UNC doctor: Hope and despair both thrive in post-quake Haiti

Posted January 12, 2011 4:45 p.m. EST
Updated January 12, 2011 6:23 p.m. EST

— The impact of a catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti one year ago was not confined to the rubble of Port-au-Prince.

The magnitude 7.0 quake that killed more than 230,000 Haitians and injured countless others launched a worldwide relief effort to help the battered Caribbean nation. Doctors in the Triangle were among thousands of those relief workers, and the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill treated some of the burn victims.

Adam Goldstein, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he couldn't sit idly by and see images of Haiti's devastation without feeling compelled to help. He traveled there during Haiti's presidential election and a cholera outbreak outside the quake zone that has killed more than 3,600 people.

"One of the untold stories is the heroes of the people of Haiti and the relief efforts that have saved not thousands, but tens of thousands of lives," Goldstein said Wednesday. 

Goldstein worked mostly in rural areas of the country, where access to health care is just one of many problems caused by poor roads or no roads at all.

"You see the most abject poverty perhaps any place on earth. People have no sanitation, no roofs over their heads, and it's hard to really care so much about health and healing if you don't have habitation," Goldstein said.

Cholera, a potentially fatal bacterial infection of the intestines that causes severe dehydration, is often spread by contaminated drinking water. The epidemic is especially concerning in post-quake Haiti, where poor drinking water and sanitation are expanding the outbreak.

"It's despair. You see deaths that shouldn't occur, diseases like cholera that should have been eradicated in our society. The treatment is essentially 100 percent effective, which is IV re-hydration, and yet people (are) dying from it," Goldstein said.

But Goldstein said he was often touched by how that despair mixed with hope, and how the Haitian people managed to carry on despite the devastation around them. He recalled the excitement on children's faces when he shared a simple piece of bubble gum.

"The difference between despair and hope – you feel them both at the same time – but you really get your cue from the people and they are really hopeful about tomorrow even though today is often times very bad," Goldstein said.

Goldstein wrote a blog about his experiences in Haiti.

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