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Lutherans respond to the dire needs of Haitians

When an earthquake causes devastating damage to an island nation...

Battered people were everywhere, and these were the lucky ones. They had found their way, or been helped by friends or strangers, from earthquake ravaged villages in Haiti to a makeshift hospital in Jimani, Dominican Republic. Now, at least, they had a mat and some health professionals to care for them.

A woman sat on her mattress, healing from multiple injuries. On her lap was a little girl, not more than 20 months old, in better condition than most. Beside her was an older boy. And the mom, though in need of support herself, comforted the children with soft words and hugs.

Michelle Ritchie, a disaster response coordinator for the Minnesota South District LCMS, was interviewed about her work in Haiti at the district office in Burnsville.

International teams of health care workers came and went, providing what relief from pain and stress they could for this little threesome. And, after a week, they were lucky again; word came that they were to be moved to a safer area.

The woman was loaded onto a transport vehicle, with the little girl in tow. A health worker began to bring the little boy over to load in the truck as well.

“He’s not mine,” said the mother of the little girl. “I dug him out of the rubble, but I don’t know who he is.” Clearly stressed, she knew she could not take him with her. And yet she hated to see him left alone, since no one had yet come asking about him.

That’s what happens in disasters, especially one as widespread and devastating as the earthquake that struck Haiti a little before 5:00 p.m., local time, on January 12. When this 7.0 level earthquake struck the island nation, the earth moved in more ways than one.

Immediacy of need … and response

Michelle Ritchie was attending a conference on disaster preparedness in Dallas. She is the disaster response coordinator for the state crisis team of the Minnesota South District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). As such, she had spent some time coordinating volunteer efforts in Rockford, Minnesota, following the floods in 2007.

Then word came about the response plans for the earthquake in Haiti. Glenn Merritt, director of disaster response for LCMS World Relief and Human Care, called Ritchie to tell her to get her clothes and prescriptions together, as she was being sent to Haiti. Michelle called her husband Andy, pastor of Hosanna Lutheran Church in Mankato, Minnesota, to ask him to pack her field bag. She returned to Minneapolis from Dallas around 1:00 a.m., Tuesday, January 19. By 7:00 a.m., she was on a flight to Haiti. She landed in Santo Domingo and took a four-hour trip to Jimani, arriving just after midnight.

The chapel of a Baptist retreat center became the central triage area used by the medical professionals in Jimani, Dominican Republic.

In her “other life,” Ritchie is an emergency room/intensive care unit nurse. When she arrived in Jimani, she was reassigned from the disaster response team to an emergency hospital unit being set up. “Members of the team were all tired from the trip, and we hoped for a little rest,” Ritchie explained. But, seeing the medieval working conditions, and hearing the medical persons already there say, ‘Thank God you are here; we need you now,’ we knew we needed to get to work.”

The makeshift hospital was set up at a Baptist retreat center that had toilets, but no running water. There were two stable buildings — the center, which was turned into six non-stop operating suites, and the chapel, which became the pre-op and post-op center.

Feeling the earth move

Dr. Siri Fiebiger has been providing health care in Haiti for a long time, leading medical teams to Bienfaisanze Hospital in Pignon for 13 years. Fiebiger, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA), in Moorhead, Minnesota, was leading a medical team that included a number of Fargo-Moorhead medical and non-medical personnel at the time of the earthquake.

“Pignon is 80 miles north of Port-au-Prince. We didn’t experience a great deal of damage, but we did feel the earthquake,” Fiebiger told Metro Lutheran. “But we soon realized cell phones went down, and most of the local members of our team had families living in Port-au-Prince. … We gave them supplies and sent them there. We stayed in Pignon to run the hospital there.

Inside the chapel, more than 50 patients were recovering from surgery at any given time.

“The general surgeon had military experience, and he sat us down to instill a triage mentality and to explain that security would be a big issue,” Fiebiger explained. “So we became a trauma center.”

Eventually, team members needed to discern their course. They had not come to Haiti expecting trauma work. “It’s different to plan on working in a disaster than to be in the middle of one,” Fiebiger said. “Leaving was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

Fiebiger’s commitment to Haiti remains. She is chair of the board for the Pignon Hospital. “We are determining what our role can be,” she explained. “Thus far, the squeakiest wheel is getting the funding, and the most grassroots groups locally are having more difficulty.” For more information, go to the Promise for Haiti Web site: www.promiseforhaiti.org/.

The complexity of care in disaster

Ritchie is compelled to connect with her patients. “The magnitude of impact on every person was so great,” she said. “I tried to learn enough of each language to take time with each person individually.” When she needed to deliver bad news to a patient, she wanted to make some contact without an interpreter. She would learn to gave the most basic instructions in a patient’s native language. “I have learned that it helps people to feel human in the midst of overwhelming tragedy.”

What about caregivers in traumatic settings? “That’s where my disaster response training became important. I watched doctors and nurses to see who hadn’t had a break in six hours. I would go up and say, ‘Why don’t you go get some liquid?’ or ‘Do you want to take a walk?’ to ensure that they didn’t break down,” she explained.

Aftershocks created fear about being inside of damaged buildings. Many people recovering from injuries sustained in the earthquake stayed outside the chapel that served as pre-op and post-op center.

“I like to camp and hunt; I’m just an outdoorsy girl,” she laughed. “So, I made sure that I took walks regularly to be reinvigorated.” Shifts were at least 12 hours, so self-care became essential.

“Michelle exemplifies the spirit of all those who serve with World Relief and Human Care Emergency Medical Response Teams,” Merritt said of Ritchie. “With selfless service, she [brought] much needed expertise and experience to the people of Haiti.”

The faith of the people, the support of others

I am so humbled and blessed to be able to do this,” Ritchie said of her experience in Haiti. “I hear that lots of people want to go over to help, and to take or send supplies over.

“Money is the most important way people can help. Organizations like LCMS World Relief can get medications, supplies, food. They know how to spend the funds wisely, and they are transparent.”

Ritchie acknowledged that nurses already with passports might be able to help. But she does remind people that only big organizations have the capacity to organize the necessary transportation to get people into Haiti.

Ritchie’s (right) disaster training helped her realize that she had relational, as well as health care, responsibilities to help people heal after an emergency. Here she spends time with Rudy, a professional basketball player who lost a limb in the earthquake.

About the Haitians themselves, Ritchie said, “I commend the strong faith of these people. I was doing what I was trained to do, and I was blessed to be there. But [the Haitians] are the heroes. Their bodies were broken, but not their spirit. Individuals would go around to feed and bathe each other’s kids, just to be helpful.”

“They wondered about their future rather than despaired their future. I am not sure that we as Americans would be anything but angry if we were in those circumstances.”

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