Carrie Paykoc was among a group of nine University of Colorado Denver students to fly out of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, at around noon on January 12. A little over four hours later, an earthquake struck the area, devastating the nation and placing extraordinary demands on a health system that Paykoc says was frightfully inadequate under ordinary circumstances.
"They couldn't handle the need to begin with," Paykock says. "They don't even have respirators at a lot of hospitals. If someone had a heart attack and they needed to resuscitate them, they'd die. And after surgery, a lot of people die because of simple complications. It's shocking."
Paykoc and her fellow students spent nine days in Haiti as part of an international health course taught by UCD prof Blair Gifford. The group saw firsthand the deficits of the Haitian system, which are exacerbated by the fact that "nobody's working together," she says.
Some institutions managed to operate effectively under the circumstances, she notes, including Zanmi Lasante, which combines health services with a focus on sustainability -- like growing peanuts that not only enhanced nutrition but gave community members something to sell.
Unfortunately, she saw few other exceptions to this rule. In her words, "It seemed like everybody wanted to help, but the government wasn't doing anything to lay the foundation for regulation or support.
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"I don't think people realize the social disparities that were there even before the earthquake," she goes on. "The presidential palace, which has been completely destroyed, was almost as nice as the White House -- and across the street, there were malnourished people, kids who were begging us for money. There's just this huge disconnect between the government, and specifically who's in power, and the people they're supposed to represent.
"A lot of the areas we were in, the people didn't even have electricity or running water. But then we went to the U.S. embassy, in the richest area, and we saw grass and some of the nicest grocery stores I've ever seen. They had fifteen different kinds of Spam! The people at the embassy expected us to stay there, and when we said we weren't going to, they said, 'Oh, you're roughing it.' But that's what the most Haitians go through every day."
These average residents treated Paykoc and the UCD group with kindness and camaraderie during their visit. She has wonderful memories of taking part in a street party that turned into a Bob Marley singalong -- memories that can't help being colored by what happened shortly after their plane took flight. She made many friends during her visit, but given the currently chaotic communication situation, she's only gotten confirmation that one of them -- the students' translator -- is okay. She prays that the rest of those she encountered have survived as well, whether she learned their names or not.
For those in the States who want to help, Paykoc suggests donations to Yéle Haiti, an organization put together by musician and Haiti native Wyclef Jean, as well as Hospital Albert Schweitzer Haiti. In the meantime, she says, "everybody's fighting to survive -- and maybe this earthquake will help them learn to work together and, as a people, take their government back."