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What It Really Means To Be Without Power: A View From Haiti

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
March 3, 2010

The roadside clinic where Haitians sought treatment. Judy Spiller photos.

Judy Spiller has new insight into what it means to be without electricity.

And food. And water. And a roof over your head.

The associate provost for Academic Achievement and Support, Spiller gained her perspective while spending a week in earthquake ravaged Haiti. She traveled to the island nation with three fellow Maine residents to offer aid to a small town about four miles from the epicenter of last month’s devastating quake. She returned home with a new sense of what it means to do without.

“What you see on the news is absolutely accurate,” Spiller says. “The devastation is incredible.”

Spiller was in the rural village of Signeau, not far from Leogane where 90 percent of the buildings were flattened and more than 30,000 people were killed. She went to the small town with a group from New York’s Life and Hope Haiti, an organization that strives to educate Haitian children.

“Driving from Port-au- Prince to Signeau, most of the places along the road were completely destroyed. There were large cracks in the road. In some places, the river ran over the road,” Spiller says.

The volunteers from New York had planned to go to Haiti before the 7.0 earthquake hit to work at the Eben Ezer School, built by Life and Hope Haiti. Instead they found themselves operating a roadside clinic near a compound that included an asylum for some of Haiti’s fringe society and a hospital for people with leprosy.

“All the buildings in the compound had structural damage. Several had collapsed,” Spiller says. “People were living in tents inside a temporary shelter. The hospital and dispensary were uninhabitable—the roofs were sitting on the ground.”

But they still had medicine.

So, the Americans set up a roadside clinic in front of the hospital. Spiller’s group included a doctor, a nurse and a nurse practitioner. They worked in three open tents.

Before leaving Maine, Spiller and the others sought donations from friends and families so they could buy medicine to take with them. York Hospital contributed; the Kittery Trading Post offered tents. Eldredges/Ace Hardware provided hammers, toolbelts, and other building supplies.

“We each brought 100 pounds of medicine and tents,” Spiller says.

They also took duct tape.

When they got to the clinic that first day, there were already about 30 people waiting under a tree. They used the duct tape, a sheet and some cording to create an exam area. They operated the clinic for five days. Spiller was a runner.

There was a group of Germans who were running a mobile clinic with an orthopedic surgeon, and different group of Germans in the next field also running a clinic. The two groups traded medicine. If someone came to the American clinic who couldn’t be helped, or needed something they didn’t have, Spiller and another volunteer ran to the other clinic to get it. Or they flagged someone down to take a patient to a nearby MASH hospital operated by the Canadians.  It had an intensive care unit and an operation theater.

“There wasn’t any time to think anything. You’d find a Jeep and say ‘get them to the Canadian hospital’ and you’d make them take them,” Spiller says.

A group from Cuba had an obstetric/gynecological facility in a series of tents. Women were giving birth in those tents. There was another compound nearby with a pharmacy run by Pharmacists without Borders.

“We got into drug trading with all of them,” Spiller says.

All along Route 2—the main road in the area—there were little charcoal fires burning where people sat selling rice; bits of meat; oranges. In the background were the collapsed buildings. Behind the debris were tents and temporarily buildings, scavenged from collapsed structures.

The residents of Asile St. Vincent de Paul– among the poorest in Haiti and with whom Spiller’s group stayed--were living in tents inside a temporary shelter. When Spiller’s group arrived, they cleared away rubble—the wood, the tin roofs--so another group could go in and build a more substantial housing for the tents. 

 The volunteers Spiller worked with also built a small house for the nuns from the leprosy hospital next door to the Asile.  They scavenged for wood; took tin for the roof. 

“I’ve never done anything like this—never seen anything like this,” Spiller says. “What we did wasn’t even a drop in the ocean. The last day we were there, the doctor and nurse practitioner saw 100 people. And the next day, we weren’t there.”


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