Saturday, February 27, 2010

Depending on our kindness

Drs Shane Alexis and Khia Josina Duncan in Haiti

Jean-Lowrie Chin | Jamaica Observer | Monday, February 22, 2010

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” said a Tennessee Williams character. But we Jamaicans are no strangers to our sisters and brothers in Haiti. Shane Alexis and eight fellow members of the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association, Ryan Peralto and Petri Ann Henry of Food for the Poor recently shared their experiences as they worked to help our devastated neighbours. They have no regrets, despite the terrible suffering they saw.

Yes, I am writing about Haiti again because as actor Sean Penn begged on CNN's Larry King Live recently, “Do not tune out – Haiti needs us!” Shane Alexis, who is JMDA president, shared with me a special issue of the organisation’s Check Up magazine, describing the Haiti experience. Youth is definitely not wasted on this passionate, energetic young man. So anxious is he to get his association's message out that he is editor, photographer and gopher for this magazine. (If, like me, you have been enjoying the Tru-Juice health page in the Observer, you should know that Dr Alexis contributes to it).

Dr Khia Josina Duncan, a member of the JMDA mission, wrote feelingly about her experience at the Bernard Mevs Hospital in Port-au-Prince: “The cries for help… were overwhelming,” she remembered. “There were so many fractures we ran out of plaster of Paris very quickly… I assisted mostly with amputations, while the others continued dressings and administered antibiotics that were now getting scarce. Many of the patients could have been discharged but of course they had nowhere to go.”

“What was being shown on TV was nothing compared to the… destruction we saw,” wrote Khia. “The first thing I did when I got home was to have a long shower, and I noticed a continuous tremor in my hands which lasted about four days… It was a good experience for all of us. I’m getting back to normal now but I know I’ll never be the same.”

Shane was so concerned about the unavailability of medical records that his association got 5,000 record de santé books printed and shipped to Haiti for patients' data. He said Haitians were not passively waiting for help but were making every effort to help themselves. “People were moving about, trying to pick up the pieces,” he said. He related that a Haitian family, related to Mrs Kameel Azan, was tireless in working to help others.

Ryan Peralto Jr, CEO and Petri Ann Henry, Public Relations Officer of Food for the Poor (FFTP) Jamaica, went on a fact-finding mission to establish the most pressing needs to be funded by the donations from ordinary Jamaicans, moved to dig deep for Haiti. “RJR Group has entrusted us with $15 million collected from the Jamaican people, and we have also received $5 million through our account. We are preparing detailed updates so that these kind people will know that every dollar of the funds is well spent.”

“While we were travelling on a street in Port-Au-Prince just observing the level of devastation, I saw a lady about my age or younger with no top on and she was bathing on the street. People were just passing by, business as usual, she had no privacy,” said Petri-Ann. “It reminded me how we take simple things, such as privacy, for granted.”

Ryan's and Petri's most moving moment was praying with FFTP Haiti representatives at the mass graves of earthquake victims. “We just stood there holding our rosaries, praying and praying. I felt so apologetic to the victims in the mass graves. I kept saying to them in my heart that I knew they deserved better than that,” said a pensive Ryan. “Imagine, one mass grave held an entire school of children. Heartbreaking!”

So traumatised are the surviving victims that most refuse to return to their homes, even the sturdy ones built by Food for the Poor. Port-au-Prince is a tent city with the most basic of facilities. Happily, the FFTP Haiti headquarters and warehouse were largely spared, and a Haitian women’s cooperative uses the donated food to cook and serve 4,000 hot meals daily.

Ryan’s photographs give a glimpse of the continuous emergency that is Haiti: a little van pressed into service to rush oxygen cylinders to hospitals, water feverishly distributed as “There is tremendous fear of a widespread outbreak of disease.”

Meanwhile, several people have been hinting that Haiti may well be much, much richer than Jamaica. So I googled “oil in Haiti” and turned up an article written last year by Haitian-American attorney-at-law and author Ezili Dantò.

“There is evidence that the United States found oil in Haiti decades ago and due to the geopolitical circumstances and big business interests of that era made the decision to keep Haitian oil in reserve for when Middle Eastern oil had dried up,” alleges Dantò. “This is detailed by Dr Georges Michel in an article dated March 27, 2004 outlining the history of oil explorations and oil reserves in Haiti and in the research of Dr Ginette and Daniel Mathurin.”

If this were indeed true, it could “build a heaven out of hell’s despair”. But then, as Shane, Khia, Ryan and Petri-Ann are doing, right now we can continue to participate in the building of a new Haiti.

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