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“Heroism All the Time.” A Q&A with a Doctor in Haiti

Some of Father Richard Frechette’s staff are in quake-affected areas, caring for survivors. He spoke with Direct Relief about the situation on the ground and his hospital’s response.


Haiti Earthquake 2021

St. Luke Hospital staff work with earthquake survivors on the ground. (Photo courtesy of St. Luke Hospital)

When a magnitude 7.2 earthquake shook Haiti on Saturday morning, St. Luke’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince already had a team on the ground, caring for local children.

Since then, they’ve spent their mornings suturing and casting patients with minor injuries and helping out in local hospitals in the afternoons.

Father Richard Frechette, a priest and medical doctor at the hospital, described traveling to Haiti’s hard-hit south after the shaking had stopped. Asked about what it was like to watch doctors and nurses caring for earthquake survivors, he had mixed feelings:

“In some ways it’s encouraging and in some ways it turns your stomach because that’s what we did 10 years ago here,” he said. “It’s really satisfying and really humane and really motivating to see them working to help those who are injured. But by the same token, it brings up a lot of bad memories of really grisly things and sad things.”

Because St. Luke’s is still caring for Covid-19 patients, the Port-au-Prince hospital isn’t treating any of the earthquake’s survivors. Instead, they’re focusing on supporting their on-the-ground staff, helping local hospitals, and sourcing medication and building supplies for people whose houses were destroyed.

Frechette sat down with Direct Relief to talk about the challenges of providing post-quake care, driving supplies through dangerous roads, and how this new tragedy differs from Haiti’s calamitous 2010 earthquake.

For the latest on Direct Relief’s response to the earthquake in Haiti and its support for St. Luke’s Hospital and other Haiti-based organizations, visit directrelief.org/emergency/haiti-earthquake-2021/

Direct Relief: What was going on at the hospital in the quake struck and what did you do?

Frechette: Well, it’s a big panic for everybody because they relive all the trauma of 10 years ago or 11 years ago. And people run out and get hurt in the running and bump into things and fall over things. It’s sad to see how much post-traumatic stress syndrome related to the first earthquake [there is].

But we have projects [specifically clinics and schools] in all those areas, Port-Salut, Camp-Perrin, Jeremie itself, Pestel. So we started mobilizing right away for our projects out there. Using here as a base, even the very first day, we started sending out trucks of supplies, and I went out myself the next day to Les Cayes and to Camp-Perrin.

Direct Relief: You mentioned you had projects in the area. What are they?

Frechette: Clinics and schools. So it’s easy then to mobilize the clinic staff right away to do trauma care. Trauma care means what they can do with suturing or smaller wounds or casting. Something more serious, [they] get them to the nearest hospital in Jeremie or Les Cayes or nearby.

At the moment, very fortunately, we have a team of doctors and nurses that were doing summer school health visits with children of our schools in the area. For this particular area at this time, we have a team of 11, which includes doctors and nurses who were able to drop the school wellness visits and start working directly with victims.

Direct Relief: And where are they working?

Frechette: They’re in the area of Les Cayes. They’re in a place called Port-Salut, they’re in Les Cayes itself. They work in a place called Camp-Perrin, and in another place called Maniche, and in another place called Pestel. Different days, they’re going to different places in the affected area. And we also have another team in Jeremie.

St. Luke Hospital staff unload medical supplies. (Photo courtesy of St. Luke Hospital)
St. Luke Hospital staff unload Direct Relief-provided medical supplies in response to the recent earthquake. (Photo courtesy of St. Luke Hospital)

They’re using the schools as clinics, but they offer to [relieve] staff in nearby hospitals. So they might be working in a school in the morning and maybe the hospital at Les Cayes will call and say, “Can you come and help us for the afternoon?”

In the rural areas…we’re trying to network with [clinics] that we know to see how we can supply them and maybe send supplementary staff.

Direct Relief: What are your biggest challenges right now for your team?

Frechette: First, obviously, is finding everything you need in those volumes because we’re trying to help also supply the hospitals for their own work. Tetanus shots and all the medicines, trying to find them in the volumes and then trying to move them, especially by car. We have to go through this gang-infested area to get to the road that goes to the south, and [there are] landslides that block you on the road, especially the road to Jeremie, even though there’s big equipment now trying to lift and plow through that.

We don’t have enough feedback and information yet to know where would be the better priorities, how to organize the day better, in terms of where people seem to be worse off. We don’t have that bandwidth yet.

Far bigger than the medical part is the fact that a lot of people are homeless now in the mountains. We’re having tropical storms right now and it’s cold rain, but even if it were warm rain, to be sleeping out in the rain with your children isn’t ideal by any stretch of the imagination. So we’re trying through our own little micro-networks to see how we can at least put a roof over what’s left of the house and they can use tarps for the walls for now.

Some of the bishops that we know well are requesting materials that they can distribute through their own regional Caritas office. But we’re also doing a lot through our own employees. Tons of people are from that area. So we hear from this little town, that little town what’s there and what it’s like. Then we talk by phone with a…traditional local leader, trying to figure out how many homes at least don’t have a roof.

The challenge will be the materials. It would make sense to buy the lumber and the aluminum roofing there rather than to haul it all the way through these gang-infested areas. But in the provinces, they don’t take credit cards. And if you start doing it in cash, then you’re just opening yourself up to free hunting season for the bandits. It comes down to really having to buy here in Port-au-Prince and then haul it out, with that expense of hauling it all the way out there.

Direct Relief: You were in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake. Let’s talk a little bit about what’s different this time around and what is similar.

Frechette: A fallen building is a fallen building. A crushed person is a crushed prison. It’s sad and tragic. The homeless are homeless, no matter which earthquake it is.

But the big difference is, 300,000 people dead then, and 1,600 declared dead so far. It’s a huge difference. Three thousand fallen buildings compared to 80,000 fallen buildings.

The [2010 earthquake] was totally not manageable. You couldn’t even begin to manage it, even with all the teams that were there from all over the world. It took years and years and years. But this, you don’t quite have that sense of futility.

Direct Relief: Haiti has experienced hardship after hardship. What keeps you going or what gives you hope during such a difficult situation?

Frechette: Hardship after hardship after hardship shows goodship after goodship after goodship. You just keep seeing people that are good and trying and fighting. Do you see the glass as half empty or half full?

Yes, it’s true, for the people it’s very harsh, one thing after the next. It’s really phenomenal, people aren’t tired of fighting to live and trying to take the right care of their children and get to the right future. When you see heroism all the time, it’s very motivating and humbling.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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