Six weeks in Haiti

None of my responses feels adequate.

Questions such as "How was Haiti?" or "How was your trip?" make it sound as though I was on vacation. But I was not on vacation in Haiti, so the usual answers -- great, fine or even okay -- are just not appropriate. Like every other volunteer, consciously or unconsciously, I want everyone to know that I sacrificed my own well-being in an attempt to help Haiti's people recover from the horrific damage wrought by January's earthquake.

Still, I know that "horrible" is probably not the right response -- even though that is among the words that spring to mind when I am asked about my recent time in Port-au-Prince as the volunteer coordinator for Partners in Health. I have been a medical volunteer in Haiti, on and off, since 2002. But my most recent trip, from late January to early March, has left me struggling to describe what I saw.

There are few words other than "horrible" to explain the stench emanating from the nursing school at General Hospital, as Hôpital Universitaire d'État d'Haïti is known. I couldn't hold my breath the entire time it took to walk by the remains of the building, which collapsed during exams and killed essentially a first-year class of nursing students. It seemed that news had reached around the globe: Somehow, I felt obliged to point out the crumbled building to every volunteer group or donor tour; I am not sure how many times I said, "And this is the nursing school" only to hear people behind me murmur death tolls.

I could say my time in Haiti was "inspiring," but that answer is more about the people of Haiti than what I did or saw, and it feels wrong that my reply elicits a smile instead of a cringe. Doctors such as Alix Lassègue and nurses such as Marlaine Thompson, who have been working tirelessly since Jan. 12, are inspiring. They are more than a doctor and administrator. They are the backbone of a hospital that was overwhelmed with patients immediately after the earthquake and then flooded with volunteers and supplies.

These days, however, they are striving to manage a hospital with neither the staff nor the infrastructure to procure the equipment and supplies necessary to continue caring for those who were lucky enough to survive the earthquake but are dying from post-disaster complications. And in the middle of the night, when one is working furiously within a broken system, one that produces increased early childhood and maternal mortality, "inspiration" is not among the things that come to mind -- especially not when walking past cribs with dead babies in them.

The most neutral response about my time in Haiti is "challenging." It was physically challenging. With the temperature always 90 degrees or hotter, the tents, especially the pediatric tents, were like incubators -- at least 10 degrees warmer than outside. I had never experienced such cramps: Every night my legs would go into spasms that were only somewhat relieved by a daily banana. The trip was emotionally challenging. I avoided the morgue, which I had seen on TV, for the first couple of weeks. But avoiding death, such a large part of life in Haiti, was a challenge that I could not overcome. Also there were logistical challenges. As a volunteer coordinator, I had an insane desire to keep everyone happy, which often left me frustrated with each individual's demands.

While "challenging" makes sense and conveys the impression of my being better off in the end, it feels incomplete. I want people to hear about more than just my challenge. The bigger challenge is that of isolation, homelessness, hunger and disease, all of which I witnessed, but none of which I experienced. I want to convey the resilience in the midst of suffering.

I have found that I cannot respond to questions with words. I mostly nod as my interrogator comes up with his or her own response. A healthy fear of tears stifles any inadequate description of the past six weeks. I am left with my own thoughts of horror and inspiration, and the challenge of Haiti.

Natasha Archer, a resident in internal medicine and pediatrics at Brigham and Women's Hospital/Children's Hospital in Boston, recently spent six weeks as the volunteer coordinator for Partners in Health and as liaison between Partners in Health and Haiti's largest hospital.