Haitian experience life-changing, Edmonds woman says

The children of Haiti made the biggest impact on Edmonds resident Karianna Wilson during her week-long stay on the earthquake-damaged island. A mother of two toddlers — 3-year-old Karsten and 21-month-old Annika — Wilson was able to spend some of her time volunteering in a Haitian orphanage, as well as providing triage and administrative support for the 15-member team of physicians, nurses and logistical support staff from Northwest Physicians Network (NPN), where she works as Chief Operating Officer.
Karianna Wilson on the flight to Haiti.

Wilson was one of two volunteers with Edmonds connections who 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 earlier posted an interview with Haiti volunteer Robert Chao, a paramedic working at Fire Station 17 in Edmonds.

“The children are beautiful,” Wilson said. “Kids are going to be kids, no matter where you are. I was able to call home a couple of times and told Karsten we played Duck Duck Goose Goose and Ring Around the Rosie.”

Wilson and the NPN group left SeaTac on Jan. 28, transferring in Florida to a charter flight to Haiti. The group hit a temporary snag when they arrived in Cap-Haitien without most of their medical supplies and personal luggage, which had ended up on later flights.

“We had 100 pounds out of our 1,200 pounds of medical supplies, and just a couple of people got their (personal) bags,” Wilson said. As a result, the group decided to abandon their original plan to drive to Port-au-Prince, instead providing needed medical care to residents of Cap-Haitien and nearby Plaine du Nord.

Wilson on the flight to Haiti.

Upon arrival in Cap-Haitien, the group was met by Dr. Leo, the Haitian physician (and friend of one of the NPN doctors) who runs the orphanage and school. The NPN contingent stayed in the school, which was empty at the time but had no running water and “toilets basically on hole dug in ground,”Wilson said. “It was very rudimentary but at least it was shelter.”

Because most of the group didn’t have their luggage, including sleeping bags, on the first night five women slept on a double mattress, Wilson said. While most of the women didn’t know each other before the trip, that changed quickly. “We were literally sharing underwear, clothes, toothbrushes,” Wilson added. “You name it, we shared it.”

The population of Cap-Haitien, normally about 200,000, had doubled in size with the influx of people fleeing the heavily damaged capital of Port-au-Prince, Wilson said. Since very few people own cars, the city’s four-lane road was jammed with people walking.

The NPN group broke into three teams so they could assist where needed, from consulting at area hospitals to visiting the homes of injured shut-ins. Wilson spent a day at an orphanage (known in Haiti as a creche), run by a Minnesota couple, that served as a rehabilitation center for children ranging in age from 6 months to 7 years.

Wilson holds a child at a Haitian orphanage.

This particular orphanage draws volunteers from around the world “who come for a week at a time to hold the babies,” she said. Many of the children are “terribly malnourished” in addition to other underlying health problems, including cerebral palsy and HIV. “They take them in and basically nurse the children back to health, and then get them back to their parents,” she explained. If the parents are unable to take the children back — true in about 50 percent of the cases — the orphanage works to get them adopted.

In the days that followed, the NPN team set up clinics in various villages, treating about 900 people for conditions ranging from gastrointestinal issues to broken bones to burns.

“At 6 ‘clock, when they opened the gate the first day, 200 people were waiting,” Wilson said. Most of those in line had walked between one and five miles to get to the makeshift clinics, she added.

One little girl had a second-degree burn on her arm that was bleeding profusely. “Her mom had been cooking during the earthquake and hot water spilled and burned her and the mom,” Wilson said.

About 30 percent of those who came for treatment had arrived from Port-au-Prince to stay with family in Cap-Haitien. “What you saw from those people was horrifying sadness,” Wilson said. “They were clinically depressed, and there was nothing we could do for that.”

The group saw one woman from Port-au-Prince who was staying with her sister in Cap-Haitien after losing her three sons and her husband in the earthquake. “She just looked through you,” Wilson said. “She wanted to talk to somebody. She sat down with nurse and cried. And they just held her.”

Wilson said they were able to distribute beans and rice that they had brought with them, and she was amazed by “the resilience of Haitian people given the conditions that they live in.”

“There was lots of joy and lots of sadness,” she said. “Many of these people hadn’t seen a doctor in years. They just wanted someone to touch them. They needed human contact.”

Wilson said the group left extra medical supplies with Dr. Leo, and will raise money to help him acquire building materials so he can start a clinic.

“You can’t go there and not come back changed,” Wilson said. “It makes you appreciate what you have.”

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