Rehabilitation in Rural Haiti: Everyday Miracles and Frustrating Setbacks

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 - 08:45 AM

Pictures from the airlift transfer of an earthquake victim named Marilynn, who is paralyzed from the waist down. (James Kiffmeyer)

With two full days down, I continue to be struck by the incredible mix of everyday miracles and frustrating setbacks here.

On Sunday, I watched an airlift transfer of an earthquake victim who is paralyzed from the waist down. Her name is Marilynn. She's 32 years old and has three daughters. This was her fourth trip on a helicopter since the earthquake, she told me. This latest transport would take her from the hospital in Milot, where she had surgery last week to stabilize her spine, to a spinal cord clinic that's opened in a town about 10 miles away. The road, though, was too rugged to keep her healing back immobile en route, so she took the trip in by air.

This small transport perfectly illustrates the way international collaboration here has been made possible by small, individual choices. The ambulance that brought Marilynn to the soccer field-turned-helipad was donated from Connecticut before the earthquake. A Crudem board member drove it down the east coast to a Fort Lauderdale port, where it was shipped over to Haiti. The medical airlift is a corporate helicopter donated for use by a German company. It's not designed for moving patients, but since many of the medical helicopters have pulled out since the USS Comfort hospital ship left the country, the company has stayed to fill in the gaps. The nurses slid Marilynn in the narrow space behind the pilots' seats. A physical therapist from England (who's been volunteering for weeks while she's unemployed back home) slipped in beside her to keep the pillow propped just so, to make the trip as comfortable as possible. The spinal cord clinic that received Marilynn has just opened since the earthquake. The Baptist organization that runs it had planned to run a conventional health clinic, but after the earthquake, its leaders decided to change course and develop the few spinal cord specialty clinics in Haiti.

It was a harrowing sight of Marilynn taking off into the air for new, specialized treatment that wouldn't have been possible before January 12. But along with it came the pull of the question, "What next?" What will happen to her after her rehab is complete? The clinic has already a wheelchair lined up for her to take, but she doesn't know yet where she will go. When I asked her just before takeoff, she said her family's house is too small, and her own house was completely destroyed. But she told me she has her three girls to take care of — she just doesn't know where that will be.

A trip into the city to chase down paperwork on Monday brought that same feeling — that some progress had been made, but just enough to end the day craving more. I made the 45-minute ride into Cap Haitien with the charge nurse Heather Toner, a physical therapist, and Joseph, the 17-year-old who lost his whole family in the earthquake – both parents and his sister. Heather has made it her mission to help him get his immigration paperwork in order while he's still a minor, so he has the option of international foster care or adoption. The only paperwork he has to his name at this point is his medical chart that started when he arrived here in mid-January and testimony from a witness that both his parents are in fact deceased. Once we met up with a translator named Patrick, who used some of his rare hours off to help us navigate the city and the Haitian bureaucracy.

We started at a local police station, where Joseph told his story and reported his birth date, before a woman stopped him and told us we were in the wrong place. We needed to go to another police station. At the next stop, after a long wait, Joseph and Patrick emerged with a white piece of paper filled out in blue ink. This piece of paper documented that his original birth certificate was indeed lost. Next, we were sent to a local state office of civil records. The first one we visited was fruitless — the three men there told us they couldn't help. The last stop for the day was a second civil records office, where a man told Patrick that he may be able to help with a birth certificate. He was told to come back Wednesday, and Joseph will still need paperwork from Port-au-Prince. That city's just 75 miles from here, but the trip can take at least seven hours by car. Heather doesn't know yet who she will get to help from there.

[UPDATE: After our crazy paperwork chase, Joseph received a birth certificate on Wednesday, and he took passport photos yesterday (Thursday). Next step is a hand-off in Port-au-Prince tomorrow.]

Finally, I want to add one more note on the epic dance party that gathered Sunday outside the tents that house earthquake victims. I heard later from the doctor of the young girl who was the star of the dance floor. She was about nine or ten years old, and when she arrived in the courtyard outside the tents, she was heavily leaning on her crutches to keep weight off a bandaged knee. She winced in pain whenever her father touched her leg. Her doctor, who was already worried because she's not been bending her knee as much as he'd like, watched from across the circle that surrounded the dance floor. But slowly, he noticed, her head starting bobbing. Then her hips started swaying. Before long, she was nudged out on the dance floor with two other girls. Then, in a flash, it was on: a straight-up dance off to a Haitian hip hop song. The crowd cheered with each chorus that brought tighter beats and faster-paced pelvic thrusts. She dropped her crutches halfway through the song and just dug in.

James Kiffmeyer, a photographer and volunteer nurse anesthetist from Rice Lake, Wisconsin.
Pictures from the airlift transfer of an earthquake victim named Marilynn, who is paralyzed from the waste down.
James Kiffmeyer
Pictures from the airlift transfer of an earthquake victim named Marilynn, who is paralyzed from the waist down.
James Kiffmeyer
Pictures from the airlift transfer of an earthquake victim named Marilynn, who is paralyzed from the waist down.
James Kiffmeyer
Pictures from the airlift transfer of an earthquake victim named Marilynn, who is paralyzed from the waist down.
James Kiffmeyer
Pictures from the airlift transfer of an earthquake victim named Marilynn, who is paralyzed from the waist down.
James Kiffmeyer
Pictures from the airlift transfer of an earthquake victim named Marilynn, who is paralyzed from the waist down.
James Kiffmeyer
Pictures from the airlift transfer of an earthquake victim named Marilynn, who is paralyzed from the waist down.
James Kiffmeyer
Pictures from the airlift transfer of an earthquake victim named Marilynn, who is paralyzed from the waist down.
James Kiffmeyer
Pictures from the airlift transfer of an earthquake victim named Marilynn, who is paralyzed from the waist down.
James Kiffmeyer
Pictures from the airlift transfer of an earthquake victim named Marilynn, who is paralyzed from the waist down.
James Kiffmeyer
Pictures from the airlift transfer of an earthquake victim named Marilynn, who is paralyzed from the waist down.

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Comments [2]

Mary Pat from USA

We are the 2 nurses who worked with Marilynn in the ICU the night before she left. We never got to say goodbye...as you know things happen quickly in Haiti ...and she was gone. How wonderful to see her again...we miss her so
Kathleen and Mary Pat

Mar. 29 2010 12:54 PM
Jen from Rolling Meadows, IL

Anna,

Thank you so much for reporting on the work being done in Haiti. My brother, Bob, is the doctor from Univ of Iowa that is there with you this week. I believe he might even be rooming with your dad. He has spoken very highly of your parents and the whole team. Thank you for putting words & pictures up so those of us at home can share in your experiences. We're praying for you all, and for the hurting people of Haiti. God bless.

Mar. 24 2010 02:52 PM

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