The tragedy in Haiti struck close to home for Nathalie Desquiron. Here, the story of her family’s hospital that saved thousands of lives and brought hope to the hopeless.
Photograph by William Taufic
Port-au-prince lay in ruins. Tens of thousands of victims were dead or dying. What were once buildings were now heaps of rubble. Chaos had come to Haiti.
Quickly, aftershocks from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake rippled across the globe, not through geologic forces, of course, but via television,
the Internet, text messaging and cell phones. Piece by piece, person by person, the world learned of a devastation so vast that it gripped even those grown callous to everyday reports of violence and hardship in faraway places.
After several hours, word finally found its way to a laptop computer in the bedroom of a Greenwich condominium.
It was around six o’clock. Nathalie Desquiron had just returned from a business appointment, settled onto her bed, and switched on her computer to check e-mail and Facebook. Almost immediately she received an instant message from a relative in Miami.
“Have you heard from your father?”
Nathalie was baffled. Why should she be hearing from her dad? “No,” she tapped back. “Is anything wrong?”
“You haven’t heard? There was an earthquake. Hotel Montana fell.”
Nathalie’s father, a developer in Haiti, had an office in the renowned hotel which, when it collapsed, crushed untold numbers of people. No one had heard from him, the relative wrote, and the family was getting worried.
Nathalie had lived in the United States for twenty-five years, but in that moment she was back in her native land, sharing the shock and despair of her countrymen. Her father, Jean Michel, turned up unharmed later that night. But it would be weeks before Nathalie could come to terms with the events of that Tuesday in January. “To be honest with you, I’m still a little in denial,” she said more than a month later. “I was talking to this stress coach and she was telling me to think of nice things. Basically I go back to when I was a kid, just happy moments from my childhood. But it’s hard when you look at the pictures and now people are being identified.”
For a while, she tried to avoid looking at the photographs that appeared on the Facebook pages of her friends in Haiti. But late at night, she was drawn back—to the pictures, to the stories, to the sorrow.
“I keep revisiting and I keep talking about it because it’s all I can do,” she says.
To come to terms with what had befallen Haiti, it was only natural that Nathalie would look to her large extended family, which in Haiti alone numbers well over a hundred. For even with the immeasurable grief that the earthquake bestowed on an already beleaguered nation, it would be hard to find a better source of pride or example of meeting tragedy by forging something useful, indeed life-confirming.
In the hours after the temblor hit, a privately owned, nonprofit hospital, L’Hôpital de la Communauté Haïtienne (Haitian Community Hospital), which Nathalie’s great-aunt helped found thirty years ago, stood as a port in the storm. Now in her eighties, her great-aunt still remains involved as a board member. The hospital had always been a source of pride for the family, but never more so than after the earthquake. Albeit in a state of frenzy, it was among the few hospitals in the area that had a functioning operating room and emergency care. And though it was just a seventy-five-bed facility, a mind-boggling 1,000 patients would be treated there in the first twelve hours after the quake. As many as fifty family members from near and far, including two dozen who pitched in at the hospital itself, dropped everything to contribute: a cousin who was in the Dominican Republic hurried back to the Hotel Montana and removed rubble by hand to try to save those who were buried; Nathalie in Greenwich, put out the word and began coordinating volunteers, donations and supplies; an aunt in Florida, who had just left Haiti on business, stuffed her luggage with bandages and the like and hurried back (via the Dominican Republic); youngsters on the scene handed out food and water.
“Everybody helped, everybody from this family, from eighty years old to twelve years old,” says Nathalie’s second cousin, Dr. Christine Sajous, a neonatologist near Chicago. “I think that’s something that’s really bred in us,” says Nathalie.
When her father’s fate was still unknown, Nathalie could do little more than pace the floor and fret. Communication with Haiti—let alone the Hotel Montana, which she kept trying to call—was impossible. To stay distracted, she decided to attend a scheduled Junior League meeting. She took a seat up front, hoping no one would ask about the earthquake for fear she’d be unable to keep her composure. “Sure enough,” says Nathalie, “after the meeting a couple of us were talking and someone said, ‘Well, we heard...’ and of course I started crying.”
Rather than be alone, she spent most of that evening with a close friend. Finally, she got word from an aunt in Florida and learned that her dad was all right, that he underwent had a medical procedure that day and was away from the hotel when it came down.
Watching CNN, Nathalie stared in disbelief. Iconic structures like the Presidential Palace and the National Assembly Building were badly damaged. The Caribbean Market, where her family shopped, was beyond recognition. Port-au-Prince resembled a war zone. “I couldn’t
recognize any buildings,” she says. “I was like, ‘What the heck is this? Are you sure this is Haiti?’”
Nathalie’s relatives came away with fewer losses than many Haitians. One child from the family did die at the Hotel Montana, and two aunts, who own the hotel, were trapped beneath the wreckage, one for almost a hundred hours. (A former classmate of Nathalie’s was also killed by some falling debris.) A cousin’s wife, meanwhile, barely escaped the collapse of the Caribbean Market, while an employee beside her was struck dead.
And though according to the Haitian government two million people were left homeless by the earthquake, Nathalie’s relatives’ homes in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince were unscathed. “My dad said, ‘I’m avoiding people; I’m embarrassed to tell them I don’t have any damage,’ ” says Nathalie. But one relative, a lawyer in Haiti, saw it from a different perspective. The family, she felt, was called to be there for those in need. “Our family was spared because we have a mission,” she says.
Nathalie grew up among the country’s privileged elite, the white or light-skinned Haitians whose family wealth allowed them to attend the best schools and go abroad for college or medical care. Nathalie’s mother, Bettina, was young when her daughter was born, and Nathalie for the most part was raised by her maternal grandparents. She was fourteen when she finally came to live with her mother, who by then was in the United States, in Astoria, Queens, with her second husband and a child.
Nathalie’s extended family is considerable and not easily kept straight by someone outside of the clan. Even those relatives who are several branches away on the family tree—seldom even known by most families in America—are held close in Nathalie’s tribe.
Family history has it that a series of tragedies, all within a year or two, led to the founding of the hospital: Ghislaine, Nathalie’s grandmother who was a successful businesswoman and trailblazer for women in Haiti, succumbed to a rare form of lung cancer in 1977. Ten months later, an automobile accident claimed her eighteen-year-old daughter, Mikal, who probably would have survived had she received better treatment. Ghislaine also had a prematurely born great-grandchild who died shortly before her own death.
And while those events no doubt motivated Ghislaine’s sister, Dr. Edith Dreyfuss-Hudicourt, they also were part and parcel of a growing, desperate need for improved medical care in Haiti. Back then, Edith says, going to a private hospital was like staying at a hotel. Patients even had to bring their own physicians. So it was that Edith, an anatomical pathologist and among the first female doctors in her country, and a group of others set out, relying on an existent foundation, to build a hospital that would be staffed around the clock and serve everyone who needed help.
In 1984, the Haitian Community Hospital opened as an outpatient clinic. Over the years, it would expand, adding patient beds, operating rooms, a radiology department, emergency room, and other services. Located just outside Port-au-Prince, it is said to be the first hospital in Haiti with an intensive care unit. And though it operated on a shoestring budget for years, the hospital played a key role when Haiti was driven to its knees.
As outside help began to arrive in Haiti, Nathalie prepared to go there as well. She had agreed to team up with a local healthcare consultant to fly down, but plans kept getting postponed and changed, then finally fell apart altogether. In anticipation, she organized a drive to collect clothing and bandages and got clearance should rescue workers want to land helicopters on the family property in Haiti.
Meanwhile, Dr. Christine Sajous, the eldest of Edith’s eleven children, took leave from her job at Loyola University Medical Center, outside of Chicago, and arrived in Port-au-Prince a week after the earthquake. By then, trauma was no longer a major concern, she says, but scores of patients needed follow-up care and treatment for infection, diarrhea and dehydration, not to mention the usual emergencies like strokes and heart attacks that weren’t going to wait for the crisis to pass.
The bedlam of the first days, when supplies were lacking and emergency care was at its most rudimentary, was over. But the scene was daunting nonetheless. Although the hospital had two operating rooms, two additional suites were built to handle the deluge of injured people, including amputees who needed follow-up surgery. With a shortage of beds, many of its 200-plus patients were put on the floor in hallways or outdoors, with only cardboard between them and the ground.
“A few times by the end of the day I was almost in despair,” says Christine. “Tears were coming. I would say, ‘Really, am I making a difference?’ Because there was so much to do. But then, when you didn’t know what you were going to do, help always came.”
Christine tells of the hospital nearly running out of morphine only to have a caseful arrive from who-knows-where. Food for the patients would be almost gone, then a shipment would appear in the nick of time. “My last night there, they had no oxygen,” she recalls. “They had a sixteen-year-old who they said if he doesn’t get oxygen he’s going to die. Everybody was running around. And then someone came and said, ‘I brought you six cylinders of oxygen; I heard you were looking for oxygen.’”
Amid the frenzy was Christine’s mother and Nathalie’s great aunt, Edith, who at eighty-two years of age put in better than full days at the hospital for two weeks after the quake. She arranged patient transfers, obtained supplies and found places to send the bodies of the dead, among other tasks. “My mother, she knows only work,” says Christine.
“The first two weeks were really tough,” Edith would admit during a telephone interview from Haiti. “But I don’t feel tired. As long as I’m in good health, I don’t see why I wouldn’t help.”
Having suffered heavy losses themselves, many on the hospital’s staff failed to come to work early on. Edith points to family members, neighbors and complete strangers who filled in. Nathalie’s father, for one, showed up with a newly idled cook from the fallen hotel and helped set up a kitchen to feed patients.
As more help and supplies arrived, the hospital got better organized. Tents came, and the patients who were outside had at least some protection from the elements. “When they were ready to leave, they did not want to go because they had no more homes,” says Edith. “Finally, we had to give away the tents so they would leave.”
Look to Tomorrow
What the future holds for Haiti is uncertain. Nathalie, who visits each year, had expected to go back in February for her dad’s birthday. She always thought she would return there to live one day. And though she plans to be there this spring, anything beyond that is cloudy at best.
Much of Haiti’s infrastructure has been destroyed. Government operations have been affected. Businesses and schools are gone. Hospitals are in ruins. Simply removing the debris could take years.
“I can’t see Haiti being rebuilt for at least another ten or twenty years,” Nathalie says.
When Christine was there in January, she drove through downtown Port-au-Prince with some fellow doctors and came away heartsick. “It’s almost like your whole childhood is gone,” she says. “The church where you used to worship, the palace, the school you attended, everything is destroyed. I don’t know how Port-au-Prince is going to recover.”
And yet, she is quick to add, many of the survivors she met were hopeful: “You tell them that they are going to lose a leg, and they say, ‘Well, if God saved my life, He saved my life for a reason.’”
Finding a silver lining in such a disaster is not easy. But perhaps some good will come out of it. A community hospital that has been years in the making proved itself when its country needed it most. Maybe now, Dr. Edith Dreyfuss-Hudicourt says, people will see the need and provide the funding for the hospital to improve and keep growing.
As for Nathalie’s family, the earthquake seems only to have brought a close-knit group even closer. Nathalie tells of one relative from whom she had been estranged who sent her an e-mail in the wake of the disaster. “So now we’re friends on Facebook,” Nathalie says, “and we’re working on a relationship that was stolen from us for so many years.”
Hers has always been a philanthropic family, Nathalie explains, but the earthquake of 2010 summoned a need to do even more. An heirloom or two may have been lost when the earth shook, but her family’s true legacy lives on.
Tax deductible donations to the Haitian Community Hospital can be made through the Haitian Health and Education Foundation, 2320 N.W. 102nd Place, Miami, FL 33172, (954) 442-8850. For more information, visit Haitihosp.org.