During 24 years as a military physician and nine as a medical missionary, including eight in Belize, Dr. Wiley Smith never encountered devastation comparable to what he witnessed during a recent trip to Haiti sponsored by Mission to the World (MTW).
As Smith and other members of his short-term medical missions team flew over Haiti, they spotted masses of blue tarpaulins—tent camps that had sprung up in open spaces to provide shelter for citizens displaced by the Jan. 12 earthquake. But the aerial view barely hinted at the destruction they would find on the ground.
Rubble from many buildings, including churches and a hospital, still lay in the same haphazard piles where they had fallen months earlier. Throngs of people crowded the streets, many walking aimlessly without homes or workplaces where they could return. For those with vehicles, driving rules were ignored. Trash was heaped everywhere.
“I had never been that close to a disaster of that magnitude,” Smith said. “Living in Belize, we experienced tropical storms and hurricanes where roofs were blown off, buildings suffered structural damage, and crops were destroyed, but there was usually some advance notice. People there were aware of possible dangers.
“But in Haiti, the earthquake was unexpected and so intense. People had no warning, no way to prepare for it. The sights and sounds we experienced were incredible, in some cases even indescribable.”
The Worst Blow: The Exacerbation of Poverty
Estimates of loss of life have ranged from 50,000 to 200,000. But perhaps the most severe blow was the exacerbation of abject poverty in Haiti, already regarded as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
“To see that much poverty was particularly difficult for a lot of folks on our own teams,” noted the family practitioner, a member of Grace Presbyterian (PCA) in Dalton, Ga.
In March, Smith led two medical teams ministering to earthquake victims in Diquini, a particularly destitute area situated at the southern edge of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. They worked out of an inflatable tent—“basically a MASH unit”—in the midst of a refugee camp on about 10 acres that formerly housed a school.
About 20,000 people lived in the makeshift community, according to Smith. “It was quite a pile of humanity there. Each day we worked within a few feet of people who were camping out in their impromptu homes. The experience was very different from watching [TV coverage of the disaster], actually being there with people who had endured the terrors of the earthquake.”
By the time Smith and his teams arrived (the fifth and sixth groups sent there by MTW after the quake) treatment had shifted from severe trauma to more chronic ailments.
“Each day, 100-120 men, women, and children came to the clinic and we responded to whatever they needed. Some still had aches and pains from things that had fallen on them during the earthquake, and we re-dressed wounds. But a lot of them showed stress symptoms—stomachaches, headaches, accelerated heart rates. Basically what we call post-traumatic stress disorder.
“And we treated other problems that go with living in crowded, unsanitary conditions: malaria, diarrhea (especially among children), and scabies—insect-borne rashes. Then there were people with high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses common to people everywhere.”
Smith’s teams included a family practitioner, several registered nurses and nurse practitioners, a physician assistant, two counselors, and a number of non-medical volunteers who had been trained in disaster relief. They represented PCA churches in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, and New York.
Treating Emotional Wounds
Counseling was just as crucial as the physical treatment, according to Smith. “We referred many people to trained counselors, but with each patient we not only asked about their medical problems, but also how the quake had affected their lives.
“Everyone had a story—many lost family members, had houses destroyed or badly damaged, and some people we treated had been buried in rubble. A number of people were still dealing with serious emotional problems.”
Even those without counseling expertise offered what they could: prayer and compassion. “I can’t imagine not being able to offer that to them,” Smith stated. “The pills we brought with us could not relieve the emotional trauma they had gone through.”
Despite the pain, grief, and ruin, there was “an encouraging side,” he pointed out. This he attributed to “resilient Christians” whose faith gave them unfailing hope in the midst of seemingly hopeless circumstances. “In some cases their faith had grown stronger following the earthquake,” he said.
One woman shared about losing two children and being buried in the rubble of her home for more than 10 hours. “But because of her faith, it was not the end of the world for her,” Smith said. “She was still praising the Lord despite the tragedy. We met quite a few people like that. These wonderful believers … that talked about how their faith had sustained them, and their belief that God would use this particular tragedy to change their country.”
There was already evidence the physician said. For instance, he met a former voodoo priest who proclaimed after the earthquake he had decided to forsake his occult religion and embrace Christianity as a follower of Jesus. “God uses events like these for His good purposes,” the 56-year-old Smith asserted.
His teams also worked alongside Esaie Etienne, a pastor and MTW missionary in his 30s who was living in the Diquini tent camp after his home in Port-au-Prince suffered extensive damage. He devoted each day to preaching from the Bible, offering fellow refugees encouragement from the Scriptures.
In conjunction with Grace Pres, over the past year Dr. Smith has been working to provide disadvantaged citizens in Dalton, Ga., with low-cost health care. (See “While Congress Talks, Grace Pres Tackles Health Care” on this website.) But the issues in Haiti are far more acute, he observes, including the need to equip Haitians to build better, safer housing and provide training and skills for gainful employment.
“It’s not like they don’t know how to do things. We saw street vendors selling shoes, clothing, radios, and food. There were entrepreneurs, even in tent cities. One man had car batteries and was making them available to power cell phones and laptop computers. They’re eager to work, if given a chance.”
“Right now we’re assisting people displaced from their homes, but the citizens of Haiti are going to need our help long-term,” he said. “We can’t just dump rice and beans off a truck or provide short-term medical care and expect things to be different. We need to build partnerships with local churches and other aid organizations. [We need to] empower these courageous people and enable them … to become self-sufficient.”
To learn more about MTW’s efforts in Haiti, visit www.mtw.org/haiti.