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Volunteers in Haiti transcend earthquake’s heartbreak

FOND PARISIEN, Haiti (BP)–She doesn’t remember much, but Louphine Demorcy won’t ever forget the sound — like a runaway freight train roaring beneath her feet.

“I heard the voice of the earthquake coming,” the 31-year-old mother of three said. “I called out for Jesus to save me.”

The next thing Demorcy knew she was lying under a pile of broken concrete that once housed her small sundries shop in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It was Jan. 13 — the morning after Jan. 12’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake.

Demorcy tried to move but couldn’t. One of her arms had been crushed and pinned by a chunk of concrete the size of a dishwasher. A leg was also trapped under rubble. The pain was excruciating. She screamed for help, pleading for a doctor.

Two months later Demorcy sits quietly under a tree at a field hospital near Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic. Merry Holt, a 62-year-old nurse from First Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., kneels beside her, gently wrapping fresh bandages around Demorcy’s right arm, amputated above the elbow, and left leg, amputated above the knee.

Holt is part of a six-member medical team who have come to Haiti through Baptist Global Response, a nonprofit disaster relief and development organization supported by Southern Baptists, and a key partner in relief efforts with the International Mission Board (IMB). Their mission is to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need.

Demorcy is grateful she didn’t lose more than her limbs. Her children were not hurt in the earthquake, and thanks to volunteers like Holt, her wounds are nearly healed. Soon she’ll be fitted with prostheses that will improve her quality of life.

“Nurse Merry is always an encouragement to me,” Demorcy says. “She tries to get me to overcome the situation that I’m in. She always sings with us and tries to keep stress from overwhelming us.”

Once she’s finished changing bandages, Holt stays true to her reputation, taking time to teach a song to Demorcy and other patients before moving on to the next row of tents. Smiles spread across patients’ faces as they sing; Holt’s beams with affection.

“I’m amazed at what God does through the smallest little gesture,” she says. “There is so much hope in this camp. More today than when I arrived … because the physical healing is taking place — and their souls are being healed, too…. I’m so blessed to be a part of it.”

The field hospital where Holt’s team is working is known as the Disaster Recovery Center (DRC), operated by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). It feels a bit like a scene from the TV show “M*A*S*H*” with the buzz of helicopters ferrying patients to and fro. Rows of tents house 280 patients; a capacity of 350 makes this temporary facility the largest rehabilitation hospital in the country.

The DRC is set up on the grounds of a Christian charity called Love-a-Child, which provides the use of several buildings. The hospital also enjoys the security of Love-a-Child’s walled compound and, more importantly, its supply of potable water from an artesian well.

Since it began operations the hospital has treated more than 1,100 patients, performed 275-plus surgeries and boasts nearly 4,000 “saved” limbs that may have otherwise been amputated without proper care. Though only two amputations have been performed at the hospital, 15 percent of the patients are amputees. Most were brought here post-surgery from other medical facilities.

Holt’s team is part of the steady stream of volunteers who make up the Disaster Recovery Center’s primary medical staff. They come from a broad range of backgrounds, specialties, organizations and nationalities. And while HHI is a secular organization, DRC director Hilarie Cranmer welcomes religiously affiliated groups.

“I think that faith-based organizations do indeed provide some of the best humanitarian assistance around the world,” Cranmer says. “I think there is truly, truly, truly healing of the soul and healing of the body that need to go together.”

Though it may not sound like much by American standards, the DRC is regarded as the “Hilton” of its kind in Haiti.

Jennifer Furin, an infectious disease specialist from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, has made more than 30 trips to Haiti over the past 14 years. She was on the ground two days after the earthquake, working with Cranmer at a field hospital based at the Port-au-Prince airport.

“Relative to what’s going on in Port-au-Prince, this place is a utopia,” Furin says. “I can’t even talk about how bad it was. People were just laying there dying a slow death…. We saw the worst side of how disaster management can go.”

Despite its amenities — including wireless Internet access — working conditions at the Disaster Recovery Center are challenging. The heat is intense. Outside temperatures top 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside patients’ tents, it can reach 115. Constant wind makes the heat more bearable, but it also coats everything with a fine dust — less than sterile conditions, especially for patients with skin grafts and large, open wounds.

Sweat begins to roll down Kerri Dewitz’s forehead as she steps inside a tent on the children’s ward to check on 13-year-old Junior Renaud. Doctors were forced to amputate three-quarters of Renaud’s right foot when a deep wound he received during the earthquake became badly infected.

Holding out his foot, Renaud grins when he sees Dewitz, a 43-year-old pediatric nurse from Cove Church in Hampton Cove, Ala. “This kid is always smiling,” she laughs. Before changing his dressing, Dewitz washes his feet, an experience she calls “spiritual.”

“I feel God with me every time I wash a patient’s feet…. I can’t help but think about Jesus washing the feet of His disciples,” she says. Dewitz joined the volunteer team when she felt God calling her to Haiti. It is her first international mission trip.

“I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world,” she says. “It’s life-changing.”

James Rogers, a 60-year-old pharmacist, and his wife Brenda, from Hermitage Hills Baptist Church in Hermitage, Tenn., are leading the team. He takes advantage of a slow moment to visit his favorite patient, Weber Joachim, a 58-year-old general contractor whose leg was badly broken.

Metal rods protrude from Joachim’s left leg. The tinker-toy-like rods are known as an external fixator that holds the bones in position so they heal correctly. It likely saved him from an amputation, but the rods are painful.

Rogers visits Joachim nearly every day to pray with him and read the Bible. Today he’s brought more than Scripture. Rogers carries scraps of a two-by-four to level Joachim’s cot, which is slanting steeply downhill. He also gives Joachim a gift — a pair of size 12 shoes. Joachim’s only pair was stolen several days ago, forcing him to walk around the hospital barefoot.

Joachim says Rogers has the “heart of Jesus,” but the pharmacist gently defers on the compliment.

“We’re ordinary people,” Rogers says. “Don’t assume you can’t be used by God because He will find an opportunity to use the ability that you have.”

Hard work isn’t the only sacrifice volunteers like Rogers have made to serve here. Volunteers sleep on the ground in tents and take baths in a bucket. Rice and beans — a Haitian staple — is on the menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Malaria, tuberculosis and scabies are all health risks for the volunteers, as is heat stroke if they don’t stay hydrated.

But no one on the team doubts that the sacrifice is worth it. After returning to Virginia Beach, Holt writes about breaking down in tears while singing the choir during her first Sunday back at her home church, First Baptist Church in Norfolk.

“We began to sing ‘How Great Thou Art,'” she writes in an e-mail. “It was then that it hit me. I saw Louphine’s [Demorcy] face, no arm, one leg … and I began to cry…. Count your blessings, and don’t ever forget that while we thought we were a blessing to them, how much they were to us.”

Demorcy won’t forget the day earthquake took her limbs. And she’s not likely to forget the people who helped her take back her independence either, or the God that brought them to Haiti.

“I know God is a God that always make a way, even when there is no way,” she says. “If I did not believe in Him I would not be here today…. May His name be glorified.”
Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board. To make a financial contribution to Southern Baptists’ efforts to help the people of Haiti, visit imb.org/haitifund. One hundred percent of all gifts is used directly for relief and recovery efforts; nothing is taken out for administrative, promotional or other costs. Learn more about going to Haiti on an upcoming volunteer project by e-mailing [email protected].

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  • Don Graham