By Hiroko Sato
BOSTON — The only thing awaiting those arriving at Port au Prince Airport, according to Annie Fitzgerald, is adversity.
Two years after a magnitude-7 quake hit Haiti, the Caribbean nation remains paralyzed by the destruction, says Fitzgerald, a Boston College senior from Groton.
Trash piles up across the airport parking lot. Countless motorcycles weave through city streets flooded with people and cars. Smoke rises from burning rubbish across tent cities that spread alongside the roads.
“You can’t find any comparison to the United States. There is nothing like it,” Fitzgerald said of the Haitian landscapes.
Here, health care is a luxury. In a country where a person earns an average of $360 a year, people don’t have access to basic medications. A simple laceration could be deadly if infection sets in, says Fitzgerald, a nursing student who saw numerous patients with health problems while working out of a mobile clinic recently. One 5 1/2-month-old baby was so malnourished she couldn’t even hold her head up straight, she says.
But even in the face of a seemingly endless line of patients outside the mobile clinic, Fitzgerald never despaired. Working side by side with some professional nurses, she realized their skills in detecting illnesses can make big differences in people’s lives, Fitzgerald said.
And, seeing smiles on the faces of the people who have so little left made her appreciate her life back home.
“I feel luckier than I’ve ever had since I came back,” Fitzgerald says.
Fitzgerald returned to Boston on Jan. 15 after a nine-day volunteer trip to Haiti as part of the community health course that she takes at the college.
Along with nearly 20 fellow nursing students and some faculty members, Fitzgerald, 22, toured the quake-ravaged country in a van, providing free care in towns, villages and even on mountaintops. The clinic was comprised of the nurses and nursing students as well as medical translators. They did not have a doctor touring with them.
Word of mouth drew people to the mobile clinic. Most residents couldn’t afford hospital care because they must pay for treatment in cash, Fitzgerald says.
Hospitals also require patients to bring their own bed linens to stay while many residents don’t even have basic personal-care items, such as tooth brushes and lotions. Fitzgerald’s group distributed such items and provided medications as needed — 50 different kinds worth $10,000, according to Fitzgerald.
General pains, such as headaches and heartburn, were most common, says Fitzgerald, who kept busy taking vital signs and giving pregnancy tests.
But visitors to the clinic sometimes brought more than their medical issues. Fitzgerald and her friends gave food and a couple of dollars for hot meals to an old man who hadn’t eaten in days.
“I learned a lot every day,” Fitzgerald said. “I love talking to people, getting to know people.”
Fitzgerald, who said she has always liked helping people, hopes to organize a similar volunteer trip to Haiti one day as a professional nurse. Her dream job, she says, would be a nursing job in an intensive-care unit at a hospital that would allow her to travel and continue international and domestic health-care service.