A Tale of Olympic Survival

June 17, 2010

By David Chong, MD

 As the world watched the greatest athletes gather to compete in Vancouver, I was on a plane to Haiti.  Just getting on the plane was quite a feat.  After I received an urgent e-mail for volunteer doctors from the University of Miami’s Project Medishare field hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti late on a Friday night during an overnight shift at NY Presbyterian hospital, I began to send frantic requests for coverage for the week.  Slowly, I began to receive supportive responses but there was a lot to accomplish before departure.  As the Sunday deadline approached, I felt a strange peace.  Perhaps it was after talking to my wife, perhaps it was divine, but I really felt that I needed to go and that I had to help, no matter how small, in the tragedy that is Haiti.  The earthquake in Haiti affected one of the poorest nations in the western hemisphere and the estimates are more than 200,000 people perished in the span of 35 seconds.  It is a disaster that staggers the imagination and may be the single worst natural disaster in our lifetime.  It was bigger than the Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the Southern Chinese Earthquake.

 Although Haiti is only six hundred miles from Florida, it is a world and a distant culture away.  Thousands of Haitians call New York and America home, but Haiti remains desperately poor and many Americans consider it a “dangerous” country.  Images of black faces, corruption, HIV, and voodoo dominate our impressions.  I have to admit I didn’t know much about Haiti.  My high school French was long gone, and my Creole non-existent.  Nevertheless, I felt I needed to be there.  So close but yet so far away, it took me more than twelve hours to get to Haiti from New York.  The FAA restricted flights to Haiti and we all boarded the same flight in Miami loaded with tons of medical supplies.  When we finally arrived in Port-au-Prince, we had to unload all the cargo by ourselves.  I realized how much I took for granted when traveling.

 After arriving at the tent hospital on Sunday night, we got a quick tour from veterans who had arrived two days before.  We were lead to the staff tent and I picked an empty cot, grabbed some military rations, a bottle of water and used a port-a-potty to conclude a very long day.  On Monday, I met EM.  They had found him in the rubble of a flea market as people were scavenging for food or bodies.  He had been trapped under the rubble for 27 days, ever since the January 12th earthquake.  Dehydrated, starved, having lost 60 of his 140 lbs., but with obvious trauma, he was the longest survivor of any earthquake ever.  That morning, I had been assigned to the makeshift ICU in the corner of the OR.  When I met and examined him, he did have some burns to his feet, perhaps from when they pulled him out of the rubble, but otherwise he was intact.  He said that except for drinking some muddy water around him, he had no food for 27 days.  It was a miracle.  What happened next was surreal. 

 As EM began his recovery, the media frenzy began.  Someone had alerted the media, and so within the hour of EM’s arrival to the hospital, CNN, The New York Times, and Reuters were knocking at the door.  He began to tell his story to me.  EM explained that he had just finished selling rice for the day at the flea market on January 12th when the earthquake hit.  He said he was instantly trapped but could move a bit and he could hear people, but he couldn’t see them and more importantly, they couldn’t hear him.  He screamed until he lost his voice.  He then lost hope and assumed he would die.  27 days later, he was miraculously found alive.  

 When asked if he wanted to talk to the media, he repeatedly declined.   He explained that the miracle was not about him but that God had saved him, and that it was a testimony about the power of God.  He didn’t want to talk to CNN or the New York Times; he wanted to give his testimony to fellow Christians at his church.  Unfortunately, his church was destroyed in the earthquake.  Dignified, EM also said that if he told his story on television, it was look as if he was begging for money and he kept saying that his mother raised him better than that.  Proud and devout, EM epitomized the Haitian people.  This man who had no money, no home, and no food was not going to beg and risk dishonoring his mother or his faith.

 I had come to Haiti to help them, EM blessed me more that I could ever repay.  As the week drew to a close, Haiti commemorated the one-month anniversary of the Earthquake. The people of Haiti decided to make it day of prayer and fasting; this in a nation with no food, no shelter, and no basic services. 

 When it was time for me to leave at the end of the week, I went to EM to say my goodbyes and to give him my sleeping bag, my flashlight, a mirror with a picture of my daughter, and my business card. Upset and dismayed, EM kept saying that he wanted to go home with me.  He had become suspicious of everyone and stated that he only trusted me. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is common during disasters and he was showing all the signs.  Leaving him was extremely difficult for me as well.  I desperately wanted to get him transferred to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, but I knew it was not possible.  When I left Haiti, my body departed but a very big part of my heart lingered.

 After coming home, I, too, experienced PTSD and fell into a depression.  I experienced extreme sadness, anger, restlessness, and insomnia.  I felt I needed to go back and there was still so much to do.  I thought of EM constantly.  Sharing my experiences was difficult.  I found solace in connecting with other Haiti Earthquake volunteers on Facebook.  Almost a month after returning, only now have I been able to share my feelings about Haiti.

 It angered me when people would respond so flippantly to the plight and suffering of Haitians. Haiti needs more than just money and supplies; they need real help every day. They need schools, homes, food, electricity and clean water. Recovery seems insurmountable.

 Why is it so hard to believe that anything good can happen in Haiti?  Are we that pessimistic about Haiti?  Have we already given up on Haiti?  The Vancouver Olympics showcased an amazing array of human athletic accomplishments.  I think it pales in comparison to EM and the daily Olympics of Survival, human spirit and dignity that is Haiti.

Dr. Chong is the Hospital Director of Critical Care Services, Columbia University Medical Center