Nation & World

Days to find a doctor

4 min read

Haiti quake victims share stories of turmoil

The night after Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake, 16-year-old Jeff Berry was sleepless and crying, with no idea where his mother was. His family’s house had collapsed. With death and devastation all around, he feared the worst.

He spent the night with his two brothers and three sisters, whom he thankfully had found unharmed. The next day, Berry set out to search for his 51-year-old mother, Violette Wesh. Around midday he found her, arm and leg broken, sitting in the dirt on the side of the road, crying.

Wesh said later that she was so happy to see her son and the rest of the family, because she didn’t know if they had survived.

With no doctors in their Port-au-Prince neighborhood and no method of transport, Berry waited with Wesh. She said she “lost her mind” three times in the ensuing days, coming back to her senses each time, sitting in the garden near her home.

By Sunday, five days after the quake, Wesh still hadn’t received treatment. Berry met someone who told him he would have to drive her to doctors to get care. “I said, ‘I have no car, I have nothing, I just want to save my mother’s life,’” Berry recalled.

Determined to reach help, he and Wesh set out on foot, with Berry supporting his mother at every step. Kilometers slowly passing, they kept on, even though they didn’t have food. They finally reached some doctors, who sent them to the Dominican border with Haiti, to a hospital at Jimaní.

“We didn’t have anything. There was no food, nothing. We were suffering, [breathing] the smell of the dead people. That was incredible,” Berry said.

Wesh was treated at Jimaní, getting a cast on her arm and going into surgery to repair her leg. Berry passed another sleepless night sitting with her, and then the two were transferred to the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative-led (HHI) field hospital at Fond Parisien, Haiti.

The hospital, constructed after the quake out of tents and the buildings of an orphanage on whose grounds the facility is located, is a rehabilitation unit offering a range of services. Forged out of a partnership involving HHI, the University of Chicago, and the Love A Child Orphanage, teams of volunteer medical personnel from Harvard, its affiliated hospitals, and other facilities provide services ranging from surgery to treatment of infections to physical therapy. Their aim over the next six months to a year is to re-integrate the injured back into their home communities.

The HHI-led effort is just one of the ways that faculty, staff, and students from Harvard and its affiliated hospitals are lending a hand in post-earthquake Haiti.

Another major organization providing relief there is the nonprofit Partners In Health, through which Harvard-affiliated physicians and other medical personnel are pitching in at the organization’s rural clinics, as well as in Port-au-Prince.

Berry and Wesh’s story of post-quake chaos, of injuries untreated for days or weeks, and of personal perseverance are common to many who survived the quake. Lucknerson Shackleton, who worked as a cook at the HHI-led hospital as his daughter recovered from a broken arm, also lost everything. The patients at the hospital, he said, need more than just physical care to get over their trauma.

“When I was in Port-au-Prince … it was like a dream, a bad dream,” Shackleton said. “I still think they need a doctor of psychiatry to walk around here and talk to people, one on one, to see what they need, where do they want to go, how are they going to survive.”

For Berry and Wesh, as of early February, they had spent 20 days at the HHI-led hospital. Wesh was slowly recovering, and Berry, though uninjured, stayed with her in the tents, as part of hospital policy allowing a family member to be with a patient. Wesh still had sleepless nights, but she thanked God she wasn’t killed in the quake, and for the doctors who treated her. Berry said they didn’t know what they would do after they left the hospital.

Shackleton, for his part, is interested in helping others when he leaves, perhaps by starting a nonprofit to provide school lunches — though he doesn’t plan on leaving too soon.

“Without this place, they all would have been dead, with infection, dehydration, and no food,” Shackleton said. “I don’t want to be anywhere else right now. These guys here, they’re making miracles.”