In the weeks that followed the devastating earthquake the rocked Haiti in January, medical professionals and aid workers from around the globe quickly mobilized to render whatever relief possible. Among those thousands of people were Eric Niemeyer, M.D., and James O’Dea, M.D., of The Christ Hospital Medical Associates. The hospital helped to coordinate their travel through Matthew 25 Ministries in February.
The world witnessed the tragedy through grim reports from media outlets. For Dr. Niemeyer, the images that flashed across television and computer screens did not give the true scope of destruction. “Usually after a disaster, the news networks look for the most spectacular destruction to use as their backdrop. I was expecting the scenes I saw on the news to be rare in reality once we got on the ground, but, in fact, it was the complete opposite” Dr. Niemeyer said. “I think the devastation and destruction that was widespread throughout the most heavily populated areas of the capital were worse than what was shown on TV.”
In a disaster of such a large scale, the immediate need for treatment of broken bones and cuts is a given. But also needing great attention are the wounds that cannot be seen. The haunting images of death and feelings of helplessness were a source of troubling, emotional pain for many seeking medical care. “I was speaking to a teenage boy who had lost both of his parents and a sibling in the earthquake. He literally had nothing,” Dr. O’Dea recalled. “I was trying to explore with him the possibility of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and he remained stoic. When I looked over to my interpreter, a boy of similar age, I saw tears streaming down his face. We stopped and all three of us prayed together. To see a Haitian crying for his people deeply touched my heart.”
Balancing the unrelenting demand for medical care with the raw emotion of the earthquake’s aftermath was difficult, especially when young children were involved. Much of the work centered on orphanages, where discarded boxes and bottles often became toys, and the shocking level of poverty could not be ignored. “The most lasting image to me was a five or six year old boy…who I found curled up in the corner of a backroom on the ground, clutching a ratty, tattered teddy bear for comfort. You just wanted to sit next to him, hold him and tell him it was all going to be okay,” Dr. Niemeyer said.
While both physicians are experienced in medical missions in developing countries, the time in Haiti made a lasting impression on Drs. O’Dea and Niemeyer. Both returned in June to continue their work there. “Some of the most important work I do in this world is taking care of the poor…this is the most fulfilling kind of work that I could ever do,” Dr. O’Dea said.