Haiti Dispatch

Blood, toil, tears and a lot of sweat in the medical tent

By Tom Kirsch
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The day starts about 5:30 a.m., when the hotel turns back on the power. The fans come back on, at least. People begin stirring, snores fade away, backpacks rustle and feet pad around.

The bus to the hospital leaves at 7 a.m., driving less than a mile past normal buildings and lives and crumbled buildings and lives, and tent camps. Vendors have already lined the streets: food stalls, haircuts, Gno Kozes (snow cones) and, most interestingly, a guy with a truck lit by fluorescent lights and sporting a rack of blenders on the back making smoothies. At the gate of the hospital, there is already a half-block-long line of patients waiting to get in.

Our medical tents are hot, probably 10 to 20 degrees hotter than the 95-degree air outside. They have few windows and the power only runs occasionally for the fans. We lose at least one staff person a day to heat exhaustion. Yesterday it was a 6-foot-2 nurse from Utah -- dizzy and pale, then down and vomiting. We ran IV fluids and brought her to a cooler area. We have started mandatory fluid requirements, push people to take breaks; now we will have a mandatory half day off every five days minimum. The army guys might hook us up to one of their generators so we can at least run the fans.

I got pizzas and cold Cokes delivered from the outside yesterday. A strange, and strangely comforting, little piece of normality.

The buses head back between 5:30 and 6 p.m., and it is always a scramble to tuck things away, restock and sign out to the night people. We usually miss the first bus and get the late one.

At the hotel, I sit with my sore feet dangling in the cold pool water and drinking a beer. Dinner, cafeteria-style, is at 8 p.m. Most people start fading out around 9. The few hardy (stupid? gregarious? insomniac?) ones sit on the patio late, talking and drinking $4 beers or soda, surrounded by reporters furiously working on stories and hogging all the wireless bandwidth.

Finally sleep in the dark conference room, with 40 to 50 people scattered around in various odd arrangements -- bed mattresses, inflatable ones, cots, even tents pitched indoors. The stirring, the rustling backpacks and padding feet gradually fade away and a low-grade background hum of stories rises up and the day ends.

Tom Kirsch is the disaster response team leader in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This is adapted from a blog he is writing.

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