Columbia volunteers continue to work for progress in Haiti

Monday, August 2, 2010 | 2:50 p.m. CDT; updated 11:28 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Brad Willis and a hospital translator help a patient to stand on her remaining leg. "We were really try to get people up and mobilize them," Willis said. "The medical risks go up tremendously when you're not moving."

COLUMBIA — Thoughts of the Caribbean usually conjure images of white-sand beaches, clear blue water and brilliant sunshine.

But that's not why Valerie Kaussen, an associate professor of French at MU, was excited to make her third trip to Haiti in seven months.


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"I'm always excited to go; I have friends there that I like to see." said Kaussen, who has traveled to Haiti to study literature and culture since she was a graduate student. "But I'm trying not to get too excited, (because) I also know that it's going to be really sad and depressing."

More than six months after an earthquake rocked the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, recovery efforts are still crawling in Haiti, where 80 percent of the population was living under the poverty line before the quake struck. More than 200,000 people were killed, and an estimated 1.5 million Haitians were left homeless.

Hundreds of thousands are still without emergency shelter or easy access to clean water, according to a National Public Radio report from July 13. A lack of coordination between the Haitian government and foreign aid organizations is blamed for the snail's pace of the recovery.

Kaussen knows about the destruction the Jan. 12 earthquake wrought in Haiti firsthand — she was in Port-au-Prince when the 7.0-magnitude quake shook the ground. As reported earlier in the Missourian, she was uninjured during the catastrophe and arrived home in Columbia a few days later.

She returned to Haiti in late March to continue her research on the ways this disaster has affected Haitians' perceptions of home. She also continued her volunteer efforts with a neighborhood association in Port-au-Prince.

It was good to see that people were getting by and that reconstruction work was beginning, Kaussen said of her visit in March. At that time, the rubble-clearing efforts were going strong and government crews were assessing the extent of the damage buildings had sustained, marking them to be rebuilt or torn down.

But she fears now that bureaucracy and anxiety over making the wrong move in rebuilding are holding up the process.

"There's a sort of paralysis because it's a chance to sort of rebuild the city and maybe change things, finally, so there's a better future there," Kaussen said. "But the more people don't do anything, it doesn't stay the same, it gets worse. Something's got to give."

She is hoping to get some answers to what will give during her third trip to Haiti this year. She left early in the morning of July 23 to spend two weeks in Port-au-Prince. She anticipates heightened levels of frustration and fear as the rainy season hits Haiti full force.

Many of the tent camps are in parks or soccer fields, so people are basically living on the ground, and it gets really muddy, Kaussen said.

Even the model camp supported by the UN and other foreign aid isn't standing up to its reputation. Camp Corail, built in what is essentially a desert about 15 miles north of Port-au-Prince, offers medical services and food aid, enough incentive to draw Haitians to the isolated location. But a summer storm in July destroyed more than 300 tents at Corail.

"It's supposed to be the best, and they can't even manage to keep people safe and dry," Kaussen said.

One of the hardest parts of Kaussen's trips to Haiti is accepting how limited her own influence can be on the lives of her friends there.

"I have to mentally prepare myself to feel kind of powerless because, as one person, there's only so much you can do," she said.

While one person can only do so much, the combined efforts of individuals are helping the recovery effort in Haiti move forward. And Kaussen isn't the only Columbia resident who has made the trip to Haiti to help out.

In May, a group of MU physical therapy graduates and an associate professor of physical therapy traveled to Milot, a rural town in the northern part of Haiti. Milot is the site of Hôpital Sacré Coeur, a private hospital supported by the CRUDEM Foundation. The physical therapy grads provided rehabilitation services at hospital, whose name means "sacred heart," to help patients regain mobility lost due to injuries suffered during the earthquake.

They followed Brad Willis, a physical therapist and 2008 MU graduate who works for the Missouri Orthopedic Institute.

On Jan. 30, 2½ weeks after the earthquake, Willis joined a team of therapists, physicians, contractors and a reporter from Missouri to travel to Milot.

Hôpital Sacré Coeur had become the primary local hospital for the injured stable enough for transport out of Port-au-Prince. Medical professionals were needed to help treat the influx of hundreds of patients taxing the staff of the 73-bed hospital, which CRUDEM has been operating in Milot for more than 20 years. The local public school served to house the overflow of patients brought in by helicopter or bus from the capital city.

Just two days after getting in contact with CRUDEM, Willis was on a charter flight out of the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield.

"It felt very much like a utility knife," Willis said of the seven-person team. "Everybody kind of had their role."

Willis joined the first wave of therapists to reach Milot after the earthquake and had an important role to play in the rehabilitation of injured patients.

"When we got there, most of (the patients) hadn't been up in almost two weeks," he said. "The medical risks go up tremendously if you're not moving."

Immobilized on mats on the floor or simple cots, the patients faced potentially life-threatening complications from pressure sores, breakdowns of the skin that can result in infection, and from blood clots, which can travel through the bloodstream and cause a stroke or heart attack.

"We were really trying to get people up and mobilize them, maintain the functions they could," Willis said.

The staff and volunteers at Hôpital Sacré Coeur treated a wide range of ages and injuries. The most common injuries included amputations, fractures and neurological injuries.

For Willis, spinal cord injuries were the hardest to see.

"We had several patients with spinal cord injuries — paraplegics and quadriplegics," he said. "Those are the patients you still think about when you go to sleep at night."

Paralysis, which Willis said is a tough diagnosis in the United States, can be a death sentence for a Haitian. With no paved roads and no law requiring accessibility and fair treatment for the disabled, these patients are completely dependent on family, and sometimes strangers, for their most basic needs.

Locals in Milot often stepped in to serve as basic caregivers for patients whose families had died or were still in Port-au-Prince. They took on many jobs traditionally handled by nurses in the U.S., including feeding and bathing patients.

"The Haitian people, we couldn't have done it without them," Willis said.

The experience humbled him.

"You very quickly realize how you're going to learn so much more from them than you could ever give them," Willis said.

Although media attention of the continuing struggle for survival in Haiti has died down, the needs of the people have not gone away.

While in Haiti for another week, Kaussen will meet with representatives from the UN Shelter cluster, a group that tries to track the populations of the tent camps and help people get what they need.

She hopes for an improvement from what she saw in March.

"People are getting pretty restless," she said. Although private money seems to result in quick rebuilding, Haiti's basic infrastructure, including roads, schools and hospitals, is still in shambles.

"(People) are getting more desperate by the day," Kaussen said, "and things just aren't moving very quickly."

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