Some people think about how they can help in a disaster, and others go and do it. Tiffany Hamilton felt that she needed to go to Haiti, so she went.
A 2009 WVU School of Nursing graduate, Tiffany answered a call for nurses to travel to the earthquake-stricken island. Thousands of people injured during the earthquake in January were desperate for medical care.
When Tiffany got to Port au Prince, she was assigned to what was once a pediatric hospital, but was now taking all patients. Her group arrived late at night, and she jumped right into the unit covering spinal trauma.
Tiffany didn’t have much time to react to the roomful of broken people that she encountered.
“I felt so bad for the patients,” she said. “Some were in ripped clothes and dirty; some had c-collars on that didn’t even fit. Some of the patients were new paraplegics and didn’t understand why they couldn’t move their legs. The first night was the worst.”
The surgeons worked until 4 a.m., so patients steadily streamed into post-op all night long.
From those first hours at the hospital, Tiffany continued to work the night shift. She worked mostly in post-op and also spent some time in the emergency room.
Sleeping during the day was really difficult, she said, because it was unbearably hot. There was even a period when sleep wasn’t an option. The medical team she was with worked for 40 straight hours.
She said that sometimes medically sound decisions were impossible because of patients’ beliefs. Amputations, in particular, presented a challenge, aside from operating under substandard conditions. Some of the people who truly needed limb amputations refused them because their culture dictated that, when people die, their bodies must be buried intact.
“We had to respect their wishes,” she said. “We allowed people to go home with a lot of pain medications to basically die without the surgeries.”
Tiffany also helped in a community clinic where people needed wounds to be stitched or have bandages changed or broken bones set. Traveling out into the city presented the most difficult challenge. People were begging for food and water on the streets as the medical team made its way to the community clinic.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Tiffany said, “to walk past children that were just pulling at your shirt, begging for water.”
They couldn’t help anyone until they got to the secured facility, because, as one doctor told them, it might cause a riot. They had no means of maintaining order if things got out of control. Once inside the gates, though, 5 people at a time were allowed to come in for water and food.
When her group packed up to leave Port au Prince, Tiffany said they gave away everything they could. They gave away their remaining food and water and gave whatever clean clothing and supplies they still had to anyone who was close by. Tiffany said she gave her sandals to an old woman who was barefoot.
As she was packing up her tent, a family stood nearby, watching her and the others give their stuff away. Tiffany thought about the fact that she had 2 more tents at home.
“I finished rolling up the tent and gave it to the family,” she said. “They started to cry and hug me. I had to walk away because I thought I would start crying.”
Later, Tiffany understood the impact of what she’d done.
“I basically gave them a home.”
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