Getting injured in Haiti, Part 3 — The first of the hospitals

I’ve been in hospitals in the ‘developing’ world before, but never as a patient. And even though I’m actually rather accident-prone, I’d never been to an emergency room anywhere, ever.

As I staggered through the hospital toward the ER, I passed rows of people sitting on wooden benches waiting for an appointment, I had two conflicting thoughts racing through my mind. The first was: “I don’t want to be the obnoxious privileged asshole who gets to jump the queue just because I’m a white foreigner.” The second thought was: “Everybody out of the way, I need treatment NOW!”

When we finally reached the ER, it really resembled a circus. As I said, I’d never had to go to an ER before this, but I assume they all have a certain level of constant chaos. But this ER had the following bonus elements:

It was impossible to tell if there were any doctors there, as no-one was wearing scrubs and, as I later realised, many of the doctors were just wearing street-clothes.

People were coming and going freely from the ER. Some of them may have been doctors, but were unrecognisable as such; nevertheless, access to the ER didn’t seem too tightly controlled.

Anyway, I was instructed to get onto one of the beds in the ER, so I gingerly, and with great effort, climbed up onto one and waited…

Which seems like a design flaw, really.

The front of Hôpital Sacré Coeur. The ER is in the back

The ER staff seemed stretched thin and they were rightly focusing their attention on Erika. At one point, someone did come over to give me a shot of something to numb the pain. And then I continued waiting…

I was fortunate (in the most limited sense of the word) to go through this experience on a trip I had taken with large group of friends. Simply having any friends around during that experience would have been helpful (the only thing worse than going through this would have been going through it alone), but these weren’t just ordinary friends.

Among our group was a third-year med school resident who came with us into the ER and who provided valuable attention whilst the thinly-stretched ER staff attended to the most critical patients. Additionally, Soulouque, my super-connected Haitian friend who had organised the trip, was on top of things throughout the whole ordeal, knowing exactly who to call, where to go, and what to do.

The friends who were with me in the ER thought that I might have dislocated my shoulder, based on how detached everything looked on that side of my body. The driver of the pickup truck, who had also been one of the people helping to lift the Polaris when I was still trapped underneath, came in as well. He told me that my ankle and foot had been in a dip in the road, and that the frame of the vehicle had been lying across the that dip, meaning that, although my leg was trapped, the weight of the vehicle hadn’t been resting on it.

That was good news as it meant I probably didn’t have to worry about my leg being severely damaged, but I had plenty of pain elsewhere, and whatever they’d given me seemed to be wearing off. Finally, a few different hospital personnel started coming over to me, asking me what was hurting and cleaning up the open wounds on my shoulder and elbow.

Meanwhile, the situation with Erika was escalating: a helicopter from Ayiti Air Ambulance had landed, and the paramedics had come in with a stretcher, in preparation to airlift her to Port-au-Prince. Our friends were trying to let her know what was happening, but had to almost yell, as her hearing had been damaged in the accident.

Once again, I didn’t have a great grasp of the passage of time, so I don’t know how long I was on the table before I was finally told to get up to go to the X-ray room. I was able to walk, but they insisted that I be pushed over there in a wheelchair. Thankfully it wasn’t my legs that were seriously injured, because it would have been very painful getting positioned in the rickety old wheelchair that they had available.

Next, I'll get it framed and hang it up

Next, I’ll get it framed and hang it up

Here I should note that the Hôpital Sacré Coeur seemed reasonably well-equipped; yes, there didn’t seem to be enough staff at times in the ER and it definitely wasn’t a sterile environment. And yes, some of the equipment they had was rather dated. For example, the X-rays that I got were old-school poster-sized printouts.

So far, all my interactions with the medical staff had been happening in Creole, and I hadn’t had any problem explaining what was hurting, or answering the doctors’ questions. But I might have over-played my hand. Once the X-rays came back and the explanations started getting more technical, I realised I didn’t have as comprehensive a vocabulary as I thought. In any case, it became clear that they were going to put me in some type of cast.

At some point during all of this, friends had sent an email to Faith letting her know what had happened, and whose phone number she could call to talk to us. She called me as the doctors (?) were wrapping both my shoulders in a figure-8 motion to create the cast. Because I still had use of my left hand, and because of the shape of the cast, I was able to talk on the phone with Faith even as rolls of bandages were being wrapped around me and plaster was being applied to harden it.

While I was on the phone with Faith, and the doctors were applying water to the plaster to harden the cast, I happened to look down at the floor and saw a massive spider crawling past. Thankfully, I’m mostly cool with spiders, and in any case, after everything that had happened so far, my reaction was — and I distinctly recall this — “yeah, whatever, seems fine.”

In addition, they put my right arm into a pretty restrictive sling, and wrapped (actually double-wrapped for some reason) my left knee, even though, thankfully the X-ray hadn’t shown anything broken in my leg

Now, the people who’d ended up on top when the Polaris flipped over (ie, those on the driver’s side) had been fine, so it took me a while to realise that the driver’s mother (who’d been sitting up front, in the middle) had been pretty seriously injured; in fact, she’d broken her hip. That meant that the driver had come into the ER to see her mom, and later she came over to apologise to me. I really didn’t know what to say. Honestly, what else could she have done? We were barreling down a mountain with faulty brakes?

Meanwhile, I could hear my friend Ffyona having a rather animated conversation with someone sitting at a desk at the entrance to the ER. Although I’ve had plenty of experience with the bureaucratic struggle that accompanies getting injured in the US, Ffyona was fighting a much more direct battle to get receipts and documentation for everything. They told her that they wouldn’t be able to give us any copies because the copier was broken. Ffyona called their bluff and asked for hand-written receipts. “She seems really Haitian,” the girl who’d been driving the Polaris said to me. “I mean, she’s really yelling at them.”

I don’t remember at exactly what point I found out the doctor’s prognosis: that I’d broken and dislocated my clavicle, i.e. collarbone (and in case you’re interested, turns out it’s ‘salyè’ in Creole). I was surprised to find out my shoulder wasn’t dislocated. Apparently my collarbone had been protruding so far out that it had created the optical illusion that my shoulder was out of place.

Don't I look happy?

Don’t I look happy?

There were a few times when I had to leave the ER and go through the courtyard where my friends were waiting. The first time I’d passed by them was on my way to the X-Ray room, in a wheelchair. So when I came back out later, walking on my own accord, my friends breathed a sigh of relief. One friend apparently thought I looked well enough to take this picture; he had to tell me to smile.

Faith had let my parents know that I’d been in an accident, and given them a friend’s number to call, and soon I was talking to them. The call couldn’t have been more than 5 minutes after this picture was taken, but they’d already seen it. “At least your thumb seems to be pointing in the right direction,” my dad said. Information was getting out quickly, at least.

By the time I was finally discharged, the hospital’s pharmacy was closed, and as it was Saturday on a holiday weekend, we had somewhat dim hopes of finding another pharmacy that was open. And just to add to the circus effect, the van we’d been riding earlier in the day had already gone back to our hotel with the members of our group who weren’t in the ER, so we had to ride back in the back of a police vehicle that Soulouque had flagged down.

Whew! So the circus ended here? Not a chance, my friends…

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