My name is Jamie Wright. I volunteer with the Hydrocephalus Association (HA) as the leader of the Houston Community Network and I have hydrocephalus myself. In addition to my volunteer work with HA, I am an MD/PhD student at the University of Texas at Houston Health Science Center. I am currently in my fourth year, having completed three years of training to become a doctor, and I am now taking a “break” to complete my PhD in biomedical research before finishing my last year of medical school.
In early December 2014, I was given the opportunity to accompany Dr. David Sandberg, Chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery, at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, and his pediatric neurosurgery team to Port Au Prince, Haiti, where we performed an incredible 25 surgeries in less than five days. I knew going into this trip that it would be unlike anything I have ever experienced, but that does not even begin to describe it. In this blog series, I hope to share with you at least some small part of this incredible experience. Each blog is themed by a different emotion I experienced on my trip. I hope you enjoy them!
by Jamie Wright
When we landed in Port au Prince, Haiti I found myself in a whole other world just a short two-hour plane ride from the pristine beaches of Florida. We collected our twenty-three suitcases of medical supplies and donations and made our way to the bus that would take us to the clinic. As we stepped out of the tiny airport terminal, we were met by a crowd of people. Men came up to our luggage carts trying to take hold of them. Not to steal it but in hopes of earning a few dollars tip. I started snapping pictures and for the rest of the trip I found it hard to stop. As I looked out the bus windows at the half-built buildings and people lining the streets selling whatever goods they could get their hands on I realized that words would never do this experience justice.
We pulled up to the hospital gates and unloaded the bus and as we headed into the clinic we were met by rows of men and women holding babies and small children, most with heads swollen from untreated hydrocephalus. Even more striking to me than their head size though was their eyes. I’ve always heard about “sunset eyes” being associated with hydrocephalus as a sign of increased intracranial pressure. In medical school we learned all about this phenomenon and what causes it, but I had never seen it in real life, until now.
They waited patiently outside in the heat. Even though it was December the temperature was in the mid-nineties. They sat lined up in neat rows of folding chairs. Most had probably been there all day waiting anxiously for the opportunity to have their child assessed and hopefully treated. As both a medical student and someone who has spent quite a bit of time in doctor’s office waiting rooms, I know all too well how we Americans handle wait times. I know I am guilty myself of lamenting the time I’ve spent in a patient waiting room. The waiting area in Haiti was a far cry from the air-conditioned waiting rooms with rows of cushy chairs we are used to in America, yet no one was complaining.
As we started seeing patients I was impressed by the patience, generosity and sincere gratitude of everyone there. Many of the people who had come had travelled long distances and waited hours for us to arrive, but no one was trying to push to the head of the line. There were no arguments about who got there first or whose situation was more desperate. Instead they all waited patiently. One by one we would lead them back to one of the two exam rooms and then everyone would steadily get up and move forward one chair.
The clinic only had one real exam room. Since we had two neurosurgeons and anesthesiologists who could be assessing patients, we used the small cafeteria as a makeshift exam room. The only problem was there was only one person on our team who could speak French, one of the primary languages spoken in Haiti. The hospital staff tried to help but everyone was busy. A woman who spoke both English and French realized the problem we were having and offered to help translate for a while. She had come with her family to have her own son assessed because they were concerned about his unusual head shape. She stayed and translated up until it was time for her own son to be assessed. Thankfully he would not need surgery. Instead of going home with her family to celebrate though she stayed behind to continue helping. To me there are few things that give me more joy than seeing people help each other. No expectation to receive anything in return except the simple but powerful knowledge that you made a difference.
I also had the pleasure of getting to pass out some of the dozens of stuffed toys we had brought with us. After all the medical supplies had been packed for the trip we had filled the remaining suitcases with donated toys and clothes for the children. That first day seeing patients in clinic I would periodically step away from the exam rooms and hand out toys to the children in the waiting areas. Such a small gesture but I will never forget the glowing smiles I received in return. In the midst of unimaginable poverty compounded by illness, there was joy.
Other blogs in the series:
Mixed Emotions: Joy
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