Life would appear to be back to normal for Geoff Gilson of Easton after having spent 10 days working in Haiti. The doctor is back with his wife and five sons, back at work at Trinity Family Medicine, and back to the comforts of life in the United States. Yet it is not business as usual for Gilson who is still pondering the destruction, misery and poverty mixed with a resilient, hopeful people he left behind.
Life would appear to be back to normal for Geoff Gilson of Easton after having spent 10 days working in Haiti. The doctor is back with his wife and five sons, back at work at Trinity Family Medicine, and back to the comforts of life in the United States.
Yet it is not business as usual for Gilson who is still pondering the destruction, misery and poverty mixed with a resilient, hopeful people he left behind.
Gilson traveled to Haiti on Jan. 26, two weeks after the earthquake hit. He spent his time working in field hospitals in Port Au Prince and Leogone with physicians associated with the aid organization Heart to Heart.
“We debrided and stitched terrible wounds, cut away gangrene, braced shattered bones, treated dehydrated and malnourished babies and children, and triaged the worst cases for amputation and hospitalization,” Gilson said. “No matter how hard we tried, often the weakest would die, and the strongest would fight on.”
Gilson said 70 percent of Port Au Prince was destroyed yet even the remaining buildings had big cracks in them. The people would not sleep inside at night, choosing instead to stay in the myriad of tent cities spread throughout the city.
As time went on a sort of routine developed. Gilson and the other caregivers would arrive at the tent city at the soccer stadium in Port Au Prince around 9 a.m. The brightly colored tents numbered close to 7,000 and were home to approximately 50,000 people. By 3:30, the group had treated 300 patients, sending the most seriously injured elsewhere twice a day when ambulances would come by. No matter how badly someone may have been hurt, no more patients would come after 3:30. That was part of the Haitian culture, Gilson explained.
His group would then travel back to the Nazarene seminary where they were staying for evening meetings with various aid groups, non-governmental organizations and the military to exchange information, resources, and cell phone numbers.
“The people were incredibly good about working together and exchanging information,” Gilson said. “As far as I could tell no one was in charge at the country level.”
Some nights Gilson would travel to the airport to help unload big C-130 planes full of aid from around the world. A mile-long stretch of the airport was covered with pallets stacked high with supplies for the Haitian people. Gilson said while there was plenty of supplies coming in, the lack of infrastructure and the obstructionist government meant the supplies sat at the airport.
“The problem is so systemic, so cultural, so longstanding in this culture that it’s very hard to understand how any of that is going to change,” Gilson said. “It’s all so unnecessary.”
When Gilson was asked to travel to Leogone to work for a few days he knew he had a bigger mission than just healing the sick ahead. He and his family had been sponsoring a girl living near Leogone for eight years starting when the girl was just 11. After the earthquake he could not get any information on whether she and her family had survived.
Conditions were even more primitive in Leogone. Gilson slept outside under the stars and blood-covered cinder blocks with a stretcher thrown on top under a tent served as an operating room. Still, his girl lingered in his mind.
He had no address or phone number, nothing but a number identifying a children’s development center where the girl had been registered. On his last morning in Leogone Gilson said he decided to make the trip to the town the development center had been in. A truck driver from the United States who was visiting family in Haiti when the quake struck offered Gilson a ride.
The town was destroyed and no one he spoke to had heard of the children’s center. A policeman sent him down the street to a pile of rubble that used to be a school and there Gilson recognized the number on part of the crumpled building as the same number associated with the girl’s development center. One of the school workers disappeared into the rubble and amazingly five minutes later returned with his girl’s old school records. More importantly there was a cell phone number. The number belonged to the brother of the girl and Gilson was off again.
“For another five miles or so we wound through jungle and fields, fording streams and passing groups of calloused and sun-hardened field-workers with machetes,” Gilson said. “One final turn brought us to a clearing, and there (she stood) waiting. I recognized her immediately.”
No one was killed in the girl’s little village although all of the 10 by 12 homes had been reduced to rubble. The girl and her family of six were living under a 10 by 10 lean- to of corrugated steel leaning on some old wooden beams with a couple of pots, a blanket or two, and the clothes on their back.
Yet for the all the destruction, Gilson said the people in the village were in their little homes singing and being thankful for life. He was humbled when after all they had been through the family said they would be praying for Gilson and his family.
“We live in a fantasy land. That is the real world,” Gilson said. “That is all most of those people will ever know. They are the heroes. They’re the ones that despite everything are singing praises to God in the midst of the rubble.”
Gilson said the hard part for the country will be in the next month or two when the rainy season starts and Haiti falls off the map of the world’s memory again.
“Even in the midst of catastrophe and my own deep despair, I sense God’s merciful hand,” Gilson said. “It is he who gave me the skills and resources I have. It is he who prompted my heart toward action. I am learning faith, and courage and impossible hope from a 17-year-old girl in the jungles of Haiti.”
Paula Vogler can be reached at 508-967-3510 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.