As I was cozily lounging in window seat 26A sipping on my complimentary orange juice, enjoying one of Bob Dylan’s lesser known albums, the endless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean came to an end as a lush, misting, green landmass became visible. As the airplane made its approach and began its descent over the jungle, villages, and towns, the first thing I was struck by was the buildings (some standing, some not), roofs, made mostly of rusted, corrugated metal, and doors, consisting of plywood and old street signs. As the plane lurched to a halt on the runway, its passengers, seemingly mostly residents of the island, erupted in applause, cheering, and a deep sigh of relief. I’m not entirely sure what sparked this reaction, but it was quite fascinating. And finally, I had arrived in Haiti.
Practicing physical therapy in a country like Haiti presents some unique challenges. Pathology and symptomology vary greatly. I was joined by a small group of about 10 other practitioners including physical therapists, medical doctors, nurses, and a prosthetist/orthotist. The trip was organized by an incredible group called Phoenix Rising for Haiti. Being the only healthcare providers in the area, my sense of scope of practice began to blur. Problems ranging from headache to exertional angina, low back pain to stroke, bone fractures to heartburn, amputees to infections, were managed on a daily basis. Another unique aspect of the region involved the traditional Haitian Voodoo belief systems and its treatment techniques. Every morning I was awakened by the chatter of the gathering locals in a quickly developing line outside of the clinic. Once the doors opened, patients were seen for appointments ranging from 10 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the severity and complexity of their conditions. I focused primarily on joint manipulation, soft tissue manipulation, education, and self-treatment techniques including stretching and corrective exercise. Each English-speaking practitioner had a local translator translating Haitian Creole to English.
One unexpected occurrence, of which there were no shortages, was a 5.9 magnitude earthquake that occurred just a couple miles from our destination during our 10-hour drive from the Port au Prince airport to the town of Port de Paix. Interestingly enough, we didn’t feel the quake thanks to the turbulence of our bus rumbling over muddy potholes, loose rock, and tree roots. However, upon arriving to the town of Port au Paix at about 3 or 4 in the morning, we quickly received word that an earthquake had just occurred. Many of the locals fled deep into forested mountains to avoid the possibility of a post-earthquake tsunami. Eighteen people lost their lives to the earthquake, while hundreds of others were badly injured, and quickly became one of our primary patient populations.
One of the most touching and encouraging aspects of this trip was the support my team and I received from donors. Thousands of dollars worth of shoes, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, women’s health products, pregnancy tests, antibiotics, vitamins, wraps/bandages, steroids, etc. were all graciously donated. I would like to express a special thank you to the generous people at The Shoe That Grows for donating many of their quality, long-lasting, adjustable sandals. I was able to cram a 70-liter backpacking backpack full of these products donated within a matter of weeks from the Boise area community. Words cannot convey how amazing it is to see people donate without hesitation. It was a beautiful reminder to me of the natural good in people. Every time I stepped back into our Haitian clinic “pharmacy” — a back room, sort of kitchen, behind a bed sheet, full of donated medications — I was reminded of the good-heartedness of all of our donors, and humanity as a whole.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead