“A helicopter is coming to Pignon today, and we are going to the airport to receive supplies,” announced Jared, a young American supervising the construction projects for the hospital. I had heard this statement so many times before that I ignored it as yet another false rumor. I returned to packing my bag before going to the airport for our departure, when suddenly I hear the loud noise of a helicopter. I rushed to the roof of our dorm, and sure enough there is a huge helicopter circling the hospital, and slowly descending, not to the airport, a few miles south of Pignon, but to the soccer field near the hospital. It must be bringing the patients that have been announced for days.
I forget about our imminent departure, and rush with my colleagues to the field. We may have to change plans and stay to take care of the patients. By the time we arrive near the soccer field, the scene is unbelievable. Hundreds of people are already on and around the soccer field where a huge U.S. Marine Corps helicopter is idling on the ground. I recognize nurses and family members of patients from the hospital. The crowd is so thick, it is difficult to get closer. I see some people perched on tombs at the cemetery nearby looking down at the scene, and I join them. From my vantage point, I can clearly see the scene: There are no stretchers, and no patients to be seen, just boxes of supply.
Suddenly we hear the roar of the engine, and a thick cloud of dust is engulfing all the onlookers. The sight and noise of the helicopter fades in the distance. The crowd disperses as quickly as it had gathered. I did not see any patients disembark from the helicopter, but just to make sure, our orthopedic surgeon, Dr. O’Malley, and our ER physician, Dr. Nelms, swing by the hospital. They return shortly to the dorm with the report: It was a CH-53 helicopter bringing supplies only; the helicopter caused damage to the roof of the public High School, and there were no injuries! What type of supplies if left behind, we will never know.
We then proceeded to the airport to depart. The scene there is also surprising. In previous years, the grass landing strip was usually empty. There was an occasional small plane landing. The gates to the airport were open and local onlookers could approach the planes to greet or say good-bye to the passengers. This time, the gates are closed and the usual young people trying to make some money by helping travelers with their luggage have official badges. Two Haitian policemen in uniform are present (there are now four policemen in Pignon; there were none the first few years we worked there). We are allowed to enter and are now standing with our luggage on the airfield. I asked about the changes. Apparently it is the result of riots that broke out earlier in the week over the supplies that were flown in, different groups claiming it was meant for them.
There are also lots of people waiting, including a Haitian production crew with professional cameras. The first DC-3 lands. Twenty-four people, members of an American ophthalmology group (on their regular yearly rotation at the hospital for treatment of cataracts, glaucoma and other eye disease) disembark, along with the Haitian customs officer that was picked up at Cap Haitien. The DC-3 is emptied; we give our luggage to the crew for storage in the plane and choose a seat. We are told that it is hot in front and cold in the back of this 1943 plane. I choose the front. We are then told that we must wait for the Haitian customs officer. He has to go back to Cap Haitien with us after inspecting the cargo, not only of our plane, but also of the other DC-3 that just landed, bringing supplies. Then it is a smaller plane’s turn to land with cargo, and then a small private plane lands to pick up a member of Rotary International from the Cayman Islands. In just a few hours, the activities at the airport have surpassed all the activities we had seen before, even if we combine the five previous years.
It is then time to take off. It is the final leg of our trip taking us to Fort Pierce, Florida. As we watch the sunset over the islands below, I try to make sense of all that I have observed. We were in a hospital with great ORs, abundant medical supplies and expert staff but relatively few patients considering the huge numbers of patients in need in Port au Prince. The only helicopter landing in Pignon during our stay was to deliver supplies, not patients.
The hospital in Pignon is resuming its regular rotation of medical specialists, thus it would seem, closing the parentheses on the biggest tragedy Haiti has known in more than 200 years. Pignon is slowly returning to normal (the pupils from St. Joseph’s Catholic school were the first back to school; it was good to see them again in their bright green uniforms).
The need for rehabilitation of wounded victims, and for lodging of so many people who have been made homeless by the earthquake will continue for years. The way the international community reacted by providing volunteers and supplies was essential in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and the need will continue for years. The people of Kaiser Permanente were present in that effort from the start, and I am sure that they will continue volunteering to provide medical care to patients in Haiti.