March 3, 2010

Reporter's Notebook: Open troughs, tower climbs and a baby is born

By Matt Wickenheiser
Staff Writer


CAP HAITIEN, Haiti — Hospitals always have a scent, and the Justinian Hospital is no exception. But it's not the sharp smell of disinfectant.

Through the rooms, in the various suites and along the halls is just the human smell of a Third World hospital, an almost overpowering presence.

The people are friendly, the workers are skilled, but the conditions are frightening.

The campus is spread out, white plastered buildings with red roofs. Stray dogs wander through the grounds, as do chickens and roosters. Narrow corridors between buildings lead from one area to another -- flashlights are advised after dark.

For restrooms, the Justinian has an outhouse situation -- people sit over an open trough. The United Nations is interested in a project to upgrade the sanitation, said Nate Nickerson, executive director of Konbit Sante, a Portland-based nonprofit that has been working to improve the city's health care system through the Justinian Hospital and at a health clinic at Fort St. Michel.

The walls are mostly bare in the women's health wing, except for a small, shiny Mylar sheet on one wall that says ''bonne fete'' -- ''happy birthday.''

The tall, arched windows are just openings in the wall -- no screens or glass.

Despite the deficiencies, there are some advances. It's impossible to miss the new circuit-breaker panels installed by Konbit Sante volunteers, or the heavy-duty courtyard lighting that keeps the front of the hospital illuminated in the night.

-- Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser


Security in any Third World nation can be dicey under the best of circumstances, and it was clear after a briefing with a United Nations official that security concerns have intensified since the earthquake.

One problem is that a prison in Port-au-Prince was knocked down by the earthquake. With thousands of rescue workers, government officials and soldiers in the area, escaped inmates are getting as far from Port-au-Prince as they can. Two were reportedly caught in Cap Haitien.

In addition, food and water shortages at the prison in Cap Haitien sparked a riot in recent days, and some prisoners were shot trying to escape.

We are aware of our surroundings at all times, and aren't taking any unnecessary chances.

-- Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser


The office of Konbit Sante at the Justinian Hospital has Internet access, but with many people using it, the connection speed is too slow to send photo files.

We thought that Internet connections might be sketchy in Haiti after the earthquake, so we rented what's called a BGAN terminal, essentially a device that provides Internet access via a satellite uplink.

The one problem with using it at the Justinian Hospital is that there's a large hill just behind the hospital, which happens to be right in the direction where I need to point the BGAN terminal for it to connect to the satellite.

I found the solution right next to Konbit Sante's office: a 40-foot-tall water tower, which is more like a giant concrete cistern. The top is flat and the BGAN terminal connected to the satellite just fine.

And, to keep my editors and wife from worrying, I should mention that the ladder to the top is surrounded by a cage, so it's quite safe. Really.

-- Staff Photographer Gregory Rec


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