Just back from five days of intense labor in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, Dr. Russ Nockels, a neurosurgeon from the Loyola University Medical Center outside Chicago, struggles to find the words to describe his experiences.
It was just five days, but he’s having some problems adjusting to life in the Midwest. Coming home, to a secure roof over his head, is a jarring change.
That’s because for five days he slept outside, on the grounds of the Jesuit novitiate in Port-au-Prince, up early to begin 6 a.m. surgeries that continued until nightfall, when it became too dangerous to continue. And then the cycle would start all over again.
“No one had been really treated at all,” he said about his discovery soon after his arrival, as he responded to a desperate call for neurosurgeons sent out by Team Rubicon, a group of medical and former military personnel who have lent their expertise to Haitian earthquake relief.
Dr. Nockels never lacked for patients. There were spin fractures, head injuries, wounds all over bodies trampled by the structures that collapsed from the earthquake. These injuries were treated despite a lack of basics, including drinkable water.
“I struggle to even describe how horrific it was,” Dr. Nockels said. He did describe one visit to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Port-Au-Prince, which Team Rubicon visited after a resident had posted a sign pleading for help in an area where relief teams had yet to arrive. “There was the smell of death from people trapped in buildings. The people had nothing.”
Supplies were scarce. Splints needed to be constructed out of plastic bottles and cardboard. He will never forget scenes such as a mattress spread out with five babies on it, next to a grandmotherly woman. The babies were all orphans and the older lady was desperately trying to care for them.
“In 20 years of neurosurgery I never felt more appreciated,” he said, adding that he will never forget the look of a man as he worked on his son. The father never said a word but his eyes spelled out gratefulness.
Dr. Nockels said he was reluctant to characterize an entire people from what he saw in a few days work. And he was concerned about keeping the dignity of his patients, who have a right to confidentiality as much as his patients do back home in Chicago.
But, he said, “I could not believe how strong the people were in enduring it in such a dignified way. We didn’t have much anesthetic. We had to do painful things to them to save their lives.” Most took it stoically.
The Jesuit presence in Haiti is a valuable one, often exceeding the ability of better-financed agencies to reach the people. Dr. Nockels praised in particular the work of Brother Jim Boynton, a Detroit Province Jesuit who helped coordinate the response from the novitiate, as well as the volunteers from Team Rubicon and the Haitian Jesuit novices.
Medical personnel fear that the next crisis to hit Haiti will be an epidemiological one, in which contagious disease will spread like wildfire. People are huddled together in highly-cramped conditions, said Dr. Nockels, and already diarrhea caused by drinking dirty water is becoming a concern.
“I don’t want those suffering to be exploited,” said Dr. Nockels. But it is good that the word is getting out. “They need help, and the Jesuit community is providing the best help they can possibly get,” he said.
National Jesuit News is urging people to give to the Jesuit organization Jesuit Refugee Service to help those in Haiti.
To support JRS/USA’s humanitarian response to the emergency needs of the Haitian people, please click here to be directed to their secure website and choose “Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund.”
Or you may send a check to:
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA
1016 16th Street NW Suite 500
Washington, DC 20036
Checks should be made payable to “Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.”
Please clearly note “Haiti Earthquake Relief” in the memo field on the check.