Dispensing hope for Haiti

Sarasota neurologist writes to cope with memories of humanitarian mission

twolfrum@bradenton.comMay 10, 2010 

I know you felt no breath in your baby’s body, teenaged mother, first born, wrapped so tenderly in that old dirty blanket you said nothing, nodding in reply to my questions. The nurse laid open the blanket to examine him, you knew, we pretended. ... My grief was mostly in seeing the glimmer of hope on your face, a second before we unwrapped the old blanket. ... There my pain and fever reside, in the helplessness I still harbor. Who will breathe life into Haiti?

It has been more than three months since Dr. Michael Meriwether returned home from a humanitarian mission to Haiti.

Still, he cries when he thinks about the young mother who arrived at his clinic too late.

She had tried to shield her newborn son as a wall crumbled down during the Jan. 12 earthquake, but the baby was crushed under her weight.

The mother’s look of resignation upon her arrival at Meriwether’s clinic stays with the Sarasota neurologist.

It was the main reason he felt compelled to write, spilling out his feelings in six vignettes that describe his 10 days in Haiti.

“It’s painful,” Meriwether said, tears in his eyes, while recalling his trip during an interview at Polo Grill near his Lakewood Ranch office. “It’s the despondency. It’s the hopelessness that got me. I kept a pretty good lid on it while I was there, but somehow when I got home I couldn’t do it.”

Meriwether helped hundreds of quake victims during his visit, treating head and neck injuries.

The vignettes helped him cope with the memory of people he couldn’t save — and with those left behind to live in a country racked by poverty and tragedy.

“It’s like they’re all sort of recognizing and accepting that that’s their fate. As an American, that’s devastating because we always think anybody can pull themselves up by their boot straps. ... None of that is available. All I can say is it was very upsetting once I had time,” he said.

You didn’t see me watching you, trip after trip with your makeshift back carrier, loading up the truck with bags of rice from the warehouse. Shoeless, torn and dirty tee shirt, old cutoff pants, but carrying five or six 50 lb. bags at a time. You did it over and over again, with a beautiful smile when you saw I was taking a photo of you. I wondered at your physical strengths, when you were an average height and your weight seemed no more than 150 lbs, yet never did you pause to rest as I watched over the better part of an hour.

Meriwether, 61, works out of offices in Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota. About a week after the earthquake, his office manager, Louise Stottlemyer, heard about Lumiere Medical Ministries, a Christian mission group in Gastonia, N.C, that serves Haiti.

Meriwether called the ministries to ask if they could use a doctor. That same day, he was on a flight from Fort Lauderdale to the Dominican Republic with a planeload of pharmacists, nurses, nurse practitioners and supplies.

“I had my bag packed in about two hours,” Meriwether said. “I’ve never done anything like that. I can be spontaneous about a lot of things, but going to a disaster area with about a two-hour notice and people I’d never heard of is unbelievable.”

Meriwether worked at King’s Hospital, one of two major medical centers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deemed the newly constructed hospital safe despite a large crack that ran the length of an exterior wall, Meriwether said.

Even though he arrived more than a week after the quake, Meriwether said people were still straggling in from all corners of the country.

“We saw fractures, major lacerations, head injuries. I treated head and spinal injuries, primarily, but I wound up doing a lot of primary ER-type care, like sewing of lacerations, putting splints on. The very seriously injured were AirVacced out because we did not have the resources,” he said.

“It was more like Civil War medicine. ... If you have a serious, serious injury, you have to do an amputation.”

Hope was what we were dispensing, in the absence of sophisticated medical care, the seriously ill being air-lifted to Florida and beyond. A fairly unexpected finding, in the line of patients, were the young children. Many of them waited patiently, dressed in their “Sunday best” clothes, little girls with beaded hair or berets, in preparation for seeing the “doctor.” ... That small bit of civility in the face of endless devastation spoke volumes.

Meriwether said he slept between three and four hours each night during his stay in Haiti. One reason: Gunshots rang out near the compound where his party stayed. The presence of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division made him feel safer.

But the biggest reason was the long line of Haitians waiting for medical care around the clock. Meriwether said the doctors and nurses felt duty-bound to be on call for as long as humanly possible.

“I couldn’t sleep very well down there, period,” he said. “It was hot; it was humid. You heard gunshots in unfamiliar surroundings. But people were still waiting in line. They wouldn’t give up their place in line. It was very touching.”

He thought he held up pretty well under the stress and lack of sleep.

Until he got home, that is.

“I was trying to tell my wife something that happened the day after I got back. She said, ‘No, it happened two days later. You were sleeping the whole time,’” he said.

Meriwether wants to go back, but he has had a pacemaker put in, and he’s hurting from a recent car accident.

He just hopes the aid and humanitarian care will keep flowing into Haiti even as media coverage and celebrity appearances wane.

“It was beyond indigent,” he said. “I don’t know what things look like in Africa or Southeast Asia or somewhere where they have a disaster like the tsunami in Indonesia. But this has to be Ritz-Carlton compared to Haiti.”

I did like it when the witch doctor was grateful for my magic, he understood that saying “yes” to the world and whatever came down was the sign of an enlightened soul. I looked at his photograph and the church frequently — how he promised the missionaries to come to church on Sunday if only they promise to come to his house of worship and help out with the locals. Both knew that they will accomplish much if aligned together to provide food and shelter to the children in the village.

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