Twenty Nine Lives

A year after the disaster in Haiti and the subsequent humanitarian outreach, Moran Atias tells the story of her trip there.

Moran Atias Haiti 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Moran Atias Haiti 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Siri Thompson calmly said “half these patients will not survive the night.” I left the ward trying to emulate Siri’s professional calm. She was able to make such a devastating statement and yet keep working, continuing to care for these patients for whom there was little hope.
I ran back to the makeshift pharmacy: There were more boxes of medical supplies to open and sort and supplies to order. Paul Haggis from Artists for Peace and Justice stepped in from the corridor with an open box.
“Where should I put the butterfly syringes?” he asked.
“Wherever you want,” I replied apathetically.
For hours now I had been ordering volunteers around, pointing and telling them where and where not to put things. Until five minutes earlier I was the one taking charge and offering strength and access to whatever doctors might need. Now suddenly I didn’t care? I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. All I smelled was death; rotting tissue from Siri’s ward. All I felt was emptiness. I was about to collapse.
None of my acting skills were able to fight off the violent outburst of tears that I knew were coming. I finally turned back to find Paul standing ready to catch me in case I fell. He played the scene quietly, so no one else would notice my personal aftershock about those words: “Half these patients will not survive the night.”
IN THE middle of a crisis, I am often amazed at the response of the artistic community. Artists like George Clooney work around the clock to organize a telethon to raise millions. Charity auctions around the world draw the participation of writers, designers, directors and the entire spectrum of the creative community.
When I heard from friends that they were planning to volunteer after the Haiti earthquake, I knew I had to go. I flew to Haiti with Sean Penn and philanthropist Diane Jenkins, who mobilized an incredible team of doctors, nurses, relief workers and people like myself who had no skills but knew they couldn’t just sit at home when something like this was happening.
We were jammed in a plane surrounded by an inconceivable number of boxes full of medicine and bags of medical supplies. The J/P Haitian Relief Organization was ready to establish a compound that would be there for a while. Artists for Peace and Justice was bringing in medicine, money to buy heavy equipment for the rescue efforts and tons of razor wire to protect a children’s hospital from looters. Paul was accompanied by actress Maria Bello and a surgeon and burns specialist, Dr. Reza Nabavian, who brought heavy painkillers and surgical equipment.
I’d asked what I could bring. “They really need diapers” was the reply.
That was not exactly the heroic gesture I had in mind, but I brought all the diapers I could buy, thousands of them. And now I sat among my bags of diapers, feeling ridiculous. I thanked God that my pride made me go out and buy antibiotics as well, and that Dr. Nabavian had given me the prescriptions for them. Still, amid tons of medical supplies, it felt like a pathetic amount.
When we arrived, Sean led us to his temporary compound, where I was introduced to David Belle. David is a documentary filmmaker who, for the last 18 years, has split his time between New York and Haiti. Among many other projects, he founded the country’s only film school. He also cofounded BrandAid, which supported artisans in Haiti, and was involved with Artists for Peace and Justice, which built and sponsored schools in the slums, and supported St. Damien’s Children’s Hospital, the only free hospital serving the poor of Port-au-Prince.
I didn’t realize at the time what an impact this man would have on my life.
The J/P HRO doctors wanted to get to work right away, so we followed David to St. Damien’s. By a miracle it was still standing. It was flooded with patients and their terrified families, who were camped all over the grounds. The doctors immediately took over the night shift, but the pharmacy was closed for the night so they could not get medicine or surgical supplies. Our boxes of supplies were in the hall, and Paul found an empty cafeteria to store them in.
I knew I could organize, so with the help of the other volunteers, Maria Bello and I started to turn the cafeteria into a pharmacy.
The room where the patients were smelled of death. The patients were lying on the floor, having run out of beds. These were the hopeless cases, the ones the hospital just did not have the ability to treat. They were wretched and terribly wounded, children with large chunks of their skulls missing, others with severed spines.
I wondered why mine still worked: how my legs supported my torso, my back supported my head, why I was still standing.
I left the room trying to stay calm, back to the pharmacy, back to boxes. I couldn’t breathe.
I let Paul steer me out the door and down to the loading dock. We had worked together before, and he knew my pride, and could see that I’d rather die than let anyone see me blubbering like a baby.
I thought to myself: “I don’t understand this. I was born and raised in Israel. My entire life I have been exposed to disaster, but I always found a way to celebrate hope.”
But here I’d started thinking that hope was buried under the rubble. We sat for a moment. I fought my tears, thinking I could handle myself. But when Paul asked me, “What did you see?” I began crying violently as the image pushed in on my face, right into my eyes.
I was thinking, “I saw a hole the size of a soccer ball in a young man’s body. I swear I didn’t want to even look. I just went to ask Dr. Siri if she needed anything. She said there was nothing I could do, that half of them would be dead by morning.”
Sitting there, Paul watched me fall apart, saw my mind shatter and my body shake. This simple sentence – half of them would die by morning – had destroyed me.
But I couldn’t repeat her words to Paul. I sobbed even harder. At this point, I think he got scared for me and suggested I should go back to LA. That enraged me and my tears turned into daggers.
“I’m not allowed to cry? To feel pain?” I shouted.
I allowed myself one moment of vulnerability and immediately I was encouraged to quit? Isn’t it f***ing human to have these emotions? I’ve just been told that those boys’ and girls’ beautiful eyes will not see again – that their hearts will stop beating and their families will forever be in grief.
I should probably work on that rage in therapy, but here in Haiti it gave my legs the power to stand up and go back to the pharmacy and finish at least the first task I had given myself of organizing the supplies, before I started the second one – an impossible one. Finding a way to save those patients’ lives.
THE OTHER thing I was asked to bring to Haiti was wine. I thought it ridiculous, but brought a few bottles. I was the first one to drink.
I was hoping that the wine would knock me out, but I guess I should have brought something stronger for that. So, instead I went back to Siri’s room. I couldn’t rest until I figured out something to do for her patients.
Siri took over this ward when she and the other doctors from J/P HRO had arrived. I knew doctors dealt with horrific things, but I’d also heard them saying they had never experienced anything like this. This was a whole new level of horror.
I had no idea that Siri was working with the “hopeless cases.” Still, she could not stop bringing comfort to these men and women and children that she knew she could not save – not with the facilities they had in Haiti. I told her when we first met that I would check in with her, told her if she needed anything – anything – she should ask. But she was used to working without help, and would never ask. Which made me want to help this petite, blueeyed doctor even more.
She explained her earlier statement to me. “These kids have severe spinal injuries that require immediate surgery. Without it they will die.” They needed immediate evacuation.
Their eyes were full of life but their bodies were giving up. And now that was all I cared about and nothing else. How the hell can I help evacuate these patients? I never even used the word “evacuate” before.
I was on the hunt. I needed information. At 8 a.m., I crashed the medical staff meeting. There I heard that word again: evacuation.
Siri and another doctor voiced their frustration. These patients would die if they were not flown out to a hospital in the US that could treat their injuries. But that was just not possible – the hospital was overflowing with patients who needed emergency surgery and treatments, and these cases were too far down the list of priorities.
There was almost no phone service, and even if there were, no one knew who to call – who would arrange the airlift, who could find hospitals to accept them, planes to take them, doctors and nurses to fly with them. The airport was damaged and snarled with traffic, flights in and out were tightly scheduled, there were long waiting lists for slots for takeoff and landing. And who would pay for all this?
Even if they could pull all that off, they would need permission to leave – visas – and a mountain of red tape. These patients didn’t even have charts – the hospital had run out of forms and was just using scraps of paper, sometimes not even that.
The problems were overwhelming, but I decided to stop thinking and just start. So I made lists.
I needed:
• A US hospital that was capable and willing to treat the patients; • An agency willing to transport them;
• Doctors willing to fly with them;
• Approval of the hospital and administrators here at St. Damien’s that the patients were stable enough to fly;
• Transportation to the airport;
• A list of the patients and their exact injuries.
I left the meeting at a run, stopping people in the halls and asking anyone in scrubs if he knew anyone who could help, if she had any contacts or phone numbers or anything – most had no answers, and no one even had a working phone.
I ran into some Israeli military doctors who, among other things, had delivered more than a dozen babies under extreme circumstances. Birth in the midst of all this death. They were here looking for incubators, but the ones at St. Damien’s were all in use.
They told me that they themselves were trying to evacuate some severely premature babies, and hadn’t found a way to get them out. They also told me that even if I got the patients to the airport, I still needed approval from the US embassy – visas to allow the patients into America to be treated – and US military approval, as they controlled all the flights out of Port-au-Prince. Another two things for my list.
But first I went to the nurses station and started copying the patients’ files.
I KNEW I couldn’t do this on my own. I needed a partner who would share this insane philosophy that nothing is impossible.
I needed David Belle, the American filmmaker who knew Haiti inside out. I had seen him in action, and he was efficient, resourceful and passionate. And he might just respond to my insane request.
So I ran to him and said, “We need to evacuate these patients.” He took a moment and then said, “Dr. Barth Green might help us.” Dr. Green was chief neurologist at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and was on the ground with his Project Medishare team at the Port-au-Prince airport.
I couldn’t help my Israeli self and nudged him, “David? Now could be a good time to find out.”
So we took off in David’s truck and found Dr. Green. He said he would accept the patients with spinal injuries at the University of Miami Hospital – and had a US Air Force plane that could take 19 of them, with a doctor and nurse – if we would get the patients visas and all the proper medical approvals and paperwork.
We divided up the tasks – David went to talk to Sen. John Edwards, who had flown in with Sean the day before; I went back to St. Damien’s to find the patients, complete their paperwork and get the doctors to approve their transport.
I raced through the halls implementing these tasks and convinced the head nurse to lend us his pickup truck to use as an ambulance. In the meantime, Senator Edwards had gotten approval from the US Embassy.
I got anyone who was walking past with empty hands to help me carry their stretchers to the truck, along with their IV bags and anything else they needed. And we started sending them off – a few patients at a time.
We sent truck after truck to the airport, pinning the patients’ scribbled files to their clothing. When we finally loaded the last truck, I had planned to stay at the hospital, but Paul told me I needed to go – I needed to see that they actually got there.
I hopped into the truck. It’s a good thing I did, because the chaos was just beginning. We got to the crowded Medishare tent at the airport and started to off-load the last of our patients. The tent was enormous, so many people in need of medical attention. Doctors performed emergency surgery, volunteers and military people swirled around.
We found Dr. Green and gave him the list of the patients we had brought, which he needed to approve for their evacuation. This is when I learned that to send the children they needed a guardian to go with them.
I DID not speak Creole and these people did not speak English, but most could speak some French, and I thanked God that He’d given me the opportunity to learn it. The first thing I had to do was find our 19 patients in this mass of bunks and humanity.
I’d met them all, but most just briefly, as the whole process of getting them from the hospital to the airport happened in such a rush. I found them one by one and started filling out the paperwork the military required to transport them. Again, this was all written on scraps of paper – official transfer forms were documents that nobody had thought to bring.
Then we had to find their relatives, and convince these people – many of them in shock – that the only chance their children or sisters or brothers had for survival was to fly them to America.
These are wonderful, smart, proud people, but most of them had never even seen an airplane up close, let alone being on one. So you can understand that the idea of getting onto a huge military transport plane and flying to a world they’d never seen must have been very frightening.
A few of the guardians had decided they could not go, or would not allow their children to go. Voodoo is a huge influence on this island, and some parents strongly believed that their voodoo gods would protect their children – and if they couldn’t, that it was their fate to die here on the island they loved. Thanks to David’s profound cultural understanding and my overexcited mumbling, we were able to convince all of them that this was the destiny God had in mind for them.
Finding the guardians and getting their names was the next step. David and I went from one bed to the next, getting the patients’ information and their guardians’ information and agreement. Most did not have official documents, so the US government had to be convinced to let them in without any sort of identification.
Some patients were not stable enough to be transported, and had to be taken off the list – and so the number of patients began to drop – from 19 to 16 to 14.
One was Jean Baptise. I was told he was going to die no matter what care he received. So I had to tell his brother that he would not be included on the flight, after I had promised him he was going to go. He asked why? And my gasp gave him the answer.
Yet he still found the noble grace to say “Thank you. Thank you for visiting my country.” It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, and the brother’s gracious acceptance of their fate left me feeling ashamed. I have never met such humble, well-mannered people in my entire life. The faces of those two men, Jean Baptise and his brother, still haunt me.
I REALIZED that I could not let that plane leave without 19 patients aboard. Dr. Green had made it clear that only spinal or cranial cases would be allowed – but there were so many other people there in desperate need.
So David and I started with one, Nolina Molencina a head injury.
We convinced the military nurses to put her on the plane, even though she was not a spinal patient. That was 16 – there were three more spots. As the deadline neared, we now dashed from bed to bed, checking the scribbled pieces of paper that passed for charts.  One day ago I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Fumer FX and cardiac disease. Now I was using these terms as if they had always rolled off my tongue.
We found Destena Serephin, who had burns on 30 percent of his body, and convinced the doctors to accept him. And then Barbara Adrian with facial trauma and infection.
With one spot left, I once again tried to convince the doctors to take Jean Baptise, but they would not be swayed. Which is when the Israeli doctors approached me with tiny premature twins whom they had saved by performing microsurgery.
Without neonatal care, “these babies will not survive the night.” Hearing it in my native Hebrew devastated me even more.
There was one spot left, and two babies – so the Israeli doctors and I used our chutzpah to argue that they were small and would both fit in the same incubator. We found the mother and took the two tiny infants, probably weighing a pound and a half each. Nineteen in all – if you counted the twins as one.
The plane was being loaded, first the patients with their relatives or guardians, then the nurses, the doctors and then the military. And it took off into the air.
Even though David and I stayed on the ground, it felt like we were flying. The next day, we started again – David, Sean, IsraAid and I. Over the next week, with God’s help, Sean’s incredible leadership and heart, David’s patience and wisdom, IsraAid’s efficiency and experience, we got a total of 29 patients out, who would have died if they had stayed in Haiti.
But I will never forget that first day. It was the best day of my life. And now, weeks later, days go by when I don’t picture Jean Baptise, the one I could not help. And when I do, I beg his forgiveness, and pray that I can forgive myself.
As I think back on that time, my tears that once turned into daggers have now turned into hope.
I saw Dr. Siri before I left Haiti, and she asked about her patients. She finally had lost her professional calm. We cried and then laughed.
I’m going back.
(Moran Atias returned to Haiti later in the year and continues to do charity work to raise funds for its facilities.)