A companion at the end


by Rick Perera, CARE's emergency media officer in Haiti

January 18, 2009

Its name, Hôpital La Paix, means Peace ’” but this massively overflowing hospital is anything but peaceful. The largest medical facility still standing in devastated Port au Prince, La Paix is beyond overflowing with critically injured people.

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Rick Perera,

Media Officer

The parking lot in front of the two-story concrete building is packed with the wounded, lying on mattresses or bedframes (no one gets both), on blankets, on the sparse grass, even on the bare sidewalk, under a brutally hot sun. A handful have someone leaning over them, offering at least some comfort, maybe holding up an IV drip bag. But many lie alone. Virtually everyone in this beleaguered city lost someone – some have lost their whole families.

Those who can walk, mass at the front door, waiting their turn as two volunteers hold a rope to control who enters. The doormen step aside automatically when they see a foreign face: anyone who might help somehow is welcome here. Stretcher bearers push their way past, shouting, "Excusez! Excusez!" Two men carry a grimacing woman, shoving a desk as a makeshift gurney. The line parts to allow a body bag through.

Emergency staff, from Cuban doctors to Catalonion EMTs, cluster inside the door. Most are doing what they can to alleviate suffering, but with little overall coordination. Some who've just arrived are sitting and chatting while they await instructions; a group of French firefighters poses for a photo. After an immediate assessment, patients wait, propped against the walls and lying on the floors, for treatment. Some have notes with a brief diagnosis, scribbled on notebook paper in Spanish, taped onto their chests.

CARE's director of health programming, Dr. Franck Geneus, makes his way to the hospital's administrative office. He speaks briefly with a nun who knows something of the situation there – but no one is really in charge. Our mission here, to provide chemicals to make water safe to drink, will have to wait: if we distribute the materials now, they will most likely simply be lost in the chaos. We must focus our efforts where they will be effective.

Deeper inside the gloomy, unlit hospital, beds line the hallways around a courtyard. Most of the patients, some of them half naked, lie silent, too exhausted to moan. The stench of death is all around. "You never get that out of your clothes. You have to throw them away," says my colleague Evelyn, a photographer who has worked with CARE from Darfur to the Democratic Republic of Congo. She gives a wry shrug.

But Evelyn is not a hardened cynic. A few minutes later she emerges from the makeshift ward, her eyes filled with tears. She has watched an elderly Spanish nun giving last rites to a man who can't speak. He can move a leg, and when the good sister asks him tenderly if he understands he is going to die, he signals yes. As Evelyn recounts the story, we look back to where the man still lies. A blue sheet has been pulled up over his head.

He had massive internal injuries and had lost so much blood, she tells us in a gentle voice. There was no way he could survive. "Estaba listo. Estaba en paz." He was ready. He was at peace.

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Photo: 2010 Evelyn Hockstein/CARE