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When the necklace is broken

By Martha Hunter Shepard ’66

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written before the devastating string of natural disasters that have affected the U.S. this spring. We want to hear about your recent experiences. To post, please go to the "Your Story" page.

Remains of the School of Nursing at L’Hôpital Université d’État d’Haiti, which collapsed on the entire second year nursing class during an exam

Zanno kase nan sak, grenn li pa pèdi
When the necklace is broken in a bag, its pieces are not lost

For the people of Haiti, the world fell apart on Jan. 12, 2010. The devastating earthquake on that day and the aftershocks that followed have left a country long acquainted with suffering torn asunder. No words can describe it, not for the Haitians, not for those, including many Rhodes alums, who have established schools and hospitals and traveled there on mission trips through the years.

In the January aftermath, two alums journeyed to Haiti on very different missions: Alexi Matousek ’04, a general surgery resident, and playwright and actor Jazmin (Jazzy) Miller ’08, with a group from her church. Working to improve the profound brokenness all around them, they found resilience, love and hope among the people. As the Haitian proverb goes, “When the necklace is broken in a bag, its pieces are not lost.”

Chemen bezwen pa janm long
The road to need is never long

Alexi Matousek ’04 participated in an earthquake relief trip to L’Hôpital Université d’État d’Haiti (HUEH), the largest public hospital in Port-au-Prince. He was a member of a surgical team from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, volunteering with Boston-based Partners In Health (PIH). Since the trip took place five weeks after the devastation of January 12, the team’s mission was focused on wound care rather than emergency surgery.

His words:

In many ways the earthquake was an acute trauma that occurred on top of the chronic disaster of extreme poverty that exists in Haiti. For HUEH, it was no different: A 700-bed hospital that hadn’t been able to pay its 1,800 employees for the four months preceding the earthquake was now tasked with caring for hundreds of severely injured patients in damaged buildings and dealing with a hastily constructed emergency supply chain and several international groups—all trying to coordinate their efforts.

The situation was dire—we had no oral pain medication, only intermittent X rays, and the only lab test available was a basic blood level. We had very few diapers for adult patients and resorted to using sterile surgical gowns as sheets to maintain some dignity for them.

On the surface, the hospital was chaos. A few volunteers were so paralyzed by the lack of resources that they were unable to function, and left. The more stoic, ingenious and resourceful providers (qualities that are essential to living in Haiti, and which the Haitian people provided the lion’s share during the current crisis) were able to look past the shortages and find some remarkable resources: In one corner of the damaged medical ward was a clean, air-conditioned dialysis unit run by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). All the patients had charts; beds were numbered; and there was a system of hospital flow—from a three-tent emergency department, to four functioning operating rooms, to postoperative tents.

Among the various volunteers, we had specialists trained in emergency medicine, trauma/burn surgery, orthopedics, plastic surgery, anesthesia, infectious disease, critical care nursing, physical therapy and no shortage of Haitian pre-professional students who came to translate. Most impressive were the families of the patients, some of whom cleaned nearby patients who had no family.

Our team evaluated more than 200 patients and selected 45 of them who had chronic wounds and no other provider. We cared for them by changing dressings, removing dead tissue on a daily basis and packing the wounds with Dakin’s solution (dilute bleach)-soaked gauze. We also performed 20 operative cases during our 10-day trip.

Another purpose of our trip was to deploy a prototype simplified negative pressure wound therapy (sNPWT) device under humanitarian conditions. In developed countries, providing negative pressure on wounds is a proven therapy that reduces healing time. However, it requires a strong pump and 24-hour electricity. Our device, which uses mechanical energy to provide the suction, was developed by Danielle Zurovcik, a mechanical engineering graduate student at MIT who also accompanied us to Haiti. It costs $4 USD, and worked well on selected wounds. In the future, we hope it will become a useful tool in resource-poor settings. Many of our patients had healing wounds and were successfully signed out to various other teams upon our departure.

I have been traveling to Haiti for 20 years, and I know the Haitian people are well acquainted with suffering. The earthquake destroyed so many lives and so much infrastructure that I expected the spirit of those who remain perhaps would be broken, and that their faith would be shaken. What I found is that the earthquake is another blow, perhaps the most severe in Haiti’s history, but like the many scourges of Haiti’s past, it has not beaten its people into submission. The strength of their faith remains, and the earthquake will be another mountain in this land of mountains. My hope is that the international community, and especially the United States, will this time be a true partner in Haiti’s recovery. For my part, I remain personally and professionally committed to stand in solidarity with an amazing people who have taught me everything I know about dignity, faith and service.

Prototype simplified negative pressure wound therapy (sNPWT) device as applied in Haiti.


L’union fait la force
Unity is strength
(Haitian national motto)

Alexi started traveling to Haiti with his parents when they were elementary school teachers at Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, from 1990-92. In 1997 his family returned to Haiti and founded Literacy for Haiti Inc. (LFH), a 501-c3 nonprofit and faith-based organization to teach literacy to Haitians living in a small village called Damye Jesse in the mountains of central Haiti. He returned there each summer from 1997-2007. The programs of LFH have expanded over the years and now include a microfinance loan program, a reforestation project, a women’s sewing cooperative and basic first-aid healthcare.

While at Rhodes, he was a Burch Scholar (now Bonner) and integrated his interest in service in Haiti with his college activities. He taught a semester-long class in Haitian Kreyol to prepare other Rhodes students to travel to Haiti with LFH. Rachel Frantz ’07 and Laura Vargo Boywid ’06 both took the class and traveled to Haiti with LFH in summer 2004. He also wrote, acted in and musically produced a play with Theatre Professor Julia “Cookie” Ewing called “Babouket la Tonbe: Stories from a life in rural Haiti,” which also starred Erin McGhee ’06, Kyle Gehres ’04, Morgan McCrary ’05, Matt Reed ’04 and Jeanne Tyson ’06. The play raised $3,000 in two performances via donations and an auction of original artwork.

“I am profoundly grateful and humbled by the tremendous flexibility my professors showed in challenging me and allowing me to explore ways to integrate the things I learned in Haiti with those I was learning at Rhodes, especially Cookie Ewing and Hamlet Dobbins,” says Matousek. “I remain very humbled by the tremendous lessons in service and faith I have gained from the Haitian people, and would be happy to remain in contact with Rhodes students interested in service in the third world and Haiti in particular in the future.”

Alexi Matousek ’04 explains wound care to a patient at L’Hôpital Université d’État d’Haiti



Haitian children with Jazzy Miller ’08, wearing her Rhodes peer assistant “Ask Me” T-shirt

Deg aje pa peche
To get by is not a sin

Jazzy Miller ’08 arrived in Haiti Jan. 26, the very day Alexi Matousek’s surgical team departed Port-au-Prince. At Rhodes, the two missed each other by three months, not just a few hours: Matousek graduated in May 2004, Miller entered as a first-year that August.

Her words:

I traveled to the mountains, to Camp de la Grâce near the town of Pignon, about 80 miles from Port-au-Prince. Before the earthquake, it was a five-hour drive. Now it’s much longer. I went with a mission team of 12 from my church, Fellowship Memphis, plus three others including former NFL cornerback and Memphis native Reggie Howard.

We went under the umbrella of Little Rock, AR-based Hosean International Ministries, which in 1993, established Collège de la Grâce, an 800-student secondary school near Pignon. The camp where we stayed is the school’s retreat center.

There were many children and parents there—parentless children and childless parents—and more arrived every day. There are probably more than 900 people at the camp now, and 1,400 are expected by the end of summer. The children are sent to this camp because of the school. They take their education very seriously.

The Haitian officials at first were hesitant about letting groups in—they were just trying to get resources in. Also, we weren’t what they were expecting, but they came to accept us.

There was really no structure—they didn’t have time for that. We were told, “Just go where you’re needed.” I stayed for nine days. I’d color with the children one day and hang out with the teenagers the next, playing soccer and basketball and listening to music. I was all over the place. The children made art. The counselors encouraged them to draw and color, to tell us how they were feeling. The pictures speak for themselves.

It took a little while for people to warm up to us. At first, some were still dazed. Some felt guilty that they were alive and their relatives weren’t. Some were a little standoffish. When they saw that we must be OK after all, the children came to us.

Communicating wasn’t too difficult. I don’t speak French or Kreyol. Some Haitians speak Spanish because the Dominican Republic is next door. I minored in Spanish at Rhodes, and there were translators at the camp. There was also the language of theater, my major, so I just acted out a lot of things.

When the children asked who I was, I told them, “I’m an African American.” They didn’t understand that concept. They thought all Americans are blue-eyed blondes, so I had to explain that we all came from Africa—some of the ships went to Haiti, some to other islands, some to America. They asked, “So we’re kind of like the same race?”

Our group slept in a small building—one room for women, one for men. I bunked up with 11 other women. I’d brought a sleeping bag and mosquito netting from Memphis. It was pretty tight, but we made it.

The weather was hot. In the mountains, it would cool off at 2 or 3 in the morning. Also, it was the back end of the dry season, so everything was dusty—you had to be reminded of the fact that you wouldn’t be completely clean until you got home.

At the camp, the evacuees get breakfast, lunch and dinner. Food and supplies are donated through Hosean Ministries. There was goat, chicken and some beef, but I’m a vegetarian, so meals for me included rice and beans, or peanut butter and bread.

We entered and left Haiti through the Dominican Republic. In Port-au-Prince, we saw life still going on— people trying to make a living, selling bread, fish—among the buildings that had fallen like dominoes. When we crossed the border, leaving the destruction and poverty of Haiti, we felt like we were on another planet. There were vacationers in the Dominican Republic, mostly from the U.S., kicking back for the weekend. One guy said he had heard of the earthquake, and sort of knew the Dominican Republic is connected to Haiti. Back in the states I realized, talking with my friends, how easy it is for people here to forget what happened. It was strange being in comfortable places I had inhabited before this experience.

Lespwa fè viv
Hope makes one live

How was I inspired to go to Haiti? About a year ago I was compelled to write a one-woman show, “The Journey of Truth,” about Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and women’s rights activist, and I’ve been touring that.

Sojourner Truth was a woman who was moved by what she called the voice of God. Whenever God spoke to her to go somewhere, she went. I found that pretty interesting. It takes a lot of courage to do that. I hadn’t realized it, but that’s what God was teaching me in doing that show.

When I heard about the earthquake, I didn’t know why it had to happen, but I heard the voice of God telling me to go. Just go. So I said, “OK, I’ll go. I don’t know how, I don’t know why or when, but I’ll just go.” The next morning when I woke up there was an e-mail in my inbox saying, “Hey, we’re going together—a last-minute mission team to Haiti.” I said, “OK.”

Drawings by children at Camp de la Grâce So I went not really knowing what to expect, but I knew that God would provide and tell me what to do. Then in May, I went to Uganda and Kenya for two weeks—one week in each country—with my church mission team.

I’m still touring the show. I’ve taken it to local churches, nonprofits, schools, colleges, as well as nearby towns and as far away as Baton Rouge and New Orleans. So there’s interest out there, and I’ve had several inquiries. A church in Los Angeles is interested, and I’m looking at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and other universities.

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