Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Washing away the smell of death

It was a relief to read the sign on the wall: no dead bodies after 3.30 pm. My watch showed it was 4pm. Thankfully, when I poked my head into the morgue at the Hôpital Universitē de l’Ētat de Haiti, also known as the General Hospital, the room was empty.

Outside, though, the ground was grimly sticky underfoot – a reminder of how many bodies had been taken to the public morgue for disposal since the earthquake that struck Haiti nearly two weeks ago.

I’d come to the public hospital, one of the largest in Haiti, to look at the work Oxfam had been doing there. My colleague, Karine Deniel, a public health specialist, focussing on preparedness and emergency response work, had been called to the hospital the week before.

She had been visibly shocked by what she saw: the hospital was packed with more than 1,000 patients, many of whom were surgery cases. There was no running water and no electricity.

Outside the morgue, she said, piles of bodies were laid out covered with flies. There was no water close by for doctors to make plaster casts for those with broken limbs; and water she saw in a bucket used to mop the floor was black. “It smelled bad; it smelt of death”, she said.

The morgue
Oxfam installed a 5,000 litre water bladder in the hospital, and also trucked water to the site so that soiled surgery clothes and bedding could be washed, the kitchen could re-open, and workers in the morgue could wash down the floors, and lessen the putrefying sickly smell of corpses.

water bladder

“Oxfam has helped”, said Hencia Josena, one of the laundrywomen. “Before we had no water, no soap.”

Hencia Josena

Staff told me nothing could be washed in the hospital after the earthquake struck until Oxfam trucked in water more than a week later. “Before Oxfam came it was a mess”, said laundry operator, Jean-Robert Deus. “In the surgery room, doctors had blood stains over their clothes.”

Many patients still remain outside the main hospital buildings, many of which were badly destroyed, being treated in tents. They’re scared to go indoors, for fear of after-shocks.

The dedication of staff working there both impressed and humbled me. From the laundry washers, to the kitchen staff, to the steady stream of volunteer medics like George Williams, from New York City, who works in the triage area.

“As bad as things are, this is the best humanitarian effort that I have ever seen”, he told me, also praising the “phenomenal” Haitian doctors he had worked with. “It’s the spirit, the humanitarian effort reaching out from all over the world.”

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