UIW students donate time, expertise after Haiti earthquake

By Rebecca Esparza, ’99 BBA, ’04 MBA

Peggy Pais comforts a 5-year-old Haitian orphan, awaiting the finalization of his adoption papers.

Kathryn Norton didn’t set out to change the world, but her simple idea of spreading Christian service would eventually have an impact on countless lives.

On Jan. 12, a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti, leveling buildings and killing an estimated 230,000 people. According to the American Red Cross, an additional 300,000 were injured and more than a million Haitians were left homeless.

Norton, a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) student in the final semester of her graduate nursing studies at the University of the Incarnate Word, could not sit idly by and do nothing. Reflecting on the school’s emphasis on social justice and community service, she decided to lend her talents as a nurse toward relief efforts in Haiti.

But missing 14 days of classes seemed impossible, so she asked her instructor, Irene Gilliland, about the possibility of receiving school credit for traveling to Haiti.

The rest, as they say, is history.

“If I could take all my nursing students abroad to practice nursing, I would,” said Gilliland, instructor in the School of Nursing and Health Professions. “Since she would be working with adults, we could make the trip count toward clinical hours. It was a win-win situation as far as I was concerned.”

Gilliland noted she has taken students abroad in years past to study healthcare in China, the Galapagos Islands/Amazon rain forest and Africa.

Not all of the medical team’s work involved patient care. Boxes of supplies needed to be sorted and put away. Many supplies were expired.

“Traveling to other countries allows nursing students to view patient care from a totally different perspective. We’ve sent three students to Haiti this year and more are waiting to be deployed,” she said. “Providing care in the United States is totally different from treating patients in Haiti. In addition to high volume of patients, language and cultural barriers, and few resources, you get little sleep, little food, and are not bathing regularly. It takes stamina and creativity to be effective.”

Norton said her training as a nurse and as a disaster response team member in Texas could not prepare her for the devastation she witnessed firsthand in Haiti.

“There is no running water there. The stench is overwhelming. When you see the locals preparing food, you know it’s contaminated. Everyone is living outside. They are people who genuinely need our help,” she said.

During her two weeks there she didn’t sleep much.

“We were living like the locals. Of course, we had cots to sleep, but the patients don’t stop coming just because you have to sleep. We were giving around-the-clock care.”

Rosanna Estrada

Rosanna Estrada has started the process to adopt two brothers from an orphanage in Haiti where she volunteered after the earthquake.

Norton’s travel was made possible by a sponsorship from Angel Staffing, a San Antonio-based medical staffing agency. She also recruited two fellow CNS students, Rosanna Estrada and Peggy Pais, to donate their time and skills in Haiti.

The trio traveled light, but took their own food so they could be self-sufficient while in Haiti, not depleting what few local resources existed.

“One large duffle bag was our luggage, which included baby wipes for bathing, a disposable toothbrush, Crystal Light to mix with local water, packaged tuna, beef jerky and dried fruit to make sure we had some nutrition,” Norton said.

The lack of infrastructure only compounded already stressful living conditions.

“Haiti does not have a sewer system, so the toilet water just drains out into the street. They are accustomed to contaminated water. We had to teach them not to cook with water that was contaminated. They were cooking with water from their toilet, which was making them sick and sending them back to the emergency room.”

Pais, set to finish her graduate work this summer, was also frustrated by the situation.

“There is no structure over there. There’s no sewer, no police, no jobs. That is why they are so poor, but they are very religious. They didn’t look at this earthquake as something bad, but something that brought worldwide attention to their living conditions.”

Kathryn Norton

Kathryn Norton takes a break on her cot in the volunteer medical staff building where she stayed in Haiti.

On this her first international trip, Pais was taken aback by all the tents, especially the ones where patients had camped out in front of the hospital.

“Patients were screened by guards and only emergencies could be seen after 4 p.m. We treated a lot of patients for malaria and typhoid,” she added. “The locals were very appreciative of the care they were getting.”

But she knows things could get much worse.

“Hurricane season will be the worst because everyone is still living in tents. It will be years before they really dig out from all the rubble.”

For Estrada, the trip to assist the people of Haiti has taken the most life-changing turn: She is in the process of adopting two brothers, ages 14 and 10, from an orphanage she visited while there. She’s not married and wasn’t looking to adopt.

“One of the children asked me if I could be his mother, and my heart went out to him. Without hesitating I said yes, and I will try everything in my power to bring him home.”

Estrada, who has now been to Haiti twice and is preparing a third visit later this summer, was thankful for the hands-on experience she received for minor medical procedures like suturing and stapling.

She recalled an accident involving a vehicle that hit a treeand fell on numerous tents. Estrada helped treat the more than 60 people who were injured.

The people of Haiti and medical volunteers struggled to find clean water after the earthquake.

“It looked like one of those dramatic scenes from a medical television show. We were quickly triaging patients and moving to the next one, treating the most critically ill first.”

The hardships of bathing in a bucket, among other challenges, were all worth the sacrifice, Estrada said.

One case in particular attracted worldwide attention: a 13-year-old boy whose mother died on top of him under a massive pile of rubble.

“The weight of his mother on his arm was too much, and doctors had to amputate it, but it was a miracle he was still alive,” Estrada said.

Meanwhile Norton, the original catalyst of UIW’s efforts in Haiti, said it was a life-changing experience. One Haitian nurse’s personal tragedy especially touched her heart.

“Her home was destroyed and her entire family had been killed,” Norton recalled. “The job was all she had. She had nothing, just the clothes on her back and the chance to show up for work. We connected on a special level, from one nurse to another.”