In January this year (2015) I had the amazing opportunity to be part of a team of eight who travelled to Hope House, Haiti. One of the purposes of our trip was to undertake medical work. This was the first medical trip from the U.K. to go to Hope House, building on the strong bonds that had been established by trips over the preceding three years. Yvrose was keen to establish a medical record system for the children who live at Hope House and the children who attend Hope Christian Academy School. The vast majority of these children would never have seen a doctor or nurse before in their entire lives. It was hoped that by developing a record system the children would have the opportunity to benefit from future vaccination schemes, as well as highlighting any specific health needs, such as eye sight problems, children with severe malnutrition and those needing ongoing medical care.
The prospect of planning a trip which potentially could see us needing to perform health checks and treatment for up to 400 children between the ages of 2 and 20 was daunting to say the least, especially as this was an area somewhat outside my comfort zone. Working in A&E, child health screening was not an area I felt I had a great deal of knowledge of! Also, I had absolutely no experience of working in a developing country. I’m used to the comforts of an NHS emergency department with the back up of the rest of the hospital at the end of the telephone. The need for preparation and planning felt immense!
Luckily time was on our side, and over the following few months we had time to research, talk to those whom had been on similar trips, work out how to source the medications and medical supplies we would need to take with us, at reasonable costs, and plan the general logistics of the trip. None the less, the day we left I still felt very unsure what to expect and as we departed for London Heathrow early on January 3rd 2015 I felt nervous, but strangely excited.
Travel to Haiti was via Miami, meaning we had to negotiate U.S. immigration and customs; given our group were transporting 6 additional 23kg bags of luggage containing a mixture of medical supplies, clothing, sanitary napkins and footballs, in addition to our standard allowance, this was a rather exhausting experience! Many back in the UK and elsewhere were praying for safe passage, and these prayers were most certainly answered. We managed to successfully transport everything we needed without too much difficulty. Stepping out of the airport in Port Au Prince was an enormous relief, made to feel even more miraculous a few days later when we spoke to a doctor from the US who told us of the many hours she sometimes needs to spend in the airport in Haiti negotiating importation of supplies.
Our medical work at Hope House, Hope Christian Academy and also at a nearby village school was generally concerned with the medical checks we had planned. Our team of eight consisted of myself, 2 nurses, 1 health care assistant and 4 non medical volunteers (who very quickly became proficient in eye screening and pharmacy skills!). Each child had their weight and height recorded and eye sight checked. Everyone received vitamin A supplementation as well as being treated for the possibility of worms as this can be a significant cause of worsening malnutrition. Everyone had base line physical observations recorded and their skin checked; many of the children needed foreign bodies removing from the soles of their feet as often they walk around with no shoes. Each child then had a general examination and any specific health needs addressed.
Common problems encounters included malnutrition and dehydration; it was not uncommon for children we saw to have had nothing at all to eat or drink that day. We were sweltering in temperatures of over 30 degrees celsius and were never far from our water bottles, yet we hadn’t had to walk up to 3 hours to simply get to school. Skin conditions were abundant, with a variety of issues such as ring worm, tinea capitis, bacterial infections and abscesses. We saw children with respiratory illnesses, headaches, joint pains and eye infections. And we saw some children who were subjected to abuse. For much of what we saw we had the necessary medicines and supplies to help. Probably some of toughest times for the team members involved were those children in whom nothing in our suitcase was of use; it was then that the power of prayer took the lead.
One of the most vivid of the medical experiences during the trip was the day we were to help at the local health clinic giving vaccinations. A week prior to our arrival in Haiti there had been two unexplained deaths from diphtheria; the source has never been traced. This prompted a public health emergency, and on this day vaccine had been brought to the local clinic. It turned out that 3 of the people due to come to help at the clinic had not turned up so we offered to help. 5 of us set off for the clinic. What an hour before had been a queue of about 100 had grown considerably. Before long a table had been set up outside and one nurse appeared with a cold box containing the vaccine vials. Each person was registered on an individual piece of paper and then came to us to be given their jab. Those of 6 and under received pentavac containing DTP, Hep B and Hib. Those over 6 years received Diphtheria and Tetanus only.
Immediately we started vaccinating the crowds pushed forward, all wanting their vaccine and vaccine for their children. It felt totally chaotic at times! Once we were up and running our team managed to develop a good system and things moved fast. The administrator tried to stop the clinic when we had vaccinated 200 people despite their still being lots of people waiting, plenty of vaccine available and willing people to administer the injections. We managed to carry on, and I think in the 3 hours or so we were there we managed to vaccinate in excess of 300 people with only a handful of people being turned away and told to come back the next day. I’m not quite sure what infection control teams back home would have thought of our practice (in fact I can only imagine with a smile on my face), but the job was done. I’m also not sure what would have happened had we not been there. The one nurse on her own would have only been able to do a fraction of the people who attended. Another stark reminder of the differences between our culture within the NHS and the Hatian way of life; I can’t quite imagine 300 people waiting in what at times resembled a rugby scrum for an injection in the U.K. It really showed the fear amongst the local population that the recent deaths from Diphtheria has caused.
So, that’s the medical side of things covered, but that’s only half the story. My experiences at Hope House were so much more and I have to say have probably changed my life forever. I was privileged to spend a week living in the amazing environment that is Hope House; an orphanage by definition, but in reality a large family home filled with so much love and with an awe-inspiring, all encompassing faith in God that I have never experienced before. A family home where everyone works to support each other. A home where each morning and evening the family gather together to thank God for everything they have through worship. It’s really difficult to put in to words quite how incredible Hope House is.