Dr. Aimee Chagnon says Haitians feel the world has moved on
photo: Aimee Chagnon
We have more with neurologist Dr. Aimee Chagnon who was recently in Leogane, Haiti (15 miles west of the capital Port au Prince) working for an nongovernmental organization called World Wide Village (WWV) for the second time this year. Her husband, Dennis, an architect, also went on the journey.
How is Haiti now? How has it changed since your last visit?
It hasn’t changed at all. Some of the news outlets went back briefly for the six-month anniversary of the quake. They all commented on the same thing. If anything, it’s worse because the world has moved on – the places that had been filled with international volunteers are no longer filled with people, entire hospitals have shut down, and we went for almost two weeks without seeing anyone else in Leogane. When I was there in February it was an amazing experience of the world coming together for a single cause – not only were our own troops there and doing a great job, but the Canadians (what wonderful people), Cubans, Puerto Ricans, the Order of Malta, Cruz Roja Española, the Japanese, the Germans, the Finns, and I’m sure others I’m forgetting. Now Haiti is kind of a ghost town; the romance has worn off and the Haitians are realizing the world has moved on.
How was the work? How is the health care system working – or is there one?
The Haitian doctors have, for the most part, gone out on strike because they’ve not been paid since the quake. There is great dissatisfaction among the Haitian health care workers, but I have to point out some of them are the hardest workers I’ve ever met. The effort being made currently by the WWV folks is to get the control of the hospital back into Haitian hands. They’re actively working on getting the original Hospital Saint Croix back working, which is a huge Haitian hospital. However, it’s hard to estimate when that will actually be the case. When I was there in June, I was one of a few doctors the first week and the only doctor the second week. I worked 12-hour shifts for almost every day I was there, and as it stands there are no MDs scheduled for this particular group after the end of July. WWV is one of the only providers of health care for the entire city of Leogane, [which has] more than 100,000 residents. We did some amazing work, definitely saved lives that would easily have been lost. We also lost several lives, most often from a lack of resources. There’s no imaging, essentially no lab work, and we kept running out of medications. Shortly after I left the team ran out of IV fluids – really basic stuff that’s lacking.
Are you going to go back?
Yes! We are already planning a trip for later October. Everyone wants to be out of the country by the time the elections near in mid-November. There is such a lack of staff, and they are asking desperately for people to go in August. We simply can’t turn around that quickly. Most of the team from June is anxious to return, so we’re trying to get everyone’s schedules arranged.
Are you over the Dengue fever?
I found out the hard way why it’s called “break bone fever”! I was even grumpier than usual – my poor husband. Really high fever, lots of red spots … they haven’t faded at all, [a] really horrid headache, and body pains. I had chalked it up to severe exhaustion, and figured it was the effects of working so many hours for so many days after the age of 40, but the morning after getting back I woke with shaking rigors and knew I was really sick. The high fever, 104, lasted only a couple of days. I only had one area of hemorrhage – that’s the real danger of Dengue, the potential for hemorrhage – which was under a toenail. How random is that? It’s hard to take that seriously. I really hate being a patient, and as a typical doctor, I’m just horrid. They wanted to admit me but I turned into one of those difficult patients who wouldn’t do anything the doctors recommended and left against medical advice. Fortunately, the folks at Sonoma Valley Hospital are my friends and cut me quite a bit of slack. All I wanted to do was sleep and hang out with my pit bulls, the best medicine of all. I’m hoping to get back to the tropics before I lose my immunity to at least this one strain of Dengue, but the downside is that while one is immune to one of the four strains, if you get another it is then worse. It makes for a more exciting trip! The kicker – my husband, who was outside far more than I was, got no mosquito bites at all, and I’d wake up with them inside my mosquito net!
What is one thing that is burned into your mind forever?
Burned into my mind is the pregnant 18-year-old girl we couldn’t save after six hours of intensive care, trying to figure out if we could spare the medications we used during that time and watching our anesthesiologist bag-ventilate her for two hours; the 21-day-old baby we tried unsuccessfully to code for an hour while his grandmother, who is my age, 41, watched. When it became clear we were not going to save him we asked if she wanted to hold him, but she didn’t. We made a nice little box for her to carry him home. This happened a couple of hours after we arrived. I’ll remember the 8-year-old boy we coded and didn’t think would make it. He got up and ended up walking out of the hospital. I’ll also remember the 5-year-old boy who fell into a well and we saved him as well. I’ll remember the aftershock we had – just one this time – and the onslaught of panic attacks and PTSD flares that began shortly after. I’ll remember the incredible translators, all of whom I’d met in February, who were now working for a fraction of their pay in February but would remain after hours to be sure we had the support we needed. These guys were amazing, smart, talented, and it is painful to us all to think of them not having the opportunity to live out their potential, simply because they were less fortunate in their country of birth. The spirit of these guys is inspirational, and when a person sees the true extent of the disaster in Haiti it is just amazing to see how the people function as well as they do. And I’ll remember the transformation I saw in the first-timers on the trip and how they all became devoted to the people of Haiti and the idea of being a small part of rebuilding it.
Matt McFetridge is a two-time Emmy Award-winning television producer who has covered 20 wars in 20 countries over 20 years. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org