Abbotsford maternity nurse Lorraine Reimer is used to working in a top-notch hospital with the latest amenities and state-of-the-art technology.
So spending eight days treating people impacted by the cholera epidemic in Haiti was a “sobering” experience, she said.
“It feels odd to come back to so many luxuries that we take for granted,” she said yesterday.
Reimer left for Cite Soleil – near Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince – on Dec. 31 with a team of medical professionals who volunteered through the relief agency Samaritan’s Purse.
Their task was to provide IV therapy to some of the thousands stricken by cholera, a potentially fatal bacterial infection that causes severe diarrhea and dehydration. It is spread through ingesting contaminated food or water.
Reimer assisted in the women’s ward of a makeshift clinic that could accommodate up to 230 patients and had about 15 medical staff working at a time.
Each shift was about 14 hours long. Reimer’s main task was to set up and manage the IVs that replenished patients’ fluid levels.
The work was conducted under primitive conditions with no running water, no curtains for patient privacy, no towels and no pillows. Treated water was transported from elsewhere in large, plastic containers.
The clinic itself consisted of a wooden frame, a tin roof and plastic walls. It was located on a playing field surrounded by the rubble of buildings destroyed in the earthquake a year ago, and was protected by razor wire.
The volunteers slept in a compound which was a 35-minute drive from the clinic. During the trips to and from each day, Reimer was able to observe the devastation the earthquake had caused.
Tents littered the landscape, and few homes could be seen, but Reimer was impressed with the Haitians’ spirit. During her shifts, she connected with some of the local medical workers who shared their stories with her, often through a translator.
“They said, ‘It’s so hard to see your country hit by disaster after disaster, but we have to have hope because that’s all we have,’ “ she said.
Reimer said no one died in the clinic while she was there, although there were a couple of close calls. Haitians who are stricken by cholera in the middle of the night will often wait until morning to seek medical care, due to safety concerns about venturing out at night.
However, cholera can be fatal within four to eight hours.
One man was brought to the clinic at about 4 a.m. with a temperature of 34 degrees C (normal is 37 degrees), indicating he was near death. He was wrapped in silver emergency blankets to contain his body heat and was placed on two IVs. He pulled through.
Now that she’s back home, Reimer is eager to volunteer for another similar experience, whether in Haiti or elsewhere.
“It’s hard to enjoy an experience that’s such a trial for someone else … It’s so sad, but you know you’re saving lives.”