WALLA WALLA — It was a reunion of sorts Friday afternoon as three of the four local physicians who spent most of last week volunteering on the Adventist Medical Evangelistic Network Haiti Medical Team had a chance to talk about their recent work after returning to Walla Walla Regional Airport.
Among the physicians was team leader Dr. Ron Fleck, who said he couldn’t begin to estimate the number of earthquake victims he treated over the last four days, but did note he was treating patients right up until he left Haiti.
"The last one was at the airport. A year-old baby with the head cave in," he described.
Arriving on the same flight from Seattle were general surgeons Jacqueline Tracey and Raquel Collins. The other three members of the six-member team were local orthopedic surgeon Scott Hutson, who was en route on a different flight, Westside-based physician John McGhee and Spokane diesel engine mechanic Eddie Wickward.
Even though Collins, Tracey and Fleck returned together, they have had little time to discuss the events of last week. So they talked about their experiences while they waited for their luggage — the group had originally taken almost a dozen bags, most filled with medical supplies that were left in Haiti.
"Why would I look tired?" Fleck said jokingly to the small group of colleagues, friends and his wife, Bobbie. "I had two hours of sleep in the airport in Orlando,"
The team leader looked somewhat disheveled and in need of a shave; he was a stark contrast from the man who left the same airport five days earlier, except for his shoes, which shined better than the day he left.
"My shoes were filthy. I wore these shoes every day," Fleck said.
As he has done many times before, Fleck got a shoe shine at Sea-Tac from Pepe, the Jamaican shoe shiner. When Pepe commented on the condition of his shoes, he said, "All that dust is from Haiti. And he said, ‘Is that where you guys are coming from? Now I am going to give you some love.’"
Pepe cleaned off the dirt and put on three coats of polish.
"I said, ‘Don’t shine them too well because nobody will believe I went there," Fleck said.
When it was time to pay the shoe shiner, Fleck said Pepe would not accept it.
Collins, Tracey and Fleck said many others have shown support before, during and after their trip. Fleck especially thanked the party who gathered at the start of the trip early Sunday.
Now that they are home, Fleck pointed out that for most of the trip, the AMEN Haiti Team spent very little time together. Shortly after arriving, Fleck and Wickward were sent to one of the most dangerous areas surrounding the capital city of Port-au-Prince to set up a make-shift hospital.
Collins and Tracey would head off to an established medical base, where the two general surgeons would spend most of their time administering basic medical care.
"Lot of wound management. Lot of amputations. Lot of infected wounds," Collins summarized. Then she added, "It was kind of scary. It was. It was impressive. All we did was offer help where other people weren’t willing."
As for McGhee and Hutson, it was unclear as to their experiences, but both were said to be safe and either home or headed home.
"It was a good trip," Collins, Tracey and Fleck said at different points; it was a comment they would repeat often.
But it was also a harsh trip. Long hours. Little sleep. Multitudes of patients. Thousands of people sleeping in the streets. Mosquitoes biting all night. Little water and food.
Fleck noted he heard of several children dying of starvation.
"There is food at the airport that is not being distributed. That is what people are getting mad about," Fleck said.
The team brought its own food, donated by Walla Walla Valley businesses and individuals. Fleck said he and Wickward lived off the granola bars, dried fruit and PowerBars donated by Andy’s Market.
"Those things (PowerBars) are nasty. I don’t care what they say," Fleck said.
"They are not food," Tracey agreed, and they all laughed.
As for water, it too was scarce.
"If you had water, you didn’t go around drinking it in front of anyone. It is that chaotic," Fleck said.
The chaos that Fleck and Wickward would face included a trip to dangerous outlying area, where they met with a community leader who helped them establish a make-shift hospital. Their night was spent sleeping in the mosquito-infested building.
"It was awful," Fleck said.
When they woke, it was to a seemingly never ending line of people who needed help.
"I got up and looked out and there were patients going clear out into the streets, and it was like that all day," Fleck said.
Originally, Wickward was taken along because it was assumed he would help restore broken machinery. But it soon became apparent that the mechanic would be more valuable helping with basic wound care.
Fleck praised the mechanic for quickly learning how to clean wounds, to the point where all he needed to ask was, "Does this need antibiotics?"
Fleck and Wickward even had a run in with local thugs.
"These were some rowdy big guys. And these guys were not malnourished. They were big," Fleck said.
The conflict with the "big guys" occurred when several young men came in to the treatment center carrying mattresses. Fleck assumed the young men were providing the mattresses for others to use. But it soon became apparent the men were bringing in the mattresses for themselves and their "girlfriends."
When Fleck insisted the young men leave, voices were raised and it looked as if violence were about to occur, he said.
"I made the decision then it was time to leave. I could take three or four down with this morphine, but that’s about all," Fleck said.
Much to the dismay of the community leader, the team of two decided it was time to move back to the main headquarters in Port-au-Prince. But it was obvious, Fleck said, that the outlying areas were and still are in great need of medical assistance.
Tracey and Collins said the majority of their work dealt with wound cleaning to stave off infections. In many cases the two were using basic medical skills to deal with infections caused by poorly administered amputations, many of which were performed by non-surgeons and even dentists, they said.
And each day they faced a multitude of patients.
"You just accept the situation and do what you can," Tracey said. "It’s a dire situation. There is a lot of misery."
Tracey and Collins explained that even though they would treat a patient, afterward there was no place for that patient to go.
"People are sleeping in the streets ... You can’t begin to understand the amount of displaced people," Tracey said. "You can help people to medicate, but then they don’t have a home to go to."
In addition to seeing thousands of people living and sleeping on the streets, occasionally Tracey and Collins experienced the odor of decaying bodies still covered by rubble.
"I didn’t see any. I smelled a few," Tracey said. She added that one of the biggest problems now is the lack of basic sanitation.
The three physicians also said they felt the media has underrepresented the global response to the Haiti earthquake, noting they saw medical teams from China, Cuba, Spain, Switzerland, Norway and numerous other countries.
"It is truly a global effort. Top doctors from around the world are there," Fleck said.
As for medical cases that stuck with them, Collins and Tracey said there are two. A young man who had an arm amputated and a young woman with burns on up to 40 percent of her body.
"They are very young people whose life is changed forever. Even if they make it, their life is changed forever," Tracey said.
When it came time to leave Haiti, Tracey described how she almost didn’t make it back because she lacked a passport.
"I was stranded. I was literally stuck. And I said ‘God please help me out of there,’" she said.
Tracey went on to explain it would take $300 and a trip to the Dominican Republic to get her home. But because most of Haiti’s infrastructure is in ruins, Haitians and aid workers are unable to access cash in banks, she explained.
After a drastic search for a solution, the team found a pilot willing to fly them out of Haiti, even though Tracey lacked a passport.
As for returning, Collins said, "I wouldn’t be against it, but things are going to have to settle there."
"Things would have to be more organized," Tracey added.
The AMEN Haiti Team was funded by Adventist Medical Evangelistic Network, local businesses and individuals and Second Hope Ministries International, which is operating by Ron and Bobbie Fleck.
The Flecks hope to send a second team
of local volunteers to Haiti if they can get the funds and the people, and those people don’t necessarily have to be medical professionals.
"I have met so many people that have said I would love to go but I am not a doctor. But evidently you don’t need to be a doctor," she said, referring to the fact that many volunteers, like Wickward, were able to help without medical experience.
People wishing to support a second trip to Haiti can contact the Flecks via e-mail at email@example.com. The group also has a trust fund at Blue Mountain Credit Union, 520 S. College Ave., College Place
Alfred Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8325.
People wishing to support a second trip to Haiti can contact the Flecks via e-mail at email@example.com. The group also has a trust fund at Blue Mountain Credit Union, 520 S. College Ave., College Place.