Haitian-American nurse shares tale of compassion, heartache

Nurse Dana Bordenave with CNNs Dr. Sanjay GuptaNurse Dana Bordenave with CNNs Dr. Sanjay Gupta“January 12, 2010 will always be with me,” says Dana Bordenave, a Haitian-American registered nurse who recently returned from Haiti after helping earthquake survivors. She shared her experiences last month at a fundraiser in Randolph organized by Georja Joseph, owner of Tete-a-Tete Beauty Salon. Bordenave went to Port-au-Prince with the Haitian-American Nurses Association ten days after the earthquake hit the island nation.
“I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered. The magnitude of the problem is beyond words,” said Bordenave, who works at Rhode Island Hospital. She last visited Haiti in 1989. Upon her arrival this time, she had to wait at the airport for five hours before being taken to the General Hospital, where her group set up shop.

The General Hospital, the only teaching hospital in the country, was also home to the nursing school. The latter was completely destroyed and everyone inside perished. Some of the hospital’s buildings also suffered structural damage. That didn’t stop survivors from flocking to it, however.
“This is where people came for refuge,” said Bordenave. “Some would climb over the walls to get in, even with the army providing security.”
She tells of the difficulty of trying to differentiate between those who were there for shelter and those who came for medical care. Since people kept coming to the hospital, more tents had to be erected to accommodate them. She and her team worked nonstop day and night.
“Many people had infections. We’d do dressing changes, amputations and distribute ibuprofen. Many babies were being born; some being delivered using flashlight. We didn’t even know people’s names or background information,” she recounts.
In Haiti, hospitals don’t provide food to their patients. That job is left for families to do. When Bordenave noticed that there was no food or water supplied to the sick, she purchased these items with her own money. Ironically, food and water were plentiful at the airport, but there was no distribution point yet.
Once the sick and injured were treated, the doctors asked them to leave. The nurses refused to send them away.
“They had no place to go,” says Bordenave. The inability to set up a concrete plan for those treated was a challenge for medical personnel. Yet those receiving care at the General Hospital were lucky. People in the surrounding areas got very little medical assistance.
Bordenave’s own living conditions were not ideal. She noted that she survived on granola bars.
“This was the first time in my life that I was hungry and didn’t have food,” she said. During most of her stay, she was afraid to sleep inside the hospital. There were constant rumors that another earthquake was coming. She fears that the possibility of another quake will haunt survivors forever.
While Bordenave and her team treated physical injuries, they couldn’t help people with their mental wounds.
“Everyone is traumatized. I saw people whose limbs were amputated trying to run. The silent victims are the kids. Some came in with their parents. Others couldn’t speak; so they couldn’t identify their parents. Some kids were abandoned by their parents. They’re also not going to school and are vulnerable to so much,” Bordenave said.
To complicate matters, rumors were spreading that those who go to the hospital would have their limbs cut off. As a result, people didn’t come for care until they were desperate. Bordenave recalls an old woman whose clavicle was fractured in half. She came to the hospital 13 days after the quake because she was afraid that one of her arms would be cut off.
As she reflects on her stay in Haiti, she marvels at the humanitarian work that was done by medical professionals.
“It was phenomenal. They tried their best to make do with what was available,” she says. Unfortunately, she notes, there was no coordination among the various non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Two U.S. hospitals sent medical staff to care for people, but they refused to collaborate with the Haitian administrators of the General Hospital. There were also conflicts between some Haitian doctors who wanted to help but were rebuffed by the American doctors.
Bordenave is proud of the humility and sense of community among Haitians.
“Poverty and political strife are usually associated with Haiti, but people were sharing what they had and helping each other.”
However, she’s disappointed that more assistance is not reaching the survivors. She intends to return to Haiti in the near future. In response to the large number of amputees, Bordenave and some colleagues are creating an organization called “Stand Up 4 Haiti” which would provide assisted devices to them. She’s also helping a cousin who is a survivor but lost her child when the nursing school collapsed. Her cousin is now in the United States but continues to imagine the house shaking.
Bordenave, who hass experienced her share of heartache, attributes her love and commitment to helping Haiti and Haitians to her parents: her mother, Useda Salomon Bordenave, as well as her father, Jean Edward Bordenave. He died of cancer in 1996. Bordenave and her older sister had planned to do some work in Haiti to help the poor. Sadly, she also died of cancer in 2003.
“I viewed going to Haiti as not only a fulfillment of my own duty, but I felt like I was fulfilling the duty of my father and my sister. If they still graced this earth, I know they would have stood shoulder to shoulder with me to help in any way possible.”
Anyone who’s interested in helping Bordenave’s organization can contact her at: dbordenave@standup4haiti.org or at danabord@aol.com.