little in the short time I had been here. I was happy in Haiti, and somehow two weeks didn’t seem long enough for such a project! After thinking it over Carsten agreed to my suggestion. So that was agreed. The next morning I went straight to the telephone and phoned Germany (six hours time difference).
First I phoned my wife. She understood me, agreed, and she organised the rebooking of my flight right away.
Then the firm. There weren’t any problems here either, so there were no obstacles to my spending another two weeks in Haiti.
When Carsten told the guys at the workshop during our team meeting that I had spontaneously extended my stay by two weeks they all stood up and applauded. After the meeting several of them came to me, embraced me, and thanked me for staying longer.
That was really one of the most moving moments there, and I knew that I was doing exactly the right thing.
On Sunday morning Michael and I took Carsten and Nick to the airport in Port-au-Prince and at midday we picked up the next volunteer von medi.Peter, a nice Frenchman, was to be my colleague and flat sharer for the next two weeks.
We had our free time at the weekends. Susanne and Michael and a few of their friends organised wonderful trips to beautiful parts of the island. We visited various beaches, went snorkelling in the sea, and hiked through the mountains to a wonderful waterfall. At moments like these I almost felt like I was on holiday. But reality was waiting for us, at the latest when we returned.
After four weeks it really was time for me to say goodbye. It wasn’t easy for me, and I am so grateful that I was able to get to know so many wonderful people and a beautiful country. Nobody can take the impressions and experiences that I collected there away from me. They are mine!!!