An alumnus reflects on his recent trip to Haiti with a medical mission team.
I never expected that leaving Fuller with a Theology and Arts degree would lead me to health care, yet at 3:50 a.m. Saturday, January 30, I was on a plane bound for Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I was asked to join a team of three highly trained surgeons, two nurses, an anesthesiologist, a journalist, and a mission director to Haiti. It had been just over two weeks since the devastating earthquake shook this densely populated city, and the people of Haiti were in desperate need of water, food, shelter, and medical care.
I joined the Life Enhancement Association for People (LEAP) Foundation, a medical mission group, in the early fall of 2009 to help redesign its website and assist in other visual media projects. This role was ideal in the way that it merged my undergraduate design degree with what I learned at Fuller through my MA in Theology and Arts.
The only way in and out of Haiti at the moment is through private charters—ours was donated. We landed in Port-au-Prince amidst military planes from Brazil, Canada, France, the UN, the US, and Russia. The terminal was closed and tents served as gate areas for hundreds of people attempting to depart the western portion of Hispaniola. LEAP’s Dr. Ale Mitchell, who spent 15 of the first 20 days following the earthquake working in Port-au-Prince, greeted us on the tarmac.
Upon exiting the airport, we passed a lively and overly crowded UN gate with armed guards. “What’s going on over there?” I asked. “They’re looking for water,” explained our guide Vanessa, a local pediatrician.
The roads were chaotic and bustling with international aid and military vehicles. In front of us for nearly all of our 20-minute drive from the airport to the first hospital were three large UNICEF trucks carrying water. The air was thick with dust and, even in the cab of our truck, my mouth yearned for moisture. I wondered why the UNICEF water trucks didn’t stop at the UN gate or anywhere else I looked. Dust covered our truck and our gear in the back, and came from the piles and piles of rubble that once were buildings. As we continued to drive by collapsed buildings, the feeling in my stomach was beyond words—seeing so much destruction was beyond my comprehension.
Tents were everywhere, and if there wasn’t a tent, there was some sort of makeshift shelter standing in front a collapsed building—a new home in front of a former home. Men with sledgehammers stood atop piles of crumbled buildings and attempted to break apart any large pieces. I wondered what they would do once it was broken up.
We arrived at L'Hôpital de la Communauté Haïtienne—roughly translated, Haitian Community Hospital (HCH)—around noon, and within an hour our team was working on our first cases. One involved a young girl with a shattered jaw and upper teeth pushed into her nasal passage. Although I was invited to join the team in the operating room, I kindly declined because I am skittish even watching the television show ER.
Situations change a person, however, and by ten o’clock that night I was fully scrubbed in and witnessing skin grafts, wound closures, fracture adjustments, and other procedures. Earlier in the day I helped to transport patients on military stretchers in the ICU and throughout the hospital. People were everywhere, suffering from broken bones, open wounds, and amputated limbs. Yet it wasn’t just the injured in the hospital rooms, hallways, and courtyards, but their entire extended families. They no longer had a home, and these beds in a bustling open-air hospital were the only place they had to sleep. Outside the gate of the hospital, rows of tents housed the overflow patient rooms. Every inch inside and outside of the hospital was occupied, either by people or supplies—moving through the hospital often required navigating a maze of boxes. People around the world had offered up so much so quickly, but now the hospital faced logistical concerns. People and things were everywhere.
By midnight we headed to our sleeping accommodations on the roof of the hospital. It was a temporary tent city of doctors and medical staff—tents anchored with cinder blocks, spaced randomly throughout the roof. As I lay in my sleeping bag in the open air under the full moon, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would do if the building began to shake. Tightly closing my eyes, I prayed for the people of Haiti. I couldn’t imagine what must be racing through their minds as they have faced—and will continue to face—so many challenges.
By 5:30 a.m., the rooftop was bustling with people waking from their slumber or lack thereof, and prepping for a full day of mostly post-trauma rehabilitative work. By 8:00 a.m., our LEAP team was well underway with its work and all day long, the cases continued—people young and old, from every demographic. One particular young girl of 15 or 16 continues to stick out in my mind. She had a broken arm, abrasions all over her body, and her right leg was amputated just below her knee. She cried out in Creole as I helped transfer her to the OR. I couldn’t understand her words, but I could feel her pain. She hurt in ways beyond anything I could imagine, and she lay alone on the bed with no family in sight. She had lost a limb, but perhaps her losses didn’t end there. Though she was surrounded by people who didn’t speak her language, we were there to communicate that her life is valuable and that there is hope for her. As Nurse Wendy offered her hand to the girl in one of the most painful portions of the surgery, our French-speaking surgeon, CJ, encouraged her by telling her she was brave. The surgery successfully prepared her amputated leg for long term rehabilitation, hopefully including a prosthetic. She left the OR with instructions written on her bandages, since medical records for patients appear to be an afterthought.
This young girl, like all cases, needs proper follow-up for rehabilitation and recovery. The next morning we boarded a plane to return home with a strategy and greater understanding of ways to establish an effective ongoing effort in Haiti. A team remained at the hospital throughout the week and another team is going next week. Currently we have teams scheduled for the next month and are coordinating possibilities for the months ahead. LEAP will continue to go to Haiti, and I plan to return myself soon. Like nearly all aid organizations, LEAP needs a community of partnerships to meet the needs of these people.
Prior to this trip, I’m not sure I understood how the medical field fit with the gospel, because Jesus didn’t talk much about doctors. Yet providing proper medical care is a facet of evangelism, and a very important way of embodying God’s love for all of humanity.
Closing and healing an open wound is only a small portion of what is needed for a patient to recover. While I was at Fuller, Dr. Richard Peace helped me to understand that Jesus called us to go forth and make disciples, not converts. Discipleship is ongoing and continual, not merely conversion and being left to journey alone. Instead, it means staying and walking together hand in hand. This is what the people of Haiti need. While LEAP can help fix their physical wounds, the hearts of these people and this nation will take much, much longer to mend. My hope is that the body of Christ will continue to walk with the people of Haiti and stay with them long after the headlines disappear. What I can do and what you can do is the same. We can seek opportunities to walk with these people, we can pray, and we can give our time or resources. There are so many organizations doing so much in Haiti, and LEAP is just a small but important one. I hope that we all will choose to continue the journey with the people of Haiti.
Travis Hardy (MA ’08) is the Creative Communication Director for LEAP Foundation. The Life Enhancement Association for People (LEAP) Foundation is a faith-based non-profit medical mission group dedicated to enhancing and enriching the lives of people around the world by providing specialized medical services.