Service Programs

The One Who Has Hope Lives Differently

Port-au-Prince, Haiti - I left for Haiti on January 6 and returned to Newark, New Jersey January 19. I had arranged to facilitate two one-week United Initiatives for Peace "G.R.A.C.E." programs (Girls Reform through Artistic Creative Empowerment) at The Haitian Academy in Titanyen (about 20 km, or 12 miles, north of the capital, Port-au-Prince). The Haitian Academy is a private K-12 school, a boarding school, and a medical school. There is even a medical clinic on site. The "campus" also raises chickens, roosters, goats, and cows. It has a bread bakery and several fruit trees, with goal of being self-sufficient.

Dr. Marie Pologne Rene (aka Madame Rene) is the founder and director of the facility. She was born in Haiti, grew up in Brooklyn, studied in Switzerland with Piaget, and then returned to Haiti in efforts to reform her country. She is an amazing human being, and I am so inspired by her work and relentless dedication to serving the Haitian people through education, health, and agriculture.

The first few days I met with the staff, finalized plans for my "empowerment" programs, helped the school with some classroom prep work, assisted in clearing out land for chicken huts (just like in the movie "Chicken Run"), and did some counseling/mentoring with the latest (troubled) boarding school student.

I was falling in love with Haiti (as I do anywhere I go).

On January 11 I talked to my mom on the phone. She was giving me the update on my dad's condition [my dad had a stroke on December 23. He is recovering at the hospital in Weiner Neustadt, Austria. but still needs our prayers. He is a true Austrian saint (I say that very objectively) and has been my hero my entire life. Even in the face of adversity, my dad selflessly tries to make people smile, sees the higher purpose, and loves even those who are unjustifiably mean.]

My mom was then telling me that she had a dream ... she urged me to stay on campus at The Haitian Academy, telling me not to go anywhere (she knows I like to go for runs, gallivanting around new areas, and exploring my surroundings in foreign countries). My mom has some pretty intense intuition....

At 4:00 pm on January 12 I had just finished working with my first group of girls at the Academy. I had a second session planned for 4:30 pm with another group of girls from a local church. The previous day, the second group did not show up (I had waited for them until 5:00 pm), so I confirmed earlier that they would be there that day.

I was waiting inside the classroom reviewing my translation notes (in French), going over the different activities, and doing some reading. I had every intention to wait at least until 5:00 pm for the group (since I had no where else to be and had everything I needed with me to keep me busy).

At about 4:51 I had a very spontaneous urge to just get up and leave (convinced that the group was going to be a "no show" again).

About 90 seconds later, at 4:53 pm, while walking alone up the small dirt road, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake broke out. I hit the ground in a "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" Ninja stance, on watch for the earth to crack open. The Richter Scale is a base-10 logarithmic scale. So a 7.2 earthquake is ten times more powerful than a 6.2 earthquake (10 TIMES!)... a 7.2 has an impact of 95 megatons of TNT for Seismic Energy Yield (ummm, what ever that means Wikipedia).

I really could not tell you how long the earthquake lasted. It was a blur. Perhaps 22 seconds? It sounds short, but count "22 Mississippi's" and imagine the earth going bonkers under you... let me tell ya, it was long enough.

My next thought was "Oh crap, we're on an island 200 meters from the water... tsunami?!" Thankfully Haiti is a very mountainous country and higher elevation would not have been hard to reach from where I was. In any regard... there was no tsunami.

Everyone on the "campus" was OK. Everyone was able to run outside quickly enough (or they were already outside) and all the day students had gone home. We had a few wounds and stitches, but no life threatening injuries. All construction at The Haitian Academy was one level - and I believe that helped salvage the structure. There were many fallen walls, broken windows, cracked cement, etc.... but the foundations were intact.

The road that I was walking up was probably the safest place to be in that moment in all of Haiti. Outdoors, away from buildings, no large trees, and a good visual point to survey potential dangers. Seriously, the SAFEST. So, with a humble heart, as my mom would say: "THANKS God." (not "Thank God", but "Thanks God"... it makes much more sense. Talk directly to the creator in the present... not figuratively in the past.)

At that time, I did not realize the devastation, suffering, and chaos that would amount from those 22 seconds.

There was no "staying indoors" after that point. The first night we were all gathered together outside. Hungry. Worried. And in the dark.

After a few hours I decided that although we were being confronted with a sizable dilemma, there was no need in making it worse by doing NOTHING. I asked if people were hungry (at the Academy we have white bread for breakfast and then dinner at night... so no one had eaten anything of substance all day)... the consensus was YES. I decided to venture into the kitchen to salvage any food that could be found.... don't worry, it was safe (enough) - I could easily run outside in Ninja time if anything were to happen. I found two pots of rice & beans that had been thrown off the stove during the quake... right side UP on the floor! (yay! "Thanks God!") I gathered loads of grapefruit and mangoes that were scattered on the floor... and grabbed as many unbroken plates and silverware as possible.... all this in two trips.

I could already feel the morale of the people rising.... see, food makes everything better. And you know what makes things even better than BETTER...."The Princess Bride" (movie). After "dinner" I ran back inside and grabbed my lap-top and DVDs.... and we had MOVIE NIGHT under the stars. Everyone loved "The Princess Bride" - OBVIOUSLY! Haitians have great movie taste. It was classic.

The next morning Madame Rene asked me to come with her across the way to the Flour Mill Factory. I didn't question her why we were going... she wanted me to come... so I went. It turns out that the six-story Flour Factory had completely collapsed, with workers inside. We went there to read the Bible, sing a song, and say a prayer for them. It was 15 hours after the earthquake and NO ONE was around to even attempt a rescue. There is NO heavy machinery, no disaster rescue team, no medical personnel, nothing. I felt so helpless as I starred in disbelief listening to quiet groans of help under the massive rubble. All we could do was pray for them. So we did.

The rest of the morning and afternoon was spent fixing up the Medical Center at The Haitian Academy... there was considerable damage, but much of it just required moving out fallen bricks and re-situating things back in order. We knew many victims could benefit from the facility and we had to bring it up to par before we would be able to treat patients.

Across the street there was also a Burn Clinic run by missionaries from the US. The one-room facility quickly turned into a mini-emergency room... Car accidents, explosions, collapsed building injuries... all were piling in looking for help. The two nurses who were in charge were only equipped to treat burns and minor injuries. With the large influx of patients - the clinic was maxed, and supplies were depleting quickly. I helped remove large amounts of garbage, was on disinfect duty, and was the personal assistant for the nurses - running to get them whatever supplies they needed as they treated patients.

The following day Madam Rene and I made our way downtown to Port-au-Prince. We first went to the airport to pick up medical supplies for the center that were supposed to have arrived. Madame Rene has all her official paper work stating her authority and need to collect supplies, and was advised to report to the airport and it would be allocated accordingly. The only problem was that there were NO SUPPLIES at the airport. Only media and people wearing fancy suits.

We were approaching the 48-hour mark. And nothing. Nothing nothing. Lots of cameras, but no doctors or meds. Hundreds of charter flights were coming in, but no supplies?? Americans were scrambling to get a flight out (via charter planes) and UN workers were trying to prioritize evacuation. That in itself was chaos (everyone was outside since the airport terminal was damaged and not stable to use).

I have no problems with media personnel. I believe that their purpose can bring awareness of the need to the general public... but how is it that they arrive within 12 hours? And not what is really needed? I asked around trying to understand the protocol for international disaster relief. Some said that they are mandated to wait a full 48 hours for safety reasons, etc...

WELL, this is my theory: YOU are in the EMERGENCY RELIEF business. You don't wait until the emergency is over to act. When firefighters get a call about a massive fire, they do NOT wait 48 hours to assist those in need. They drop everything, bust on the sirens, and run into the flames saving people (that's what I'm talking about!!!). If you want to be in the "waiting, protocol, safety" business, go sell flowers or something. But don't be associated with emergency situations. Do you feel me? I realize that there is much that I don't know and don't understand. I am sure that international relief organizations (Red Cross, United Nations, etc.) work very hard and have the highest of intentions. I'm not trying to judge or complain about anything... I just want to understand how things operate and hopefully find solutions for things that can be improved. Bureaucracy needs to take a back burner in these situations so that efforts can be maximized.

It's about SAVING lives. Not selling stories.

After a failed airport ordeal, we went to one of the only standing hospitals in Port-au-Prince, "Hopital de la Paix" (Hospital of Peace). I am completely speechless for what I saw. Patients lying on the floor in any corner they could find.... no bed, no mattress - holding their own IVs (if they were lucky). Patients without family or friends to help them were in likely to pass from dehydration, etc. The hospital does not care for patients nutritional or comfort needs - especially in a time of a  national emergency. So you MUST have someone to help you hold your IV, bring you water, food, and advocate for your help (or the few doctors/nurses will SURELY pass by you).

Mounds of toxic waste (bloody bandages, syringes, needles, sheets, trash, etc.) were piled and scattered all over the floor throughout the hospital with people lying down right next to it. Wounds were wrapped in newspaper, fractures were set with cardboard. Standard medical supplies were low or non-existent... and qualified personnel to address injuries were nowhere to be seen. Deceased bodies lay on the floor covered in a sheet, with no one tending to them... and people walking by as if it was nothing.

Patients were dying because there was no basic care, let alone advanced secondary or tertiary care. Simple injuries turned into debilitating situations... and ultimately death. The risk for disease and life threatening infections was multiplying by the minute. It felt as if the ratio for doctors/nurses to patients was 1/100. It could have been 1/1000 for all I know.

The desperate need for help at this hospital was immeasurable. I went back the next day to volunteer as the ultimate scrub worker. [I was wearing very protective clothing/gloves, so no worries.] I brought my own X-Large garbage bags and started cleaning up all the toxic waste.... People started coming up to me asking me to treat their injured friend/relative (thinking I was a doctor) - at first I apologized saying that I was not a doctor... after the 3rd person pleading for help, I realized that I was not "in Kansas" anymore and no one was going to sue me for providing medical help. After all, I was at least "First Aid/CPR & Emergency Care" certified... and that gave me higher credentials than about 98% of  the hospital staff.

So hey, the people want medical help??? Give the people what they want! Fake it 'til you make it! So Dr. Dee I became... First, I just tended to disinfecting wounds, applying bandages to lacerations, bringing patients pain killers, water, and just telling people "Ca va aller" (it'll be ok)...

My "Twilight Zone" experience was when I was helping a doctor with a young man who had at dislocated clavicle, hip, and a fractured tibia. I had to help stabilize the patient as the doctor (without x-ray) realigned the fracture.... then as he held the fracture in place, I PUT ON THE CAST. Luckily, I have had the privilege, throughout my crazy life, of breaking nine bones on seven occasions. And have been casted up about ten times (often you get re-casted during the healing course of your fracture). Although I have no training in orthopedics... I felt very confident that I could do it. After all, it's like a papier-mache project. The cotton goes on first, then you dip the "cast" bandage in water and wrap away. So there I was, treating a severely injured patient, amidst chaos, in a hospital in Haiti. TWILIGHT ZONE.

I'm adding that to my resume.

On the fourth night, the smell of deceased bodies started to become a major issue both in Port-au-Prince and in the outskirts. People started driving loads of bodies out of Port-au-Prince and dumping them along the road... right near The Haitian Academy. We had to write signs that read: "Atansyon - Pa Jete Kadav La" - which is creole for "Attention - Don't dump bodies here."


Over the days, reporters would interview me (since I spoke English) on occasion - and one question I found bizarre. The reporter asked me, "Do the Haitian people know what's going on?" Know what's going on!!?!?!?! They are here LIVING through what's going on! How much more real do you want to get?

By the fifth day I started to feel more of an international presence (Cuban, Bolivia, Venezuela, Canada, France, USAid, CARE, Red Cross, US military)... however, the mystery of the actual medical supplies & aid was still unsolved.

By day six my host family, biological family, my friends who are like my family - were all urging me to go back. I agreed that it was a good time. More help was finally arriving and although I felt guilty for being able to leave, I knew I could continue to work for Haiti from the US.

My "ride home" was a military cargo plane. Packed with 81 other Haitian-Americans. We didn't know our destination until we actually boarded the aircraft.


I strategically sat towards the back of the plane against the wall (we were all sitting on the floor refugee style)... a mother and her two kids were next to me... and as the plane started packing in, space was becoming very limited. I offered to have her seven-year-old son sit on the floor between my legs to give another person wall space to lean on... Once we took off, all was fine for the first five minutes... THEN, the floors and wall got SO HOT. Boiling blistering hot. So now I had to have the seven-year-olold sit on my lap (as he slept in oblivion) and was going through Ninja survival training. Every two minutes I had to shift my biscuit off the floor (holding myself up with 1 hand, as I held the kid in the other) in fear of 3rd-degree burns. I would have loved to stand up or move spots like many of the passengers, but I was restrained by a seven-year-old. It was one of the longest three hours ever. "THANKS God" that we were only going to Miami and not some other military base in some place like Guam.

My six days post-earthquake in Haiti (12 days total) were a deeply humbling experience. Between helping at The Haitian Academy, the Burn Clinic, and Hopital de la Paix - being a witness to the suffering and catastrophe that unfolded before me... and realizing the dire need of international support to rebuild a nation, I came to value the notion that we can only save the world if we can save each other.

When it comes to international disaster relief, there are so many standpoints that can be taken, viewpoints to understand, and opinions to be respected. Why should OTHER countries use their resources and finances to help? Why should we risk our lives to help yours? Is Haiti's disaster only Haiti's problem? Or is it everyone's concern?

The way I see it... It's not about politics or governments, countries or borders, races or nationalities, religion or doctrine, poverty or wealth... it's about HUMAN LIFE. And understanding the miracle of saving each other. The way we live our life depends on the way we view our life. Is it just about yourself? Your family? Your city? Your country? Or can we transcend our existence to the ideal of ONE PLANET EARTH?

When I working at the hospital, someone was wearing a t-shirt that read, "The one who has hope lives differently." It was an emotional moment. And with that, I plead to you to live with HOPE.

For information about Diesa Seidel's ongoing initiatives for Haiti, see A summer camp program is planned for August 15-29, and Diesa is running in a marathon race to raise funds for Haiti.

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