The greater good

Team Broken Earth experience “a gift” according to Cheryl Pollock

Even after six months, it is still difficult to articulate all the emotions that Haiti has inspired in me. It was an overwhelmingly positive experience and I cannot wait to return. That week with Team Broken Earth was easily the best thing I have ever done in medicine. 

I was born, raised and educated in St. John’s, and graduated from Memorial University with a medical degree in 2001. Following a brief sojourn in Calgary for my emergency medicine training, I returned to work in St. John’s where I continue to practice adult emergency medicine. Ten years on, and turning 40, I was ready for a new challenge and embraced the opportunity to leave my comfortable working environment and get back to the basics of medicine. 

March 2014 was my first mission with Team Broken Earth.

Numerous pre-departure team meetings helped me to itemize the necessary medical equipment, and I faced the growing mountain of supplies in the corner of my basement like I somehow had to summit it. With 98 pounds of gear packed and an ultrasound machine in my carry-on bag, I was off to the races. But no amount of talking to past TBE members prepared me for the experience of hitting the ground in Port-Au-Prince. The chaos in the streets is indescribable: constant noise and motion and throngs of people seemingly oblivious to it all. Everything – the scents in the air, the massive heat, the ceaseless squawking of a nearby rooster – was all so incredibly foreign to me. And yet, by day three, it was completely routine. 

I knew about the on-site sleeping arrangements (eight to a bunk room) and had no illusions about what that entailed. That proximity to my colleagues was instrumental in quickly establishing a comradery among us. We shared everything: food, bug spray, iphone chargers, and, best of all, late-night talks. The things I thought would scare me (malaria, insects, food-borne illness) really didn’t after all because all 30 of us were in it together. The morning routine of bug spray, sunblock and malaria prophylaxis quickly became another mundane habit. 

I worked shifts in the emergency room, and because it was a trauma hospital, some of our patients presented with serious injuries. In St. John’s, we frequently see patients with injuries from car accidents and falls, but nothing on the scale of what we experienced there. But like so many other things in Port-Au-Prince, it was such a contradiction. There was such resilience and calm and hope in the face of such brutality. The Haitian nursing and medical staff – so calm, so friendly, so efficient – continued to amaze me. It was really about getting back to the fundamentals of emergency medicine: suturing, casting, and splinting injuries, but also talking to families, explaining what we can do, and looking after patients in the most basic terms. 

I don’t practice pediatrics in St. John’s. The children I met in PAP simply stole my heart. Some were very sick, but a lot of them were well with relatively minor problems but they were invariably beautiful, warm children. On my first day I saw the three-year-old daughter of a local police officer with a minor elbow injury, and the simple act of splinting this child’s arm, and the thoughtfulness of our nurses, Geralyn and Pauline, presenting her with hair barrettes and a colouring book, was better than any prescription I have ever written. 

I watched in awe as a patient with a femur fracture got quietly out of bed the day after his operation, stood on crutches with the help of the physiotherapist, and walked out of the hospital with his family. 

Lessons learned? People are the same everywhere. Everyone wants their family member taken care of. Everyone wants to know that we did everything we could do in the best interests of the patient. The settings are different and the chasm between austere and resource-rich environments is obvious, but fundamentally medicine is about looking after people. That doesn’t change. 

Enduring friendships are quickly built in challenging environments. Shared experiences of fear and of joy bind you to people. When I asked a seasoned TBE doctor on the first day why he kept returning, he said simply “the comradery.”

Mahatma Gandhi said that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” I feel that Haiti gave more to me than I brought to it.  It was a pretty good way to start my 40s. 

I hope this helps in some small way to illustrate the work of Team Broken Earth. As a side note, I have to commend both Andrew Furey and Art Rideout (both far too modest in accepting credit for their incredible work) who are not only gifted surgeons and superb organizers, but also supportive colleagues and true humanitarians. 

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