Helping heal Haiti
Legate Dr. Richard Toussaint’s heroic journey to Haiti has inspired many . . .
When Dr. Richard Toussaint flew to Haiti three days after a catastrophic earthquake hit last January, he was prepared for the worst.
From the air, he and his team saw massive physical destruction. Once they landed and left the airport, the stench of death was everywhere. The medical team’s only hope was that their skills would alleviate some of the survivors’ suffering. The team would spend 54 unforgettable hours on the ground – experiences that still fuel Toussaint’s dreams.
When the earthquake first hit, Toussaint — an anesthesiologist and member of Legatus’ Dallas Chapter — instinctively knew he had to get to Haiti. He spent three days arranging for two chartered jets to carry a team of 32 medical personnel, search and rescue specialists, a reporter and cameraman. The plane also brought medical supplies, food and water.
Most of the staff came from Forest Park Medical Center, the Dallas hospital Toussaint cofounded. Once word of the devastation got out, the pilots and many of the medical suppliers waived their fees.
On the ground, Toussaint’s team set up at Sacre Couer Hospital, one of the only hospitals to survive the quake. Along the route from the airport, they saw dozens of pancaked buildings — collapsed floors stacked one on top of the other. They passed a sign that read: “Thank God USA Marines are here. 2 dead bodies inside.”
Thousands were waiting outside the hospital when the team arrived. Half needed medical help, half needed security. Medical personnel treated patients in the courtyard until the hospital’s ground floor was deemed safe for operations. Toussaint’s team immediately began by separating people into groups from most serious injuries to less serious. They quickly realized that their main work would be amputations and treating massive soft tissue wounds.
“Three children showed up at our compound,” Toussaint recalled. “A three-year-old girl whose foot needed to be amputated, a five-year-old girl whose forearm needed to be amputated, and an eight-year-old boy who had severe soft tissue injury. These kids were filthy, and I needed permission from their parents to operate.”
As with so many things during a crisis, normal procedure went out the window. The children’s parents had died and there was no one to ask permission from. The boy had brought his sisters to the hospital on his own by wagon. The team gave the children a box of donated clothes they had brought from Texas.
“They were very excited to get these new clothes,” said Toussaint. “They had gone through so much. We kept asking ourselves, ‘Who will take care of them?’”
At one point, the team even considered bringing the children back to the U.S., but legally this was nearly impossible. Leaving them behind as the mission ended was emotionally difficult for everyone.
“It’s so heart-rending,” said Toussaint. “We don’t know where they are. We hope one day we will find them.”
Tragedy and triumph
Equally distressing was Toussaint’s experience with a French nun. The school where she taught had collapsed, and she said there were still children inside calling for help.
“I went to the school which had four stories pancaked,” he said. “We looked through the ruins and found dead children. We found the corpses of two children embracing. I had never seen anything like this in my life.”
The nun insisted that she heard children, but no one else heard anything. Then it dawned on Toussaint that the nun was in shock, still hearing her students’ cries. Despite the tragedy in front of him, Toussaint returned to treat the injured gathered at the hospital.
Toussaint said he and his team were impressed by the Haitians’ patience as they waited for hours without complaint. Some Haitians volunteered to translate for the doctors. None were paid and none had food. When the team realized this, they shared their own food.
“These people had nothing to give, yet they gave of themselves,” he said.
Throughout their time in Haiti, the team had to constantly think “out of the box.” Limitations on anesthesia forced them to ration or give local anesthesia for situations that would normally require total anesthesia.
A nurse on Toussaint’s team experienced a deep healing while in Haiti. Her son had committed suicide four years prior. She fought with depression for years, but through the team’s work, she found peace.
“She saw other moms who had lost so much more,” said Toussaint. “She hugged me after the trip and thanked me.
“When we came back, we all realized how tremendously blessed we are. It was almost a shock to come back to our culture here relative to the sheer existence of people in Haiti who get up every day trying to find food and water so they can survive another day.”
Some of the staff doctors from Forest Park Medical Center have returned to Haiti in recent months. Toussaint would like to help rebuild the French nun’s school. He has been meeting with Dallas’ Bishop Kevin Farrell to this end.
The U.S. bishops’ conference has also set aside money to rebuild Haiti’s schools. A USCCB delegation went to Haiti in late July to assess the situation. They reported that women and children remain at risk — and reconstruction is proceeding slowly.
“The real future in that country is education,” said Toussaint. “That’s really their only hope now.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a Legatus staff writer.
As Haiti gears up for its Nov. 28 presidential election, serious problems remain. Although nine months have passed since the quake, little of the $5.3 billion pledged to the country has reached its destination because the Haitian government has not provided a convincing strategic recovery plan. Leadership and functioning civil institutions are virtually nonexistent.
Reid Carpenter, a member of Legatus’ Naples Chapter, has been to Haiti numerous times — and once since the January disaster. He has worked most of his adult life helping the poor in cities around the world.
“In every place of poverty I have been to in the past, something works — like an elevator, running water,” Carpenter explained, “but in Haiti, you don’t see that at all. Nothing works. You walk away and your soul is literally exhausted.”
Carpenter notes that whenever he travels to Haiti, the plane is full of people doing something to help rebuild the country. “But what you do not see is anyone with a vision for the country, a well-structured project.”
To this end, the Leadership Foundations of America — which Carpenter founded — is working to assist Haitian leaders. The winner of Haiti’s next presidential election must have the skills necessary to manage a strategic plan to rebuild the nation. Through his contacts in Haiti, Carpenter is backing Wilson Jeudy, the mayor of a Port-au-Prince principality.
“Jeudy is a committed Christian who has shown the credentials and spirit to lead,” he said. Rebuilding Haiti will not be an easy road, Carpenter said, but the opportunities for service — for both Haitians and foreigners — are limitless.
—Sabrina Arena Ferrisi
Haiti quake factbox
Date: January 12, 2010
Homeless: 1 million+
Catholic Relief Services pledges: $90+ million
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Catholic Relief Services