The first thing Bella Hutchinson noticed as her plane circled over Haiti was how lush the island looked from a couple thousand feet up. She knew it wouldn’t be a tropical paradise, but one look at the sparkling turquoise ocean made her think to herself, “I want to go swimming.”
Then she noticed the gray mountains that seemed to surround Port-au-Prince. As she descended, her illusions of mountains morphed into a much grimmer topical feature: piles of rubble and heaps of garbage, most of the ruins still untouched from the January 2010 earthquake. This was Bella’s stunning visual introduction last summer to her two weeks in Haiti, where she traveled as a first responder for International Medical Relief (IMR). At age 15, Bella was the youngest volunteer ever on the team working to bring health and surgical care to Haitian IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps.
There would be no swimming for Bella, at least not in the sea. Rather she would find herself swimming through a grief-torn, desperate country, still reeling from the effects of the quake.
From the start, it was a crash-course in humanitarian relief. Lesson number one: you sometimes have to lie. When the security guards asked about the contents of her luggage, which was actually full of medicine and health supplies, Bella held her breath and claimed that her suitcase contained “only clothes and toys.”
If they had known it was medicine, she was told, the government officials would confiscate it for the military and leave nothing for the people. “I felt like I was in a warzone,” Bella said. After passing through security, UN workers shouted, “Go! Go! Go!” as she charged through mobs of people to the IMR vehicles.
Amid the smoke of burning trash and smoldering flesh, Bella saw around 1,300 Haitians daily, most with desperate and infectious medical conditions. Still years away from her medical school dreams, she performed surgeries and dental extractions, set up IVs, and taught community classes on personal hygiene and HIV prevention.
The most common medical case she saw was worms. “Parents add dirt and clay to food to make it last longer,” she said. Little do they know, “parasites are in the dirt, eating the children’s food and causing infections.”
She also saw infections resulting from a rash of rushed and arguably unnecessary amputations performed right after the earthquake. “They didn’t have time to do correct amputations. There were a lot of wounds like broken arms that could have easily been fixed, but they just chopped [the limbs] off because they didn’t have the resources to do anything else,” she said.
Bella was overwhelmed by the suffering and depression, especially among the teenagers in the tent cities. “Teenagers were at the age where they understood what had happened but felt helpless because they couldn’t do anything about it,” she said. Robbed of their childhoods, kids were charged with difficult tasks and responsibilities that came with helping their families establish new lives in the tent cities.
IMR set up family clinics in the IDP camps to help people cope with some of their psychological and emotional despair. Although Bella’s team didn’t include psychiatrists and they didn’t have antidepressants, Haitians shared their stories of guilt and regret in the community education classes.
One of the most shocking stories that Bella remembers is of a mother who left her house the day of the earthquake to beg for money on the streets, and told her three kids to stay home. Though she was fortunate enough to stay safe when the earthquake struck, she later discovered that her house had collapsed, crushing the children inside. To this day, she is tortured by her loss and regret.
The trip had its scary moments: unfamiliar with blondes, aggressive men constantly tried to touch Bella’s hair. At one point, the desperation literally hit her in the face, when the mob grew so large and rowdy that Bella fell and was trampled by the crowd, and then accidentally punched.
There were some lighter moments, too, like when she had to teach women how to put on condoms. Bella laughs. “It’s not like I’d had any practice doing that,” she said, remembering the expressions on her audience’s faces. “Everyone was trying to keep a straight face.”
When her experience in Haiti ended, Bella took a family vacation in Turkey. Knowing the struggles of the trip, Bella’s parents wanted to feed her well and pamper her. One night in the hotel, after consuming an extravagant dinner, Bella locked herself in her room and sobbed. She was unable, perhaps too young, to reconcile this life of good fortune with the crisis and struggle that continues on in Haiti, a paradise still lost.
Photo credit: UNICEF Sverige
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