Haitian ambassador visits UCLA to thank nurses, others for earthquake relief efforts
In the days following the devastating 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, UCLA medical personnel scrambled to provide whatever assistance they could to the beleaguered country.
"From the first footage I saw of the catastrophe, I was thinking, 'I wish I could go help,'" recalled Dr. Bita Zadeh, a UCLA anesthesiologist.
A little more than a month later, Zadeh got her chance. As part of UCLA's volunteer effort Operation Haiti, she and nine others, including six nurses from the UCLA School of Nursing, traveled to the island, where they spent two weeks providing critical care and comfort to those injured in the quake and its aftermath.
On Thursday, April 8, Raymond Alcide Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the United States, visited UCLA to express his gratitute to the Operation Haiti team and other UCLA medical personnel who volunteered for relief efforts and raised money in the wake of the devastation.
"I'm here today to say thank you to all of you who gave your time, your heart — I can see that here — who gave of yourself for my people, who have become your people," Joseph said at an event at the School of Nursing.
UCLA's assistance to Haiti had also included half a ton of medical and surgical supplies sent immediately following the earthquake by the UCLA Health and paid for by anonymous donors.
Joseph urged the UCLA community to continue helping the Haitian people, 1.2 million of whom are now homeless as a result of the quake. There are also 165,000 victims who are pregnant, 1 million children who are orphaned or who lost a parent, and more than 35,000 amputees.
Barbara Bates-Jensen, an Operation Haiti volunteer and associate professor at the School of Nursing and the David Geffen School of Medicine Division of Geriatrics, said she plans to return to Haiti in May and eventually wants to train nurses and doctors to treat critical wounds.
"It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I saw some of the worst things I've seen in my life," said Bates-Jensen, who worked 16-hour days treating the injured and who spoke of her experiences in a UCLA video. She handled a variety of injuries, including botched amputations and surgeries.
"[The Haitian people] were just phenomenally powerful in their understanding of the tragedy that beset them and their handling of it," she said. "Their graciousness was just overwhelming."
Bates-Jensen was part of UCLA team that also included Zadeh and UCLA nurses Patti Taylor, Bethany Fontenot, Jessica Kubisch, Shannon McCarville, Holly Phelan and Kathleen Weinstein. They worked both on the ground and aboard the USNS Comfort, a Navy ship docked in Port-au-Prince, and kept a poignant blog chronicling their efforts.
Ambassador Joseph said that in addition to the continued help of volunteers, Haiti's road to recovery will be aided by the billions of dollars in international support that have been pledged so far — for repairing and rebuilding buildings, roads, schools, houses and other important infrastructure — as well as foreign investment in industries as tourism.
Joseph told the audience that once a tourism infrastructure is built, he would invite them to come "see what black folks, former slaves, did 200 years ago," referring to the slave rebellion that led to Haiti's independence in 1804. "Haiti will become the mecca, and we'll make enough money for us not to accept any handouts."
The ambassador also touched on rebuilding and relief efforts during an afternoon discussion at UCLA's International Institute.
A major priority in the reconstruction of Haiti, he told the roughly 50 students and faculty members gathered in Bunche Hall, would be the "decentralization" of the country, with people moving out of the overcrowded capital, Port-au-Prince, to less dense areas in the north, center and southwest of the island.
The capital city, built for 150,000 residents in the 18th century, had grown to an unmanageable 2 million by the time of the earthquake, Joseph said, and many of the ad hoc structures built to house the population had little chance of surviving the temblor.
"Anyone with some sense could see that this monstrosity could not stand, but there was no one who had the political will or who was crazy enough to tell the people, 'You move out of Port-au-Prince,'" he said. "Well, nature did it for us in less than a minute. Now we have a chance in a million to keep them out of Port-au-Prince by building infrastructure."
Post-earthquake construction in the city, Joseph stressed, will be radically different from the past. No longer will structures incorporate the ubiquitous cinder blocks that proved so fatal during the quake. Instead, new buildings will make use of stronger, more lightweight materials such as light steel, synthetic products and bamboo and will be constructed according to current seismic codes.
The population decentraliztion plan, he said, would create new centers in other parts of the island, where the government hopes to build airports and seaports, attracting investment and creating jobs — in essence, building a new Haiti.
"I cannot say I'm glad that an earthquake brought me here," he said, "but I think it's for a purpose that this earthquake happened, so that we can look at Haiti with new eyes."