Rolling Hills Christian Church parishioners have seen poverty. But never like this.
They’ve worked long hours. But never like this.
People have touched their hearts. But never like this.
One week in Haiti forever changed 60 volunteers who set out on one mission but, as God works in mysterious ways, something completely different happened. On Nov. 2, with smiles and anticipation, the volunteers flew to Haiti to help at local orphanages, perform minor medical and dental procedures, improve a soccer stadium and share God’s word. One other word got in the way — cholera.
“We really became the center of the cholera epidemic,” said Senior Pastor Jeff Bigelow.
The group worked in Port de Paix,a city in Haiti’s northwest region and the country’s fourth largest population base. Prior to their arrival they discussed Haiti’s recent cholera outbreak but, Bigelow said, no one knew the disease had spread to the area.
“A lot of people cramped into tight spaces,” Bigelow said. That combined with unclean water, poor hygiene and cholera’s determination overwhelmed the local medical staff. Rolling Hills volunteers rolled up their sleeves and, medically trained or not, they went where people needed them most.
“Our medical team basically held the dam,” Bigelow said.
“People would have died if our medical team hadn’t stepped in,” added Shellie Edwards, the group’s dentist.
“It was like a third-world war zone,” team member Nick Sharples said.
That war zone included about 100 new patients walking in every day and Hurricane Tomas, which complicated the situation with power interruptions and rising rivers that spread the disease. The clinic run by Rolling Hills volunteers and local medical personnel was the only place in the region treating cholera, according to Dr. Ryan Nicholas, and supplies were limited.
“There was one light bulb when we got there, no running water,” he said.
Cots didn’t arrive for days so patients, many carrying all their belongings, rested on the floor while medical volunteers administered IVs and kept the ill hydrated. The volume of patients quickly spilled into a nearby building, an abandoned bakery that had no electricity.
“It was a long couple of days.” Nicholas said.
“We were pulling out all the stops,” he added. “We were doing some wild and crazy stuff to keep people alive.”
That innovation included inserting IVs into wrist and shin bones and rigging a welding oxygen tank up for a patient who needed oxygen 24/7; the clinic lost power on several occasions. This 12-year-old boy, Jude, became the messenger to the rest of the world, letting everyone know cholera had spread to the region, Nicholas said. An e-mail plea for Jude alerted the United Nations, who sent a helicopter for the boy and some staff to relieve Rolling Hills volunteers who had to go home after days of exhausting work.
Normally cholera flares and diminishes but, Nicholas said, they saw no relief in sight. Five people died at the clinic while Rolling Hills volunteers worked there, he added, but five out of 500 is a better percentage than average.
United Nations officials recently said about 15,000 Haitians have sought treatment for the disease but tens of thousands more could be infected with mild cases. Nearly 1,000 people have died, according to UN figures but, Nicholas said, that figure is likely higher because people who die in the rural regions haven’t been counted.
Despite the intense nature of their work, the volunteers who sat down to discuss their trip with Village Life last week said they saw joy and inspiration all around them. The one local Haitian doctor and a small staff came to the clinic as often as they could,Nicholas said, and the teenage translators who worked with the group never quit, even as people they knew suffered and died around them.
“Everybody made a huge difference,” Nicholas said.
“There was nothing fun about it,” Edwards added, “but people (volunteers and locals) were still smiling. They were cleaning up throw-up and diarrhea all day long with smiles of their faces.”
For more information about and photos of Rolling Hills Christian Church’s Haiti trip visit http://haiti.rollhillchurch.com.