SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
When I first heard about the earthquake in Haiti I called my friend Father Rick Frechette, an American priest and medical doctor who has been living in Haiti for 22 years, and asked, "What do you need me to do?" He said, "If it moves you, please put on your work boots, grab a shovel, and come dig my people out." I tried for several days to get to Haiti. Finally, a week after the catastrophe, I flew from Los Angeles to Port-au-Prince along with director Paul Haggis and actor Sean Penn. We were on a chartered cargo plane filled with 12 doctors, building contractors, medical supplies, food, and tools.
I had been going to Haiti for the past two years, after meeting Father Rick through a friend. Father Rick opened the only free pediatric hospital in Haiti, St. Damien, and runs schools and orphanages. He also supplied free drinking water to the slum of Cite de Soleil and fed thousands throughout Port-au-Prince. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. (Eight out of 100 children die before age 5.) Paul Haggis and I helped start an organization, Artists for Peace and Justice, in 2009 and have funneled 100 percent of the money we've raised ($4.5 million since the quake) to Father Rick's projects.
When we arrived in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, we immediately drove to St. Damien. Thankfully, the hospital had sustained little to no damage because it was one of the newer buildings in the city. But seeing hundreds of men, women, and children lying on the hospital's front lawn and inside the building was devastating. Some had severe dehydration or serious wounds like missing limbs. Children were separated from their families and many were too young to tell us who their parents were.
During that week I held the hand of a 16-year-old boy as he got his leg amputated without anesthesia. His screams of despair, I believe, were not only from the physical pain but also from the knowledge that his life as he knew it would never be the same. We helped evacuate 18 children to the United States who had spinal-cord injuries and would have died without proper medical treatment. As painful as the scene was, it could also be inspiring: One night, while I was sleeping on the ground with hundreds of doctors, nurses, soldiers, and volunteers at the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division camp, we were awakened by a mother's mournful song for her lost child. Soon her voice was joined by another and another. We walked to the top of the hill at sunrise to the displaced persons camp and there was a long line of people waiting for food that would be distributed at 8 a.m. The people continued to sing these Creole spirituals, in praise and thanksgiving for their lives. They had nothing left, but they were alive. And singing.
Two weeks later I returned to Haiti to work in one of the displaced persons camps. (For now I plan to go back every couple of weeks to distribute donated medical supplies.) As bad as it was right after the earthquake, conditions had gotten worse. At St. Damien I saw many patients whose untreated wounds were turning gangrenous. There were outbreaks of tuberculosis and typhoid fever. The camps were getting bigger: One in Port-au-Prince grew from 40,000 to 75,000 refugees while I was away. In a couple of weeks the hurricane season will begin. Many people still don't even have tents; they are living under sheets. In some areas they are getting rice, but they are not getting cooking oil so they can't cook the rice. Not everyone is being fed.
While the disaster has brought out the best in people -- I've seen doctors camped out in the streets in sleeping bags, subsisting only on energy bars and working 20-hour shifts -- it has brought out the worst in others. Every night there have been reports of rapes in the camps. I have been working with CARE, the international humanitarian organization, to start a women's clinic that will pass out hygiene kits and create a safe place for women to report these crimes.
Over the next few months we need to bring more medical aid to Haiti. If we don't, hundreds of thousands could die from secondary infections. We need to push the U.S. government to continue to be a presence there. Just because the initial disaster is over doesn't mean we can stop working for these resilient and kind people.
The other day I called my 9-year-old son, who was home in Los Angeles, from Haiti. He said, "Mom, you forgot you were supposed to be a driver for my class trip today." That day, as I worked in the camps, all I could think about was, God, I missed my kid's field trip. It's a difficult decision to leave your child, but in the end, I want to teach my son compassion, and to stand for something. As a mother, I want to do my small part to leave the world a better place.Help for Haiti
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2010.