|Fall Convocation Address by Dr. Greg Murphy '85 "Countries Without 911 - Answering Their Call"
November 02, 2010
January 12th, 2010. It is 4:53 in the afternoon on a typical hot, sun-baked day in Haiti. While children were at school, storekeepers tended their stores, seminarians knelt in prayer, without any warning an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck 10 miles west of the capital of Port au Prince. With the force of a bomb 35 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the earth began to shake. It shook and it shook. Buildings crumbled, roofs collapsed, roads split wide open. Finally, some thirty four seconds later, in what would seem an eternity for those in the midst of this hell, the tremors ceased. In a land devoid of building codes, with no detectable emergency response system, thousands of structures tumbled and over half a million people lay dead, dying or severely injured.
In the blink of an eye Haiti, a country historically defined by foreign dominance, domestic tyranny and environmental chaos, had turned into a country of orphans, amputees and an entirely new generation of homeless. How could something so devastating happen to a people already so devastated?
While we surely will never know the answer to such a question, we can know how we, as participants in the human race, would respond to such a calamity. Within hours an onslaught of the world's media descended upon this tiny Caribbean nation. Thomas Friedman said, ‘The world is flat.' Yes it is flat, but in a much different way than he contends. The world is as flat as pictures on our TV screens, on our computer monitors, on our cell phone. Today the world cries out in ‘Real Time', in the present. Images for us to see, sounds for us to hear: be it a mine disaster in Chile, a horrific tsunami in the Far East or a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. We see all these things as they happen. And that is how we must answer those cries, as they happen, ‘in Real Time'.
A few days after the quake my wife and I sat riveted to the TV watching images of the disaster pour in. My wonderful wife, who has supported me for the last 20 years when I get my wild ideas, knew that ‘I had to go'. That moment began a solid two week odyssey of phone calls, faxes, texts, emails trying to get involved. Every attempt I made to join up with a formal organization such as Doctors without Borders or the Red Cross was met with ‘fill out this form' or ‘we will take your name' and, honestly speaking, being my impatient self, I just couldn't wait on them. As many did, I truly felt led to ‘do' something. I have the honor and responsibility of being a physician, better yet a surgeon, and that is one thing they needed. That was something I could do.
Then, through what I believe was the Grace of God and a bit of dumb luck, through channels too complicated to summarize here, I teamed up with Fr Rick Frechette, a American Catholic priest who has lived and worked in Haiti for 23 years. (I wish I could speak more about him as I believe he is truly our present day ‘Mother Theresa' but time limits me.) I assembled a team of 15 local doctors, nurses and support personnel, 14 of whom had never worked outside of the US, and we descended into a literal Hell.
World wide there was an outpouring of support from individuals who yearned to help and many of whom, through their personal persistence, actually made it to Haiti. It wasn't easy to get there. All commercial flights were cancelled. Communications were haphazard at best. Oftentimes messages had to be brought over land by personal courier from the Dominican Republic. But many of these well-intentioned people landed without a clear plan, without a destination or supplies, just ‘showing up to help' and honestly became more of a burden than any type of assistance.
Therefore our mission had to consist of three things to be successful. First we had to have a ‘Plan', a destination-that would be St Damien's Pediatric Hospital in Port au Prince. Fr Rick runs this hospital as the only free pediatric hospital in Haiti. Just two years old and of Italian design, it actually withstood the quake fairly well. The outer security walls had fallen, the water supply disrupted but no main structural damage. In contrast, the old hospital, rising five stories in the center of town, crumbled down, killing many patients and volunteers, two of whom were college students from the US.
While St Damien's was built to handle 120 pediatric patients, in the days that followed the quake, it was overrun with over 1000 patients, adult and child alike, with broken limbs, open wounds and gangrenous appendages. The afflicted literally came ‘over the walls', what was left of them, seeking medical care and sanctuary. They were strewn all over the hospital grounds on makeshift stretchers made of card board, lawn chairs and every imaginable item. There were no ambulances to call. There was no ‘911' to dial. Families and the wounded made their way by any means available carrying with them all that they had left. Individuals picked up injured and half-dead children, oftentimes not their own, and carried them to this refuge.
Secondly we had to have ‘Security.' I felt responsible for the 14 adults with me. In a land like Haiti there were no guarantees. The national government was in shambles. There was no reliable police force. The UN and the US Army were there but, when you deal with hordes of hungry, desperate people, they often do whatever it takes to get food or water as we found out at one point. At one outside makeshift clinic in Miragone, in a region flooded with refugees, the mobs became angry and frustrated as we ran out of medicine and supplies and we only got out because the UN came in armored vehicles to escort us out.
The real underlying infrastructure of Haiti today is the Catholic Church. It provides a sense of security in a land where politics and politicians have lost the faith of the people. The Haitians lost their beloved and trusted leader, Archbishop Miot, who, along with thirty three seminarians, died as the country's main cathedral collapsed upon him. Scores of local parishes strove to maintain some semblance of order as people looked to their local priests and sisters for guidance. Our convoluted travel arrangements, mandated our group actually being under the aegis of the Vatican, not the US government. If anything were to happen to us, the Vatican was responsible for getting us home. Morbid as it may sound, yet given the frequency and randomness of the earthquake's aftershocks, we were told to write our passport numbers on our legs with a Sharpie for identification purposes should anything unexpected happen to us.
Thirdly, we had to have a defined way to get home. A simple detail one would think. Yet with the loss of all commercial flights, many unlucky individuals spent days on the hot tarmac in Port au Prince begging a flight home and I couldn't risk that with 14 other individuals under my guard. We had to schedule a solid time and date of departure before we ever left.
We had all begged supplies from hospitals, drug companies, anyone who would donate something that could possibly help. So with what I thought were all the bases covered, with the help of Mission Flights International, we landed in Port au Prince. Not to be proud, but I thought that given my past experiences in other Third World Countries, I would be ‘ready' for anything I would encounter. I was so very wrong.
As we hit the ground the painful sounds and noxious smells of human suffering and death far surpassed the sterile sights seen on TV. Due to the unpredictable aftershocks, the streets were filled with people afraid to go back into any structure that remained standing. The oppressive heat was inescapable. The smells often choked us. We landed into a city overtaken by relief workers from all over the globe. In our compound alone there were teams from Italy, Canada, Turkey, France and even Slovakia. We camped in tents on the hospital compound and set out to do what we came to do.
As a team we worked non-stop for nine days, operating, tending to the sick, delivering basic food and water to those cut off from any supplies. We repaired what we could and amputated what we could not. This may seem cold and foreign to some but, faced with a lack of reliable resources, one had to make hard decisions as to what these poor people, who would have little access to any long term medical care, could expect for their future. A few lucky individuals who needed more care than we could give were able to be shipped off to medical centers in the US. And still the poor, the innocent, the afflicted just kept coming and coming.
With great sorrow, we buried scores of the unnamed, the unclaimed and the unidentifiable dead. The threat of communicable disease was rampant and there were no facilities for the cold storage of bodies. The dead had to be buried quickly. The stench of rotting corpses overtook us at times. There were no means of identifying and cataloguing the countless bodies. So many parents will never know what happened to their children and so many children will never feel the loving touch of their mother again. The fabric of so many families lay torn to shreds amidst the rubble.
We were able to help many, repairing broken bones, fitting many with casts, arranging for artificial limbs to be fitted at a later date. But still so many suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, having witnessed their own personal apocalypse. Sadly enough, for a few others, those with injuries surpassing our capabilities, the best we could do was sit with them and pray with them for a merciful death. We felt impotent when we realized that while we could fix broken bones, we could little to fix broken hearts. There were simply not the resources available to help every man, woman and child that needed it. It was truly a ‘War Zone' yet with an unseen and unforgiving enemy.
With great reluctance, and only because we had a committed time for our departure, we left on our borrowed DC-3 nine days later, exhausted. We left whatever we could behind for those in need. Our Coleman tents became the new homes of people who no longer had one, our sleeping bags the permanent bedding for those who had nothing to rest their head upon.
We participated in an event I am certain will be unique in our individual lives. Each of us and the way we look at our world, were forever changed. We witnessed people of many nationalities, giving whatever they could to reach out to a land so decimated, a people so devastated. The experience both damaged us and healed us all in some way.
Yet this particular journey for me did not begin with an earthquake. It actually began here, at Davidson College, some 25 years ago. It was here that I was first baptized into the passion of foreign medical work. I was fortunate enough to be a Stuart Scholar here and given the opportunity to create a summertime experience to travel abroad. Through a series of events I ended up in a Catholic Leprosy Hospital in Bihar, the poorest state of India, just north of Calcutta. At the inexperienced age of 20, I would spend a summer working with another group of unfortunate victims, leprosy patients, both young and old, tortured by physical deformities and social isolation.
It was in that experience that I learned, as St Francis of Assisi so aptly said, ‘it is in giving that we receive'. And while I did little more than bandage wounds in India, I received an education and enlightenment that has guided me to this day. That experience, along with the wonderful world exposures that I received here at Davidson some 25 years ago, similar to ones that you receive here today, ignited a fire in me to use what tools I have been blessed with to help those less fortunate in other lands, to ‘answer their call'. Over the years those calls have led me to such places as Swaziland, Jamaica, Nicaragua and even recently to Kenya with Dr Putnam's Davidson PreMedical group.
In all these experiences, one common theme resonates. Whether we believe healthcare is a right or a privilege, whether we believe in an All Loving God or we believe in nothing at all, we cannot deny the common thread of humanity that calls us all to care for and be responsible for, one another. As a people of conscience, it is not deniable. It is not negotiable. So whether it involves writing a check to a local or global charity or dropping everything to go stay in a tent and operate by a flashlight or merely dropping to one's knees in silent prayer for those less fortunate, we are all ‘called' to attend to those in need. You don't have to abandon the hopes and dreams of living in a civilized world to participate in this most worthy endeavor. You don't have to run off and join the Peace Corps, eat bugs and live in a tent. It just takes an individual, heart-felt commitment in acknowledging that ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.' We all have been given so much.
Right now as we sit in this wonderfully constructed theater, hundreds of thousands of Haitians have little more than a leaky, poorly ventilated tarp over their heads to shield them from the scorching sun and uncaring elements. Hundreds are now dying every day from the cholera outbreaks that ravage a people who have little access to clean water in these ‘tent cities,' accommodations borne out of necessity in a world that has literally crumbled around them. Their world of Hell surely did not end the day we left, it was in fact only just beginning.
You and I live in a world of ‘so much'. Of so much. Yet I have heard the excuse many times before of " What can I do? I am just one individual-what I would do would be just a ‘drop in the bucket. " Yet drop by drop that bucket gets filled and person by person individual lives are transformed. If by giving of yourself you have helped just one individual, then you have answered their ‘call.'
We cannot rely on our world's governments to do this. After the earthquake $5.3 billion was pledged world wide to help Haiti. Yet as of August less than 2% of this money had been delivered to the UN backed body set up to handle it. Massive bureaucracies and mistrust in the present political structure of Haiti have paralyzed political relief efforts. And yet the people still suffer.
One more remembrance before I end. Fr Rick, with whom I communicate regularly and have become good friends, told me of a young woman driven up to St Damien's in the back of a pick up truck two weeks after we left. She was in the throes of labor, yet, oddly enough, fighting against the delivery of her child with every fiber she had. You may ask why would a woman do such a thing? Why would she try to prevent her own child from being born?....Despair.... She said that she was fighting because, as long as her child stayed in her womb, she could keep it safe and protected. She did not want to bring her child into the Hell that her homeland had become. Sixteen hours later, exhausted to the point of collapse, she gave birth to a baby girl. After she recovered and witnessed the beauty of her newborn infant, after seeing how much the hospital staff cared for her and her baby amidst all the outside tragedy, she named her daughter ‘Hope.'
In 34 seconds the lives of millions of individuals were changed forever. You and I each have a lifetime to answer the call to change the lives of individuals one at a time.
Thank you very much. God Bless you all.