Turning tragedy into opportunity

National Director Dr. Jacqueline Gautier recounts the horrific moment 10 years ago when the Haiti Earthquake struck and how St. Damien turned tragedy into opportunity.

The Haitian people will always remember what they were doing at that fatal moment: 12 January 2010 at 4:53 p.m. In the span of just 35 seconds so much happened with incalculable consequences.

Dr Jacqueline Gautier

I had just returned from St. Damien Paediatric Hospital. I entered my home as usual by the kitchen door after parking my car. I sat down for a phone call with one of my best friends. As we hung up, the first wave struck—extremely strong with a terrible rumbling sound as if a train were speeding underground.

“Tremblement de Terre” my daughter Nathalie and I shouted. We both rushed towards the gate to get out of the house as the seismic shocks continued. We passed by my car, which was bouncing up and down. Suddenly everything stopped.

Screams of distress from Port-au-Prince

Since our home was intact, even though the experience had been horrible, we thought no real damage had occurred (except that I had broken my right foot while running on the shaking ground). Yet, we heard non-stop screaming from downtown Port-au-Prince. As we began to see big clouds of dust rising, it dawned on us that the city had been hit terribly.

From that moment, chaos commenced. My husband was missing. I looked everywhere until I learned on the day after the earthquake that he had died a few kilometres away, close to the epicentre. He was a civil engineer working on a renovation project at a school. 150 people died at the school located on top of a hill, most of them vulnerable children in their classrooms.

Going through the streets, seeing dead people everywhere, felt like walking through a war zone after the last battle had ended. Poor-quality construction and a general lack of preparedness among the population turned this magnitude-7.0 earthquake into one of the biggest catastrophes of our time, with approximately 200,000 dead* and 5,000 amputees.

Solidarity in the face of widespread trauma

Most people in the country were affected, traumatized either directly or indirectly. Nevertheless, it was a time of great solidarity. We comforted each other. We buried our loved ones, our friends, our neighbours quickly without announcement or ceremony. In fact, people would learn sometimes months later that someone they knew had died during the earthquake. NPH Haiti co-founder, Fr. Rick Frechette, left the bedside of his dying mother in Connecticut, with her blessing, to come organize the rescue efforts with us in Haiti.

At the hospital we lost 3 staff members: a nurse responsible for the ambulatory clinic (her house collapsed with her and her 3-year-old daughter inside), another nurse from the HIV programme, and a nurse in the general inpatient ward. Many employees lost loved ones or had relatives injured.

Our former hospital building in Pétion-Ville that had been converted into a multi-use facility, including a guesthouse, collapsed killing 3 NPH Haiti volunteers. Several others were severely injured there. It could well have been worse had our hospital still been located there. Fortunately we had moved to our new location in Tabarre 4 years earlier.

In the spotlight of the world

The search for survivors occupied the whole country for a long while in the aftermath. We were in the world’s spotlight for months. Tent cities sprang up everywhere.

Fortunately, our hospital stood the disaster well with only a few cracks here and there and no serious damage, according to an assessment by a team of Italian military engineers. As I entered the building on 14 January, 2 days after the earthquake, the place had morphed into an outdoor hospital, full of traumatic orthopaedic cases with our pre-earthquake paediatric patients scattered among them. As with many other institutions in Haiti, we received tremendous international support to care for the wounded and sick. For a long while, a small tent village in our backyard served as a guesthouse.

Cholera follows quake

More misfortune followed the disaster. Just 10 months after the earthquake, a severe cholera outbreak brought by a U.N. contingent from Nepal killed up to 10,000 people in just 2 years. Add to that the deleterious effect of major hurricanes in the following years.

It cannot be denied that regrettable mistakes were made during the relief effort in Haiti. Many of the failings we observed are the common pitfalls of large-scale humanitarian aid efforts: needless waste, local graft and international corruption.

Because of our very limited resources and deep-rooted governance issues, it will take Haitians a long time to turn around the country’s grim socio-economic situation, made worse by this earthquake.

Opportunity for growth

For St. Damien and NPH Haiti in general, this earthquake brought opportunity for growth. We opened a new maternity service for at-risk pregnancies, thanks to Fondazione Francesca Rava N.P.H. Italia Onlus (NPH Italy) and its partnership with Buzzi Hospital in Milan, Italy. Later NPH Italy helped us open a neonatology service in partnership with Bambino Gesu in Rome.

The prestigious American Academy of Pediatrics dispatched a stream of paediatric volunteers to come work for one year in several hospitals in Port-au-Prince, including St. Damien. And a number of U.S. children’s hospitals joined with us around that time to create the St. Damien Collaborative, a global paediatric movement in support of our programmes.

This catastrophe inflicted deep mental and physical wounds on our nation. Yet, it also sparked positive developments for our hospital. The struggle continues for us nonetheless. NPH St. Damien Paediatric Hospital remains a leader in providing access to high-quality maternal and child care. We will endure, in spite of the circumstances, with courage, faith, hope, and support.

*Casualties of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake are estimated to be anywhere between 100,000 and 316,000.