“Get down! Get down! It’s gunshots!” The local paramedic yelled out.
I was sitting at my desk in triage in the midst of writing a prescription for albuterol and ipratropium bromide for my COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) patient when I heard the shooting. It was my first shift on a medical mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and I was the only doctor covering the hospital that night.
Still naïve and incredulous, I thought the loud noises could’ve been, oh I don’t know, fireworks? Something that broke? The truth was, I had no idea. Despite working in the South Bronx, I wasn’t quite familiar with the sound of gunshots so close to me. I nonchalantly peeled my eyes away from my paper script – something I wasn’t quite used to – since at home everything is computerized, and looked at the paramedic who had already ducked to the ground and was knocking on the wall to see if it was made of concrete or wood.
“Is this for real?” was all I could muster to say. This had got to be a joke, I thought. What are we, in the movies?
“Get down! Get down!” He shouted again.
I then realized that this was no joke and quickly dove under my desk. The Haitian paramedic, although alarmed, had an amused expression on his face. I guess they go through this all the time. I saw him scurry gingerly along the concrete wall to get to the light switch and turn all the lights off. So there I was, in complete darkness, squatting under a desk in a local hospital in Haiti, hiding from flying bullets. We hid there for a while in silence. The only sound was the labored breathing of my COPD patient who was sitting across the room. He did not try to hide or even move from his seat; he was too out of breath.
After we were fairly certain that the shooting had passed, we slowly emerged from our hiding spots. A few ventured out to see what was going on. No one was sure where the shooting had come from exactly. A few speculated that perhaps one of the hospital guards, stationed outside the metal gate of the hospital, was the one who fired the shots after seeing something suspicious. Or perhaps he was the one who got shot. When I suggested that someone go check on our guard to see if he was ok, no one budged. It was self-preservation.
Although Haiti is now in a “rebuilding” phase after the catastrophic earthquake took away hundreds of thousands of lives and changed the lives of millions on January 12, 2010, many areas of the country still remain dilapidated and crime-infested. Hôpital Bernard-Mevs where I was volunteering is located in an area called Solidarité in the capital of Haiti, and it wasn’t considered a particularly safe area. In order to protect volunteers and locals alike, the hospital is constantly under surveillance by guards armed with machine guns. No one was allowed in or out of the hospital gate without the guards’ approval.
Volunteering abroad on a humanitarian mission had long been a dream of mine since my teenage years. Lack of real medical skills and especially lack of funds prevented me from taking a trip sooner. But finally, this year, using my Christmas vacation time and thanks to the generous donations of family and friends, I went on my first medical mission with an organization called Project Medishare, an affiliate of the University of Miami.
Little did I know that on my first night of my first medical mission, I would be dodging from bullets! After the fanfare of the shooting died down, I remembered that I still had a patient to tend to. Paul was a thin and frail man in his sixties. He came complaining of worsening shortness of breath for the past couple of days and he did not look good. I quickly resumed my work.
The adventure was just starting.