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Sylvain from Thailand: Haiti - Another Tour of Duty

After a few years as a Scientology Volunteer Minister (VM for short, a.k.a. "yellow shirt"), your name moves to the top of the address book. Next to it, it probably says something like "Call if all hell breaks loose". Wouldn't be so bad, except that hell is such a fragile place, these days, and with Haiti's earthquake, phones were ringing off the hook.

At least, that's how I imagine things. As I was packing my bags, I couldn't help but think how things had changed since my first VM operation. First the Tsunami in Thailand and in Banda Aceh, then Yogyakarta's earthquake and more recently the cyclone in Myanmar: I went from wide-eyed "newbie" to regular Scientology Volunteer Minister. I had seen blood, corpses, pain and despair, and it changed me, but more than anything, knowing that I could do something about it changed me. When you know that, you can't just say "That's sad" and flip to the next TV channel.

After the fact, a lot of people ask "What was it like, in Haiti?" so on my way back, I wrote this short (ok, not so short) report to describe my experience in Haiti. It’s written from my point of view only. Readers beware. ;-)

Flying from Thailand to Haiti took me a couple days. First to Los Angeles, and then boarding a charter plane with the rest of the Scientology team to land in Port au Prince in the middle of the night. Coming off straight on the tarmac and unloading your own plane is an interesting experience. No passport control, no metal detectors... and no baggage service. You jump down the ramp and go grab the supplies. Several tons of food and medical equipment and whatnot crammed in the cargo hold which you have to unload by hand, box by box, bag by bag.

Fortunately we have a good team. There were a couple hundred of us there and we made a short drill of this before hopping into the back of the military transports provided by the UN, the Dutch Army, the Americans or whoever else. It doesn't matter, from now on, we are all in the same boat. Anything we have is theirs and vice versa.

Our main camp was right on the airport grounds, next to the various search and rescue teams. A big yellow tent for the supplies and "living area" and a few of smaller tents for people to sleep in. With most of the local infrastructure gone or unsafe, camping was our best option. I laid down outside, gazing at the stars. It's close to 4:00 am. In 2 hours, the sun will be up and the real work will begin.

After feasting on peanut-butter & pepperoni sandwiches - I would like to make this really clear: it wasn't my idea! - I head out to the general hospital. According to our guys on the ground, it's the main hospital at this time. As expected, wards are full and patients are laying on beds outside of the buildings, protected by a sort of canvas stretched between the trees. Patients look gloomy and the wounds are pretty nasty. Broken legs and arms are a lesser evil, many had to be amputated, and they are just staying out there, hopeless.

Things weren't looking up, but at least they already had first aid and a place to stay, so we were able to get to work right off the bat with assists. If you have never heard of Scientology assists, in a few words, they are very simple yet powerful procedures to help a person reestablish communication with his body and environment. This can result in faster and more complete recovery from injuries and illnesses. (You can do a free course online here and learn how it's done within a couple days). Assists can take anything from a few minutes to a few hours, but they always provide relief, and quite often, they are nothing short of miraculous.

Being one of the few French speakers in the team, I helped the other VMs to get started with the patients before getting down to business myself with a gentleman suffering from a broken leg and a number of contusions. He was gloomy and rather desperate. He a lost many, but still had family near the Dominican Republic border. However, he was in no condition to get there and was extremely anxious. I started. Half an hour later, he smiled and demonstrated clear signs of relief, so we ended there. Other VMs seemed to be doing well, so I asked a nurse if she had a patient experiencing a lot of pain. There were unfortunately many, but she led me straight to an older gentleman. His right leg was broken in several places and he had wounds all over. His right forearm was half covered with scabs. I started another touch assist.

To my surprise, the nurse stayed with me, watching. Was just as well, as he spoke no French and I had her teach me the commands in Creole (Haiti's main language). The first twenty minutes were relatively uneventful. He couldn't feel his toes and was very much unaware of his body, but as I got to his right forearm he jolted from the pain. The nurse reached for painkillers, but I convinced her to let me keep going. She reluctantly agreed.

As expected, the pain went away a few minutes later and he started to doze off. The nurse seemed impressed and tried to get me to the next patient. It took a while to explain it wasn't over and to her dismay, I kept at it while he was apparently sleeping. This went on for about an hour, until he returned to consciousness. He was smiling. His skin tone was markedly better and the wound on his arm looked better then before the assist. He didn't feel any pain, so we ended off there, and I headed over to the next patient, nurse in tow.

It was a lady this time. Her face was badly swollen with bluish marks. I can't really remember what her main wound was. Like many victims of the earthquake, her whole body had taken a pretty nasty beating and she had a few broken bones, like most. By the end of the assist (another long one), her face wasn't looking that swollen no more.

At sun down, we headed back to camp in time to find out the Miami University was opening a new hospital right on the airport grounds, in large air-conditioned white tents. I got with a few other volunteers and went there to help move the supplies. It had been neatly ordered before shipping, or so I am told, yet the pile of stuff that actually made it at the hospital was anything but orderly. Enough supplies to cover half a football field, all jumbled together, syringes boxes mixed up with food and baby diapers and military rations. One of our teams had been at it all day, sorting through that mess, and it was starting to take shape.

The next day, I headed back to the new hospital while my previous team returned to the general hospital. I figured that new hospital could use all the help it could get, and it turns out I wasn't wrong. Just as we arrived, one of the head doctor asked me to distribute food and water to the patients, and as soon as that was done, he asked me to do guard duty at the entrance. Big as these tents were, space was scarce with as many as 200 people getting admitted in a single day. With the constant flow of people coming and going, doctors and nurses had a hard time getting medical supplies or taking care of the patients. So there I was, standing outside of the tent in the sun, keeping unauthorized persons away from the area and controlling the near endless flow of people trying to get in. Kind of like being a bouncer at the door of the hottest club in town. 9:00 am to 11:30 pm, no break, sun hot as hell, but fortunately with the company of another VM. A really cool guy that went by the name of Will.

A few feet away, doctors were operating on patients with open wounds. They would regularly come to us and ask for whatever it was they needed; from IV fluids to food or medicine or whatever else. We quickly appointed another VM to serve as a messenger between the wards and the supply room. Long before the day was over, anyone who needed anything would just ask a yellow shirt... or was told to do so. The word was out that we could get stuff done. At night, doctors and nurses would come and tell us that our work was very appreciated.

Back at the camp, I met the general hospital team. They had a couple written messages from "my patients" over there wondering how come I didn't show up again. Was a tough choice, but we were getting the handle of things at the Miami hospital tent and with the volume of new patients, I decided to stay there another couple days. I tell ya, I never knew standing at the entrance was such a hard job. Fortunately, things were getting organized by now and the hospital was going like a well-oiled machine. Supplies were organized and available on demand. There was enough space in the tents for the doctors to work and patients were getting fed regularly. Still patients were pretty gloomy and their relatives were hardly better. I imagine what it must be like to be one of them: lose everything within an instant, and stay day and night near injured family members in pain while doctors operate just a few meters away, patients often screaming or crying.

That night, John Travolta flew his plane in the airport, with tons of supplies and another team of doctors, so we went out to greet him and help unload the supplies. His plane was absolutely packed full. We got to take a few photos with him before he left. Everyone was cheering and I must say I have never seen people so excited to unload boxes. ;-)

Amongst the passengers flown on Mr. Travolta's plane was the president of the Mass Casualties Center. Charged with the writing of a manual on disaster management for the Red Cross, he wanted to discuss my experience with handling the bodies of the victims in Thailand, following the Tsunami. He requested me to write up a few pages for his book. With years of experience in disaster management, he also had a lot to share. We went together to the General Hospital on the next day. People were looking quite a bit better. They were fed, for one thing (believe it or not, until our VMs took charge of it, the food & water wasn't getting distributed), but more than that, assists were being done and patients were in a much better mood than they were at first. I got to see again the nurse and some of "my patients". The old man was positively beaming and asked for another assist. The wound on his forearm was now much better. As his daughter was by his side, I decided to teach her how to do the assist and guided her along for 15-20 minutes. The lady was doing much better as well. In fact, her face wasn't swollen anymore. I gave a few more assists to other patients, with good results before returning to the Miami hospital, just in time to witness a genuine miracle.

The day before, gloom was so thick you needed a machete to carve your way in, but as we walked in, the whole ward was singing along with a couple musicians. You could feel the joy vibrate from all corners of the room. It was an unbelievable spiritual experience. And what do you know, as of this very afternoon, our team had started to deliver assists. Now there was hope. Was it related? I think so. Where we were previously getting requests for drugs and supplies, and everything else, we were now also getting requests by doctors to deliver assists to patients.

My last few days on the ground ran somewhat similarly to the previous days. I resumed my position in handling security for the hospital, until the last evening when I decided to get some assists done, just for the heck of it. Did a couple of them with good results before getting to my last patient. It was a young man. Well, a few years younger than me anyway. He suffered from a lower back injury and his legs were paralyzed from the knees down. He had been laying on his back ever since the earthquake, unable to lay in any other position. I decided again for a touch assist (it's a great, all-purpose, assist. If you learn nothing else, learn this one).

At first, he was pretty much resigned to his fate. As I reached his chins, he kept saying it was no use because he couldn't feel anything from his knees down. I told him to just follow the commands. He was getting drowsy. I went all the way down his legs, and he kept telling me he couldn't feel anything, but as I worked my way back up, he could feel a couple spots on his right leg. He was however too much out of it to realize the change. I kept at it. The next time around, I got him to feel the top of his chins and a few more spots on the right leg. The rest, no dice. The assist went on, gaining inches on each pass. His lower back pain turned on. I kept at it. It had already been well over an hour. I knew we were on the right track. A few minutes later, he started to get more alert.

Going over his legs again and again, he finally realized that he could actually feel my finger on most parts of his legs. He asked me to press harder on some spots so that he could really feel, and then asked me to bend his legs for him. At first, I was doing all the work, but soon he could stretch them back, all by himself. He was looking all bewildered and relieved. He could now bend his legs by himself too, and roll on his side. The pain was gone. I ended the assist and proudly wrote on the patient sheet "touch assist - can now move his legs". Then I told him to inform his doctor of the fact first thing in the morning, as he was supposed to be flown over to Miami for more advanced treatments. He looked at me in awe and said "Yes... Thanks to mister X". I was swollen with pride. It’s a tremendous feeling, no matter how many times you do it, seeing someone else recover that fast is always special. It was the perfect ending.

Anyway, that's pretty much it for this trip, but there is something else I have to say, that doesn't really show on this report: How amazing my fellow VMs are. All of them. From the "rookies" to the VM vets, everyone was pulling his or her weight and producing miracle after miracle. If you think my story is something special, well perhaps, but you have to hear some of the other stories around. I fell in love with my team all over again. It's a great feeling to know that we are in this together, and that we can really count on each other. I love ya, guys!