“Nothing can replace the human touch. That’s what I found in this experience,” said KAY SHANK ’85 MSN ’92, as her eyes filled with tears. She was speaking of the 2,334 suffering Haitians whom the Friends of the Children of Haiti (FOTCOH) clinic volunteers treated during their medical mission following the catastrophic January 12 earthquake. “Our simple human touch tells the Haitians we care.”
Healing Haitians has been a calling for Kay Shank for 13 years. “I would never have considering traveling to Haiti on my first medical mission in 1997 if I had not earned my nursing degree,” said Shank. “Both my Bradley nursing degrees are gifts that keep on giving. Bradley certainly gave me the gift of being able to heal.” Attending Bradley was Shank’s second life because she was a stay-at-home mother who raised three children before deciding to become a nurse.
After five years on the oncology floor at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Shank moved into the position of nursing recruiter, so she truly embraces the opportunities in Haiti to provide direct patient care. After all, she said, “Once a nurse, always a nurse.” Although Shank still believes her first mission to Haiti was her most memorable, her recent January trip was one she’ll never forget.
Larry, her husband of 43 years, had left for Haiti a week earlier and was inside the clinic in Cyvadier, 25 miles from the quake’s epicenter in the capital, Port-au-Prince, when the magnitude 7.0 earthquake occurred. Along with team leaders Dick and Barb Hammond, he was preparing the clinic for 22 additional volunteers, including his wife. A staff of two physicians, one surgeon, five nurses, two pharmacists, two EMTs, and several volunteers had been scheduled to arrive in early January for the first of six two-week clinics FOTCOH has sponsored annually for the last 20-plus years. The group treats a total of about 15,000 patients each year and has made great strides in combatting hypertension, scabies, worms, TB, AIDS, and diabetes. When news of the quake reached Peoria, the team quickly repacked for completely different types of injuries.
Seven hours after the quake, Shank was reassured that her husband and the Hammonds were safe. Fortunately, the Haitians had built the clinic with steel reinforcements to withstand hurricanes due to Cyvadier’s location on the southern coast. Although the clinic sustained some damage, it maintained power and water thanks to its new Caterpillar generator.
Flying into Haiti
Once the logistical nightmare of flying into Haiti was resolved through the use of eight small chartered planes from Florida, the group landed in Jacmel, one week after the quake. A port city of 40,000 residents and Haiti’s cultural center, Jacmel provides some of the clinic’s supplies. But the city lay in ruins, with an estimated 10 percent of its population dead. However, each member of the team arrived with a carry-on containing personal supplies for two weeks and two 45-pound duffel bags filled with medications and supplies — $100,000 worth donated by OSF.
“I have no other way of describing our first impression except total devastation on top of perpetual poverty,” said Shank. “It’s impossible to share the experience unless you go to Haiti, see it, smell it, breathe it, and live it. Your heart just breaks.”
Eager to begin work, the team opened the clinic the next morning with triage and provider stations outside, and a stocked pharmacy inside. Grief-stricken men, women, and children filled Shank’s chair each day, needing Creole translators to relate their stories and injuries. “There was not one patient in my chair who did not thank us for our help,” said Shank. “It was one sad story after another. But the Haitians keep putting one foot in front of the other because this is the life they have. The loss for surviving Haitians is incomprehensible.”
Many had journeyed from Port-au-Prince over a rugged mountain road, some on motor scooter, others on a tap tap (crowded bus) in desperate need of medical care. One woman rode on a motor scooter for three hours across the mountains with a broken leg. She had lost her husband and one of her sons, but her other son had dug her out of the rubble. Hundreds waited quietly in line for treatment under the hot sun, often for as long as seven hours.
Fulfilling a promise
Now back in the states, thanks to the volunteer efforts of United Airlines, Shank’s voice often trembled as she reflected on the misery of her beloved Haitians. Her office is filled with photos of many of her patients over the years, and picturesque tropical landscapes that belie the harsh realities of the island. She picked up a cherished photo of a young mother, her first patient 13 years ago. Although Shank received word that she had died later that year, Shank had promised the woman that she would return to Haiti. “She is the reason I go back each year,” Shank said. “There is so much goodness in people. I guess I always go back to the goodness.”
Emphasizing that the challenge for the Haitians is just beginning, Shank stressed that there is no sanitation, no running water, and very little shelter. Haitians will be faced with disease after disease — dysentery, diphtheria, and so much more. Volunteers are needed to make a difference now and for many years to come. “Children need homes. They are beautiful, beautiful children, a joyful people,” said Shank. “Now, they have such sorrowful expressions. My heart remains in Haiti. The people of Haiti are my heroes.”