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Haiti: Port-au-Prince’s Florence Nightingale

12-07-2010 Feature

The Florence Nightingale Medal is the highest international distinction conferred on nurses or voluntary nursing aides. Following the terrible earthquake that devastated Haiti six months ago, the medal has been awarded exceptionally to three Haitians for their courage and outstanding devotion to duty in going to the assistance of victims of the catastrophe. A nurse at the Port-au-Prince sanatorium, Michaëlle Colin – Miss Colin to her colleagues and patients – was one of the three people chosen.

   
  ©ICRC/ht-e-00641    
 
Miss Colin, with an ICRC staff member, talking to a patient.    
       
  ©ICRC/ht-e-00643    
 
The Port-au-Prince sanatorium once consisted of several well-equipped buildings. Today it only offers outpatient services in the 10 tents provided by the ICRC.    
       
  ©ICRC/ht-e-00642    
 
Miss Colin outside the ruins of the sanatorium's dormitories which had been renovated and were housing nearly 200 patients.    
       
  ©ICRC/ht-e-00644    
 
A patient at the Port-au-Prince sanatorium.    

     

    

 

Sixty years ago, the brand new sanatorium buildings stood out among the luxuriant vegetation of the Carrefour-Feuilles district and the patients had a wonderful view of the Caribbean Sea from their windows. Today the scene is very different: the surrounding hillsides are littered with the empty grey remains of thousands of people’s homes. The displaced persons are living in a makeshift camp behind the hospital but hardly any of them venture into the buildings with their cracked walls and floors littered with rubble.

However, just a short distance from those buildings, whose ruined shell testifies to the violence of the earthquake, the work of the sanatorium continues – in tents set up in its former courtyard. At 9 a.m., Miss Colin, the hospital’s head nurse, smiles as she sets out cheerfully on her rounds. She greets the patients, carefully checks the distribution of medicines and food, and deals with a young woman patient. “Her name is Ruth. We had to pump water from her lungs, but she’s fine now,” she told us gently.

    

“I never lost hope”  

Miss Colin has spent 26 of her 61 years at the sanatorium. She can recall hundreds of happy stories. Her face lights up when she tells of a sick and frightened teenager whom she comforted and looked after until he recovered. She has also taken care of hundreds of detainees who had been sent for treatment to this hospital, which specializes in treating tuberculosis. When they arrived, they were thin and yellow-looking but they gradually put on weight and colour returned to their cheeks. W hen they left a few weeks later, they were different people.

“A nurse has to be tough.” Miss Colin has not forgotten the difficult times, such as the onset of the AIDS pandemic, when hundreds of tuberculosis sufferers died. “But the hardest test for me was probably the earthquake,” she added.

    

“Just 35 seconds and the world was a different place …”  

Not far from the sanatorium, the area in which she lives was completely destroyed by the earthquake; her house was flattened and friends lost their lives. Large numbers of people immediately came looking for treatment and solace from Miss Colin, who is a well-known figure in the neighbourhood. “There wasn’t a lot of time to think. I had to act quickly.” Since no doctor was available, she also helped a young woman give birth just a few hours after the earthquake.

“Miss Colin and I were standing in the sun looking at the ruins of the sanatorium. There were wounded people all over the yard,” was how the hospital director, Dr Jocelyne Dorlette, another energetic and devoted woman, described the scene. “All the sanatorium patients survived but some of our colleagues died in their homes. Our infrastructures were wiped out and the equipment destroyed or pillaged. However, although we had nothing left, we had to keep going at all costs and to find the means of taking care of those with tuberculosis before their condition deteriorated.    

    

“The hospital is also her home”  

Miss Colin contributed one of the first improvements to the devastated hospital: half of a plastic sheet that she had been given to cover her own roof. “She was out on the street but shared what little she had left with the sanatorium,” related Dr Dorlette. “For her, the hospital is also her home.”

Over the next few days, other doctors and nurses resumed work at the sanatorium while the ICRC cleared the yard of water, set up tents and a generator, built showers and toilets and provided X-ray films. The patients came back and since March more than 800 adults and children, including some forty new cases, have passed through the clinic each month.

“Our struggle now is to set up an in-patients area,” Miss Colin explained. “For the time being, we have to refer serious cases to other establishments but we should really keep them here under observation. We will get there; we already have mattresses and have sewn them into plasticized covers to make them suitable for hospital use.”

Miss Colin’s optimism and energy are more contagious than the diseases that she spends all day fighting and she is therefore frequently accompanied by young trainee nurses, whom she supervises voluntarily. “She is a true nurse, a fighter, a model. She fully deserves the Florence Nightingale medal,” Dr Dorlette went on to say. “As long as people like her are working here, the sanatorium will survive.” 

   

   
 
In Haiti, since 12 January 2010, the ICRC has:
 
  • traced the families of 142 children who had become separated from their parents following the earthquake and the missing children of some 121 families. 17 children were reunited with their families and in 56 other cases family links were re-established. The ICRC worked closely with the Haitian National Red Cross Society to achieve these results;
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  • distributed more than 300 tonnes of food and basic necessities to more than 30,000 earthquake victims and at 10 orphanages and schools in Port-au-Prince;
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  • provided medicines and equipment for 15 medical facilities and 14 medical centres opened by the Haitian National Red Cross Society in Port-au-Prince and Petit-Goâve immediately after the earthquake;
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  • provided support for four medical posts run by the Haitian Red Cross in Cité Soleil and Martissant; 5,648 wounded or sick people received treatment and 751 serious cases were evacuated to hospital;
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  • continued repairs to the Cité Soleil water system, which had been affected by the earthquake, for the benefit of more than 200,000 people;
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  • made 75 visits to 32 prisons and police stations, seeing more than 5,000 detainees;
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  • supported the efforts of the prison authorities to repair prison infrastructure and manage the prison health service.
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      Six months after the disaster, the ICRC is still taking part in the humanitarian response of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in Haiti, particularly through its restoring family links programme. It is also focusing on its traditional work of responding to problems in places of detention and in the poorer urban areas.