Hoeksema in Haiti

 Greg Hoeksema’s US Navy background came in handy during his recent trip to Haiti.
   The visit to earthquake-struck country by the Cayman Islands Hospital Services Authority’s medical director was a mission to assist where he could with quake victims, to assess what medical equipment and supplies were needed and how they should be distributed.
   But when he found himself surrounded by an angry mob, he called on his military training to gauge an escape route and asses exactly how much danger he and colleagues were in.
   His Navy background was also called into play to make contact with the military coordinator of patient evacuation in Port au Prince to pass on information about the state of the hospitals outside the capital.
   “I was able to give him information about the Pignon hospital and the other three,” said Hoeksema, who was based in Pignon, about 60miles from Port au Prince and who travelled to three other hospitals in the towns of Cap Haitien and Port de Paix.
   “I’d been trying to track the guy down. I am familiar with the organisation and structure and set-up of such operations,” Hoeksema said, adding that through a series of questions and encounters and phone calls, he eventually managed to reach the colonel in charge of evacuations and fill him in on the standard of care and medical staff available at the four hospitals.
   The hospital at Pignon already had 37 patients who had been evacuated from Port au Prince.
   “One of the difficulties for the military in these situations is getting intelligence that you can trust and that is accurate. Hearing a retired Navy doctor at the other end of the line who has had an opportunity to assess the hospitals would have given him reassurance that the information he’s getting is probably accurate,” said Dr. Hoeksema.
   The face-off with a mob that tried to prevent the doctor and two orthopaedic surgeons from Minnesota entering an airstrip at Pignon was a more intense situation that had him calling on his military training.
   When Hoeksema, who spent 22 years as a doctor and administrator with the US Navy, and the other two doctors were trying to reach a plane that was landing at the airstrip, they found their way blocked by a makeshift barrier of cinder blocks and car tyres.
   A group of local Haitians, angered that aid coming into the country was not being distributed among them, prevented the doctors getting through in their SUV. The vehicle’s driver leapt out into the crowd, leaving the doctors in the truck.
   “The crowd was building and getting rather noisy. I was trying to see if we were really in some danger. I needed to find the driver, so I told the two guys to watch my bag and I went into the crowd to find him. That was about the time they lit the tyres at the roadblock. There was putrid black smoke billowing towards the SUV.
   “Then I spotted a guy with a machete and another with a big stick. I found the driver and told him to get back to the truck and move it away from the fire. He got back into the vehicle and backed it up. Then he went back into the crowd,” Hoeksema said.
   At this point, he was eyeing avenues of escape and considering making a break on foot back towards the town, but then Dr. Guy Theodore, head of the hospital in Pignon and a respected political figure, arrived and helped to calm the crowd down a little.
   The doctors ended up walking to the plane. Upon arrival at the airstrip, they found a group of armed UN peacekeepers there, seemingly oblivious to the growing crowd or the problems the doctors had faced.
   He saw his medical colleague volunteers off on their plane back to Minnesota and returned to the hospital.
   Throughout his 10-day stay in Haiti, organised and funded by Rotary, he spent his days working with patients at the hospital in Pignon, and doing inventories of medical supplies and equipment at that hospital and the other three.
   There, in boxes in store rooms and offices, he found medicines and equipment that had been donated by Rotary and by church groups over the years that had never been used or even unpacked. These are not donations sent in response to January’s devastating earthquake but sent in the past to help the poverty-stricken country.
   He says this is a scene repeated in hospitals throughout Haiti and now at ports and airports as aid pours in from overseas, but which is not being distributed adequately.
   He cited the case of a military helicopter that landed in Pignon while he was there. It was loaded with medical supplies for the hospital. “Half of it was filled with medicines that were expired, which we wouldn’t use, and the rest of it was filled with supplies the hospital already had,” he said.
   That’s why his meticulous inventorying of items at the four hospitals was important, he said. “That way, we knew what we had, and what we needed.”
   “I did an assessment of the hospital supplies provided by Rotary… who wanted an accurate overview. They have been providing the hospital over the course of time and wanted an assessment of what we could do to plug the specific needs – not just for earthquake relief but longer term,” he said.
   The earthquake, which claimed the lives of an estimated 230,000 people, struck a country already in dire straits due to political upheaval and unrest as well as grinding poverty.
   “The thing that struck me was the level of poverty on a day to day basis – nothing to do with the earthquake, this is how people live all the time,” said Hoeksema. “They have no electricity, no running water, no television…”
   Each morning, he walked around the town, meeting people and taking photographs. Among those he met was a man who spent all day, every day, breaking big rocks into smaller rocks that were then used for construction.
   “These rocks are the foundations of many of the buildings,” said Hoeksema. “That’s why so many buildings fell in the earthquake.”
   Pignon was untouched by the magnitude-7 earthquake that struck southern Haiti on 12 January.
   Hoeksema anticipates that he, or some other medical professionals from Cayman, would return to Haiti in the future, but right now, he says, there seems to still be a large number of doctors and nurses there, who have volunteered their time and expertise.
   He will remain in contact with the hospitals he visited to ascertain when more assistance is needed.