Haiti's greatest need is hope

Mark Atkinson, Ph.D., is co-director of UF’s Diabetes Center of Excellence and an eminent scholar for diabetes research. He has traveled to Haiti since the 1990s, providing medical, dental and educational assistance and had returned from the country less than one week before the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed a reported 250,000 people and left tens of thousands more injured. The professor in the department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine at the College of Medicine quickly assembled a group of medical professionals and missionaries familiar with delivering care in developing countries to travel to Haiti. They arrived in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 17 and were stuck at the airport for a couple days waiting for the last of their supplies and equipment to arrive as well as an armed escort into Saint-Marc about 35 miles north.

We finally made it to the hospital in Saint-Marc, the only hospital in a town of 200,000 people. The 60-bed facility wasn’t adequate before the earthquake and struggled to provide treatment and space for the hundreds who came looking for medical care. People were shoulder-to-shoulder, placed in hallways, offices – everything became part of the wards. We knew one in three people would die, and of those left, half would receive some form of amputation. It was a daunting task to walk through the rooms of individuals and try to determine who would make it and who wouldn’t.

The sounds and smells of Haiti are pretty disturbing. Occasionally, you would get waves of the stench of death. Once you have smelled that, it is hard to erase it from your memory. We also heard shrieks – shrieks of pain and shrieks of sorrow. And often we would hear groups of people singing. They were singing in the midst of their world falling apart around them. All of this formed an eclectic experience that is hard to describe.

We did our best to see these people as individuals and not simply as victims. A young man was with us who lost three brothers and his mother. His injury left him paralyzed below the waist. On our last day there, my wife, Carol, sat with him as he was coming to realize that he would spend the rest of his life unable to walk. As she began to cry, he wiped her tears and told her everything was going to be OK.

The people of Haiti have always been a strong, amazing people. But my greatest fear in this crisis is that soon it will be forgotten. Another story will capture our attention, and the destruction of that country will disappear from our thoughts. The reality is the damage that has been inflicted in Haiti will affect these people for many years. My hope is the story will stay on our minds and our response to their needs will be resilient.

I commend all the people who are going down there to provide medical care, donating clothes and food.

They need so much, but their greatest need now is hope. I keep telling myself that we are providing them hope.

Mark Atkinson, Ph.D.