Jan. 18, 2011
An interview with Shahaf Shtrikman by Alex Cicelsky, Director of Research and Development, Center for Creative Ecology, Kibbutz Lotan
A year has passed since the earthquake rocked Haiti. Within hours of the news of the tragedy, an Israel Defense Forces medical team was assembled. The first international medical response team on the ground was the IDF field hospital. First Sergeant Shahaf Shtrikman from the IMPJ community Kibbutz Lotan, and a graduate of the IMPJ Mechina leadership program, is a medic in an elite IDF unit and was a member of the Israeli medical team that spent two weeks in Haiti. ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists) is IMPJ’s single largest donor. ARZA, building an inclusive, democratic Israeli society, is an affiliate of the Union of Reform Judaism.
Following the earthquake a year ago, how did you end up in Haiti?
I recently completed my three years in the IDF. I am an army medic, and my unit was stationed at a base in northern Israel. I hadn't heard the news about the earthquake because we were in intensive preparations for a visit of the IDF's chief of staff. My commanding officer came up to me and asked me if I wanted to go to Haiti. I thought he was offering to take me to a new restaurant called Haiti as a break from all the clean up and organizing work. He told me about the earthquake and that I had been selected for the IDF's emergency response team. I said “yes” immediately. I put a few things in my backpack, left the base, and three hours later I was at the army's medical logistics base near Tel Aviv.
What were preparations like at the base?
As you can imagine, there was a bit of confusion. When I arrived, the commanders were still in meetings drawing up the response plans. There was no one to speak within Haiti after the disaster, and the news showed increasing chaos and destruction. Equipment and supplies were packed on the basis that we'd be completely on our own and have to bring with us absolutely everything we would need for two weeks. By the evening, all the soldiers selected from the various IDF units had signed in and we were sent home to pick up our passports and get ourselves ready for a trip to the unknown.
The next morning we received our personal equipment and vaccinations. We received a day of briefings on Haiti and how to treat predictable injuries following earthquakes. At night, two planes were waiting for us at the airport. One was crammed full of equipment. The other was an El Al jet for 121 members of the medical team, along with 100 soldiers from the search and rescue unit, their dogs, logistic and security personnel. As soon as the flight took off, we were ordered to sleep. We were awakened for breakfast, and then had organizational meetings for the rest of the 15 hour flight. While we were in flight, we received updates on the situation in Haiti, which the world was learning was far worse than anyone imagined.
What greeted you when you arrived?
The airport was not functioning. Complete disorder. There was no one to even look at our passports. No one at the airport knew anything about what was going on or was coordinating incoming teams. It was incredibly hot and humid (and I thought I knew hot from growing up in the desert). We got onto busses without air conditioning and drove to our base – an empty soccer field a few kilometers from the center of Port-au-Prince. All we had were our personal belongings. It was Friday night, so we had Kabbalat Shabbat and fell asleep in the open field. At midnight, the trucks rolled in with our equipment and we built the hospital and support camp throughout the night. By 8 am, the hospital was operational. At 10 am the first injured citizens arrived. We didn't have to tell anyone that Israel had set up a hospital. There was no radio or TV working. People found out by word of mouth, and the line of injured people got longer as the day went on. By the end of the day every bed was filled. I had no idea what was happening outside of the camp, nor had a chance to see the devastation until later in the week.
How did the hospital function?
The hospital was separated into wards: triage, surgery, recovery, children, maternity, the pharmacy and ambulatory care. We had an x-ray unit and an orthopedics unit specifically for all the broken limbs that would be incurred following an earthquake. A surgery center from Columbia was added on after five days, and at the end of our stay, a Canadian group of doctors joined us. I was assigned to the recovery ward, but, like everyone, I helped with everything. There were many times that I was needed during surgery during which I learned a great deal. Moving patients throughout triage and surgery was done with stretchers – we had no beds with wheels. Both the male and female soldiers were equally active in the logistics. Haitians that were in good health that heard about the hospital came to the camp to volunteer with the labor and the cooking. Few Haitians speak English, so we communicated using a sort of sign language. There were a few that had good English skills and worked as translators.
Everyone that needed treatment received it to the best extent that we could supply it. Two doctors, along with security staff, were stationed at the entrance to the hospital camp. They had to manage the dilemma of whom to let in. They let in those for whom we had the equipment and ability to help. Many people with slight injuries and chronic diseases stood in line along with those looking for food. Our job was to save lives that were in immediate danger. As soon as someone was cared for, we had to let them go to make room for new patients – and the line was always long.
The hospital was open 24 hours a day and we worked in shifts. It was normal for me to be called suddenly from my work in recovery to assist in a surgery in the middle of the night. The doctors were challenged with caring for injuries they had never seen before.
Family members came with each injured person, and we took care of them too with food and water. Personally, I didn't eat much. I was too busy with the work. Maybe the smell also affected my appetite. The smell from the injuries themselves is impossible to describe. All around us there were people who hadn't bathed in a long time and the smell of the dead from the city around us was in the air.
I can see in your face that you're remembering some really difficult moments.
There was a girl that arrived on the first day and had her badly infected hand amputated. She was alone, 14 years old. No one came to take her, but she couldn't stay with us. She became attached to me – physically. She was holding my arm and just couldn't let go. I was told to take her out of the camp. I went to the hospital commander and he arranged for her to be taken to the United Nations camp. An Israeli newspaper photographer took a photo of us that all of Israel saw, but the photo doesn't show what I was feeling inside.
Later on, a man was brought to the hospital and also had to have his hand amputated. He was a big guy, 25 years old and in great physical condition. He woke up from the operation, started speaking in English (one of the few) and was so strong that he got up right away. The doctors knew that he had an invasive bacterial GAS infection contracted when his crushed arm was lying on the ground. It was in his blood. I really liked him and we talked and traded emails. A few days later his condition became critical. I was woken up in the night to help in surgery and found him on the operating table as the doctors removed fluids from his chest. He died the next day. His brother was there with him and wept for a long time.
One of the translators told us his story. He was riding on his motorcycle when the earthquake began. He flew off of it and into the bushes about 5 meters (15 feet) away. He said the earth rocked like crazy for a whole minute. When it was over, he went home and found that his entire family had died in the earthquake. We took a group photo with him before we left. He told us that we were his family now. One of my friends, a paramedic with us, is in contact with him still. He told her that the situation in Haiti is the same as it was following the earthquake: chaos and suffering.
We were there 12 days and cared for 1,111 injuries.
Now, a year later – what do you think about the experience?
This was the most traumatic thing I had experienced in my life. It was as if I was in a different universe for two weeks. I saw it, but I just can't comprehend how people live to only survive without family, food or shelter. Since then everything has a different proportion. On my worst days in the army, or since while working, I remember what I saw there and I realize that my personal problems are tiny in comparison. It was a "class in the school of life" that I'll never forget. We did so much, worked very hard and saved many lives but it's "a drop in the ocean." I was taught and I believe that "every life is a universe." I know that each life that we saved was extremely important, even if no revolution to change the situation was made.
Is that thought connected to growing up as a Jewish-Israeli?
It made me feel very proud to be a Jew from Israel, along with many others like me in the IDF delegation. I definitely felt that I was representing my people. There we were, from a country with really limited resources, from a financially challenged army with other immediate priorities, that came from the other side of the world to extend immediate and valuable help and healing. That shows me know how special we are and what our values are. I was on my feet continuously and it never occurred to me to complain about hunger or lack of rest. I gave the job my all, all the time. I certainly wasn't too pampered to clean up the waste or dispose of the urine. I learned that from growing up in a modest community like Kibbutz Lotan and from my hard working parents. There were times when the soldiers felt the shock and cried. Believe me it was always sad, and I know that the sadness is in me and will need to be brought out. At the time, the job had to be done and it was my job to do it.
For more on the Reform Movement's Haiti relief efforts, register for the URJ's webinar on January 20th: Haiti Disaster Relief: A Special Report, One Year Later, and check out these Haiti blog posts.