Edmonds-based volunteers see joy and sadness in Haiti

“A life-changing experience.”

“A reality check.”

“Lots of joy and lots of sadness.”

Robert Chao boards a plane for Haiti

That’s how two volunteers with Edmonds connections described their recent trips to Haiti, where they provided medical care, food and even a shoulder to cry on to victims of the devastating 7.0 earthquake that struck the island nation in January. My Edmonds News interviewed Robert Chao, a paramedic working at Fire Station 17 in Edmonds, and Karianna Wilson, an Edmonds resident who is Chief Operating Officer of Northwest Physicians Network, and is presenting their stories in two separate posts.

Robert Chao, paramedic with Edmonds Fire Station 17

Chao, a Snohomish County Fire District 1 paramedic, went to Haiti along with six other fire district employees, plus medics from Central Pierce and Mount Vernon Fire and Rescue and a pediatrician from Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital as part of IMAT, the International Medical Assistance Relief Team. Chao described the effort, organized by Fire District 1’s Chris Tompkins, a “just a group of us that wanted to do what we could.”

Thanks to the Internet, the group of nine was able to secure transportation through a network of private pilots. Chao ended up on a six-seater aircraft flying out of Boeing Field Jan. 18 (the group had to split into two to accommodate travel on smaller planes). After a 15-hour flight that included two stops to refuel and pick up relief supplies, Chao and his co-volunteers flew into a small airstrip in Jacmel, a port town on Haiti’s south coast. Jacmel had been hit by the earthquake but because it was a small town, it hadn’t received the type of attention or aid that had been focused on the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, Chao said.

“When we left here we really had no idea what to expect,” Chao said. “We were expecting the worst and preparing for the worst. Our goal was to set up a field aid station where people could come and deal with whatever situation presented.

“We had heard that there were refugees massing near the airfield. On our way down, we learned that Canadian military arrived that day and the United Nations was also there, so they had secured the airfield and established a field hospital.”

Upon landing, the group discovered that enough people had arrived in previous 24 hours to meet the needs of Jacmal, so the group was assigned to a small village west of Leogane. “It was closer to the (earthquake’s) epicenter and sustained more damage, and had not seen any kind of help getting there yet,” Chao said. The group headed there the next day in another small plane, landing on a small two-lane road.

In Leogane, they met a Haitian-American ER/ICU nurse from Florida who happened to be visiting his home village when the earthquake occurred and had decided to stay to help but didn’t have medical supplies. “We joined up with him and set up a small clinic,” Chao said. “Probably within 15-20 minutes we had a stream of people arriving for care.” The injuries ranged from bumps and bruises to broken femurs and hips, including “a lot of wound care, deep lacerations and cuts that needed to be cleaned as they were starting to get infected,” he said. Chao estimated the group saw 150 to 200 people first day.

“One of the women that I saw was nine months pregnant, due anytime, who had been knocked to the ground during the earthquake and hadn’t felt her baby move since. So we tried to get her transported into town where there was a field hospital set up.” The story had a happy ending: Chao heard that she ended up delivering a healthy baby.

Working with Canadian medical volunteers, Chao and other Fire District 1 volunteers stayed a week, using donated antibiotics, pain killers, bandages and wound-cleaning gear to treat patients in field clinics. “We’d splint broken bones, then work with local residents to find transportation to get them to a field hospital in town, so the bones could be set,” Chao said.

A Haitian boy stands amid the earthquake rubble

The devastation they saw was hard to describe, he added. “The pictures that you see I media, it’s what it looks like on the ground there. We didn’t see that many bodies but from what we heard, this town we were in suffered 10,000 deaths out of 100,000 residents. Pretty much everyone that I spoke with had lost someone, whether it was in their family or someone they knew.”

Although security was an issue in Port-au-Prince, “where we were, we were not concerned,” he said. “In our towns, people were very welcoming and glad to see us there.”

Chao said that even though he has traveled to many places in the world, he was surprised at the culture shock he experienced when he returned to the U.S. “It’s a reality check,” he said. “Basically we’re very privileged and lucky to be where we are. At the same time, my personal thought was, ˜How well would people here deal with mass destruction? I mean, we are in earthquake country.”

To donate to the International Medical Assistance Team’s ongoing relief efforts in Haiti, visit the group’s Facebook page.

Coming soon: The interview with Karianna Wilson of Northwest Physicians Network.

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