Wife in Raleigh, husband in Haiti try to help

Posted January 19, 2010 7:24 p.m. EST

— Verena de Matteis' nightmare began one week ago. She and her husband, Jean, were standing in their house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when the earthquake struck.

“There was a really loud rumbling sound, and everything started to shake,” she said.

The couple ran outside, where, from their hillside home, they could look out over the capital city.

“The sound of the city collapsing was just horrific,” De Matteis said, noting she can still hear the sounds of concrete buildings collapsing and people screaming.

“I don’t know how I’m still alive,” she said. “I was supposed to be at work that day. The office building collapsed.”

De Matteis’ family business, a distributor of pharmaceutical products, was destroyed.

As they walked the streets, they realized they had to help. They emptied their medicine cabinet only to realize that aspirin and Band-Aids were little comfort to people with broken limbs.

“We tried to disinfect their wounds,” she said.

She described the days immediately after the quake as overwhelming and isolating. Hundreds of thousands of now-homeless people share the crowded and crumbled city with bodies decomposing alongside the road and trapped in the rubble, she said.

The couple realized that, with grocery stores in ruins, food and water would be in short supply. After two days, Jean asked his wife to return to the United States to stay with relatives in Raleigh.

“He said he could do more good there,” she said. “I am the communication hub … getting the word out and coordinating resources from here.”

Both of the de Matteises are native Haitians educated in the U.S. They met and married in Haiti after returning to the country after college. They serve on the board of the GHESKIO clinic in Haiti, an organization associated with Cornell Medical College.

Jean de Matteis is in Port-au-Prince, helping with medical care, setting up a water treatment system and translating the Haitian patois for American rescue and relief workers.

“He’s doing everything he possibly can to alleviate the situation,” his wife said.

He sends her daily e-mail updates about the conditions there. She shared photographs of amputations taking place under a makeshift tent, without the benefit of anesthesia.
The doctors specifically asked him to send those images, she said, so that people could see the reality the Haitians are facing.

“They have seen so many deaths – more than anyone should see in a lifetime,” Verena de Matteis said.

“It's a totally desperate situation,” she said. “Whether they were well-off or not, people lost everything.”

Despite the chaos and rebuilding effort ahead, Verena de Matteis said she plans to return to her country as soon as she can.

“We have to rebuild the country. We can't let the country die. We have to. We have to,” she said.

“I thank people for their immediate support, but I'd also like to ask people not to forget Haiti in a month or two months when it's not on the news,” she concluded.