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Rough Night

It was a rough night in terms of sleeping. Between the mosquitos, the chickens, and the planes, it was hard to really get some sleep. Our driver was to arrive at 6 AM and so while I was craving sleeping a few extra hours, I also wanted to watch the sunrise. The design of the Aristide Complex prevented that.

Touring the Destruction

destroyed building destroyed building

Photos by Samir Mehta

We piled into the SUV and started our “tour” of Port-au-Prince (PoP). In some macabre way, we were tourists – tourists out to see the destruction from the Earthquake, enamored by this country’s plight. I guess it gives another name to the term “medical tourism”.

We enter the area surrounding PoP proper. Buildings are completely destroyed – just a pile of rubble. We see the Presidential palace like a scene from the movie Independence Day where the White House is attacked by the aliens. We see one team from USAID (about 10 people in bright orange jerseys) cleaning up one pile of rubble. There are hundreds more like that one all over the city.  Electrical wires are hanging into the street. Roads are cracked. There are small fires burning everywhere. The guys last night had said that it was like the movie Mad Mex and I now see why. I can’t even begin to describe in words what we see here.

A Game of Soccer

We get back and the mood is somber. Breakfast is over and there is absolutely no food left, not that any of us is really hungry. We have no obligations this AM, but have to find a way to occupy ourselves until our 1 pm shuttle. The sun is bright and there is little breeze. Derek, Malcolm, and I decide to play soccer (football) with a basketball and we are joined by an engineering student in the last year of his studies. He is a phenomenal football player. His school was in PoP and it no longer exists – decimated. He does not know what he is going to do. Ironically, he is from Cange and is heading back there today. I ask about whether he would consider coming to the States. He says that both his parents lost their jobs and are unemployed and he can not afford to do that. He was playing football with us while holding the Bible and commented that regardless of what happens “God blesses us all in His way.” I wonder where the blessing is in this disaster.

We finish up playing football. We are joined by another Haitian wearing jeans and sandals. He is texting on his cell phone the entire time he is playing and doesn’t miss a beat … talk about multi-tasking.

To the Airport

One o’clock comes and the shuttle arrives. We can’t get on fast enough … and then we go the airport – a bumpy road but well worth it. When we arrive at the airport, we drive in through the front gate, not the check point that we had used previously. There is some strange normalcy about this third world airport. The shuttle pulls into a spot and we are greeted by a throng of porters to help with our luggage (even though we don’t really need any help). There are two checkpoints where our passports are necessary and then baggage screen.  We get our passports stamped – Derek really wanted the stamp and for a second was worried that we wouldn’t get one.

Then we say outside the terminal. Planes and helicopters landing all around – military, commercial, private. There appear to be a number of medial teams, NGOs, and other such organizations. It is non-stop. Ear plugs don’t help. I am particularly surprised by the sheer number of C130’s that keep landing and taking off – full of supplies and personnel. I laugh at the Air Canada plane at the end of the “terminal” – it is so out of place amongst the green drab military planes.

On the Way Home

airplane in Port-au-Prince

Photo by Samir Mehta

We see our plane arrive and are ecstatic. The anticipation has been building for so long we can barely stay behind the tie-lines that are present. The thought of being shot is a bit much and keeps us in our field area.  Our pilot tracks us down from where he sits the plane at the far left of the “terminal”. We walk over, show our passports to Border Patrol, and climb in the plane. We are relieved. I am surprised that no one breaks down and cries. We have a number of newspapers to read – I haven’t read a newspaper or seen television in weeks. There is candy in the bins on a shelf and we fill our mouths with Peanut M&Ms. Relieved that we are leaving – sort of. There is a blizzard in Philadelphia but we are heading to Ft. Lauderdale to clear customs.

After landing in Ft. Lauderdale, there is still talk of delays – the airport in Philadelphia will not be open until noon the next day maybe. That makes us sick to our stomach. But our pilot is resilient. We take off at 11 PM or so, I have my laptop open and put on some headphones – no TSA rules to contend with really. I fall asleep as do the others on the plane.

This is it. We're done.

At 150 PM, we touch down in Philadelphia. I am staring into an airport hangar.  Is it really over? This is it.  We’re done. Hmm … a bit anticlimactic. Tom is met by his wife. We say some tired good byes and he heads home. Bill Schwab and Bill Hanson are on the shuttle from HUP.  We head back – not a word is said – really. We take some roundabout way back to HUP not caring that there is 20 some inches of snow on the ground or that we are driving on 95 instead of 76 – it doesn’t really matter at this point.

I run up to my office on 2 Silver to grab my bag and my keys and head to Lot 7. My car starts after 2 weeks of sitting there in the cold (a 14 year old SUV that keeps surprising me). I drop Derek off at his apartment and head home. Tired. Good-byes were never really said. I try not to think about what we did (or what we didn’t do) over the past two weeks. I have the radio on – it’s playing Foo Fighters.

It’s good to be home but I know I’m not quite me anymore.


This report was written by Samir Mehta, MD, during his participation in Haitian relief efforts through Penn Medicine in coordination with Partners in Health.


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