Submitted by by Erin Pettengill, RN
My name is Erin Pettengill, and my family and I have been full-time missionaries in Honduras for almost 2 years now. I’m am a registered nurse, my husband is a church planter, and my 13 year old daughter helps with our ministry and attends a bilingual school in town.
Haiti will forever be a part of my life now. On January 28th I started out on the treck to head to Haiti. Living in Honduras I found myself traveling through Miami, to get to Chicago, to head out to Haiti. But, as there were few choices of air transportation to Haiti, we took whatever we could get. Upon arrival into Haiti, the first thing that hit me was the sea of humanity. This little town held 4 million people. Keeping things in perspective, I am living in a country of 7 million people – so over half of the population of Honduras resides in the city of Port-au-Prince. We drove to our camp site, Quisqueya Christian School (QCS). We immediately found a “spot” on the grass, set up our tents, and got to the business of preparing ourselves for the tasks ahead of us.
First thing we did was brainstorm what we were going to be doing and our course of action. Our first few days found us in Diquini Refugee Camp of about 30,000 people. We worked alongside Haitian doctors and nurses. Collectively we saw about 150 people the first two days. During one of those days, a physician from the local hospital that we were working with, asked our team leader if we would consider going over to the hospital to work. This team consisted of 4 MD’s, 4 RN’s, a Nurse Practitioner, Engineers, a dentist, and various other skilled individuals. So, our team leader agreed. So, we packed up our things at QCS and brought all of our medications, supplies, tents, etc. to our new home for the week – the upstairs floor of the hospital.
Diquini Adventist Hospital had been built in the 70’s, but had been out of use for the past decade. Doctors from France found the hospital had a few operating room suites, so it seemed an ideal location and re-opened it right after the earthquake. Because it had been closed for so long, patient rooms were not usable, there were few supplies, and no medications. All of those things had started coming in from various teams, the UN, and other organizations, but trying to figure out what was available was a chore in and of itself.
Our first day was indicative of what was to come. We arrived on our shift (a 16 hour night shift) and within the first 10 minutes a woman arrived collapsed on the floor. We worked on her for about 45 minutes, but she passed away. About an hour later, another baby that had been delivered to a very sick mother was in respiratory distress, we worked on that baby for about an hour before we were able to get her transported to the U.S.S. Comfort, where we later learn she passed away. A few hours later we were coding another baby who passed away, and then another man with severe tuberculosis, whom we intubated, and then transported to a military camp. Finally, at the end of my shift, while the physicians and nurses were in a morning devotional, a woman came in to the hospital in active labor. I was the only medical person on hand, and within 10 minutes I delivered her baby on the floor of the hospital on a mat. My eyes were awoken to what this all meant. This was desperate. We barely had the supplies we needed, the medication we needed, and certainly not the number of staff that this hospital needed. However, God had placed us here and this time, in this place, and we would do the best that we could – and we did! We were able to pray and offer comfort to so many people. People were lying on mats on the floor because there were no beds, with severe fractures, people who should have been in ICU’s, people that were dying, people that came in dead, a man who arrived to the front of the hospital with both fractured legs who had been trying to find a hospital that would serve him – this was where we were at. But, this was not the only hospital that found itself in similar circumstances. This was the same scene you would find in hospitals all around Port-au-Prince. We also saw people who were in mental distress. One young mother had lost 3 sisters, 2 brothers, her mother, her father, and her husband. She was left caring for her 14 year old, her 8 year old, and her 3 month old baby. Her vacant expression on her face showed her loss of hope. The only hope that she and all of Port-au-Prince has, is to find the hope that can be found only in Jesus Christ.
The team leader for Team 2 and I stayed in Haiti while we sent off our first Team. Then we waited. Waited because a severe storm had hit the East Coast of the U.S., and the flight they were to come on was cancelled. So, while our stateside team worked to find a new flight, Dan and I had the opportunity to collect ourselves, get some much needed rest, and wait for the arrival of Team 2. Two days later they arrived.
Our plan of action was to go back to the original tent clinic that Team 1 had started at. We had 2 MD’s, 5 RN’s, 2 counselors, and various other skilled team members. This time we worked without MD’s and RN’s from Haiti. Because of this, we were limited to the number of people we saw – however, in that week, we still saw over 500 patients. We had the opportunity to pray with everyone – offer much needed counseling to those who were not physically hurt, but lost. Lost because they had no hope. One such individual was a young man of about 18 years old, who was left orphaned. He had heard his brother had been airlifted to the Dominican Republic right after the earthquake because of his severe wounds, but he had heard he was dying and would not make it. He came to the clinic with “stomach pains”, but upon further discussion we found out his real story. He was wondering the streets because he didn’t even have a tent. He didn’t know how he was going to eat each day, and was fearful of the nights because he was alone, scared, and had no one to turn to. The counselors were able to minister to this young man – to help him find his way back from complete despair. He came many times to speak with the counselors, and when we left, he came to wish us farewell – and he had a smile on his face.
Our trip home was another adventure. We ended up sleeping on the tarmac of the airport after we were unable to catch a military flight home – we considered driving to the Dominican Republic to catch a flight, but eventually we caught a flight out the next afternoon. As we flew out of Haiti – I looked down on the city that is forever changed. I looked down with wonder at how this city – this country could EVER recover. And kept coming back to one thing. Only through Jesus Christ will this country find its hope again. Only with the loving grace will they understand that He is the only one who gives life.
In nursing school, over 17 years ago, never once did I think I would find myself in a situation like I was in, in Haiti. I didn’t know when I learned to comfort a person who was hurting, and with shaking nervous hands when I changed my first bed with a patient in it, that I would find these skills to be the basis of what I did in Haiti. Loving on people, offering a simple hand of care – the difference between despair and hope was a fine thread and I truly think that I was able to offer that little push in the direction of hope. And so here I am, a North American (gringa) nurse, working in the jungles of Honduras, who left her “home” to reach out to those who are even in more despair than those in Honduras – to the people of Haiti – to use my skills I learned so long ago, but who gave me the foundation to make a difference.