Arrival in Port-au-Prince
There is a weight to the air; we begin to feel it at the border where we enter from the Dominical Republic. We can smell it, too, in the swirl of dust that forces some to wear masks, in the acrid edge of burned and burning building materials. It grows heavier as we bump around flanks of rubble on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. In the city, it roughens our voices and presses tears from our eyes.
Happily, surprisingly, we have a place to stay--in the Coconut Villa, a hotel near the airport that is an undisturbed island amidst collapsed houses. Across the street, several thousand Haitians live in tents.
Rosemary Murrain, Star Myrtil, and I are here to see if our approach can help bring psychological relief to the people of Haiti--and to see if we can work with and find support from the large international agencies that are funded to bring food, housing, schools, and emergency medical care to the people. Our approach, which combines such mind-body techniques as meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback, and yoga, self-expression in words, drawings, and movement, and small group support, has made sense to and worked remarkably well with war- and disaster-traumatized populations in Kosovo, Macedonia, Israel and Gaza, in post-Katrina New Orleans, and with US military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It's practical, easy to learn, and feels right to people who are trying to gain control over the thoughts, feelings, and memories that overwhelm them in the wake of catastrophe. We've published the only randomized controlled trial (RCT) of any invention of any intervention for war-traumatized kids. It showed an 80% decrease in symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in Kosovo high school students, an improvement that was maintained at three months' follow-up. More recent studies on 1,000 children and adults in Gaza show similar sustained gains in spite of the ongoing constraints and tragedy of life there. Altogether, the several thousand clinicians, teachers, and community leaders' we've trained have made our CMBM model available to hundreds of thousands of children and adults around the world.
Rosemary is CMBM's new Director of Finance and Administration. Immensely capable, unflappable, fluent in French, she's an MBA student who has helped to create and lead educational programs throughout Africa. She's in charge of the logistics that brought us on our journey here, and she will help create necessary partnerships. She's also, I say with pride, my goddaughter. Star is her friend, a Haitian living in Florida, leading women's programs there and fluent in Creole as well as French; a human bridge for us to Haiti and to its people.
Visit to the Tent City
Shortly after we arrived yesterday afternoon, Star and I crossed the street and walked down the ragged line of incongruously bright new tents that front the road. An open space gives us entry, and we wander through the maze of living and cooking spaces, a large, older white man, a small, younger black woman whose "bonsoirs" are often returned with smiles.
We reach one boundary of the encampment formed by a four-story concrete building which has been crushed like a paper hat. A young woman with an infant greets us. The baby is a little thin, a little dour, a little jumpy. Her name is Miranda, and she is two months old. Miranda's mother shows me a place on her head where the nearby building had quite literally fallen on her. It hurts still, a month after the earthquake, and so do her neck and back. I go into her tent to take a look. There is great tension and tenderness at the site of her injuries. I do some gentle manipulation, and she smiles with relief. I reassure her that in time the symptoms will subside and remind myself to bring acupuncture needles next time.
Others have not been as fortunate as Miranda and her mother. One woman's two children have been seriously injured and are still at the hospital. Another's aunt has died. A third is missing her husband. A fourth has lost the sight in one eye. The pain from injuries received in the earthquake persist. Memories of loss and unspeakable terror seem to have attached to and continually restimulate the pain--the ever-present physical replaying of the catastrophe, the physical manifestation of psychological trauma and ongoing distress. Some "cannot remember the simplest thing," or "make any decision." The blind woman fears that she will not receive medicine without money to pay for it. No one sleeps well. All are fearful of further loss or injury, or--they are not quite sure what.
And, indeed, the situation is enormously stressful. The tents, which look so good, just arrived yesterday, brought by the French Red Cross. . For a month, these people have been sleeping in the open. "We have a committee," says Wilson, Miranda's father, "to organize ourselves." And they are indeed cooking communally. "But we do not have toilets, or other necessary sanitation." There are no doctors readily available to them, or medicine, or replacements for needed glasses lost, or hope for more adequate or permanent housing, or indeed, much communication with the world beyond the tent city. As we are leaving, Wilson invites us to share the rice that half a dozen families are beginning to eat.
Note: If you'd like to see corresponding pictures of our trip, see this post on my blog at http://www.jamesgordonmd.com/healingourselves