Notes from Haiti: Robyn Park Campbell ’92

On a humanitarian mission, Robyn Park Campbell ’92 and members of the Haiti Task Force from the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville (N.J.) landed in Haiti just a few hours before the January 2010 earthquake. The next four days were unlike anything any of them had ever experienced.

Note: This article contains graphic content.

Read Robyn’s personal account of the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath.

Chronology of Haiti Visit: January 12–15, 2010

Tuesday, January 12

The purpose of the 2010 mission trip to Haiti was to sustain and expand support for Harmony Ministries. To that end, a medical team of twenty from three churches (Shiloh Baptist Church, Trenton; Kingdom Church, Ewing; and the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville) arrived in Port-au-Prince by air from JFK airport about 1:30 p.m. We had left Lawrenceville with our personal carry-on luggage and thirty-three duffle bags filled with medicines, vitamins, supplies, reading glasses, cell phones, painting and medical equipment, sleeping bags, and air mattresses.

Late in the afternoon, after clearing immigration and customs, we were on our way to the mountain village of Thoman in a truck/bus with wooden benches climbing the switchbacks of a mountain road. We noticed rock slides to the side and ahead and rolling dust clouds in the dry river beds below. Joking that it was an earthquake, the “joke” soon turned into reality when our host, Pastor Luc Deratus, received a cell phone call that his church and school in Port-au-Prince had collapsed, trapping people who had gathered for a prayer service, and that there were reports that the Palace and the Cathedral had collapsed. Then the phone went dead.

The remains of Harmony Church in Port-au-Prince

The remains of Harmony Church in Port-au-Prince

As darkness fell, we ate a meal of rice, beans, and chicken brought up the mountain with us. Little did we know that this warm meal would be our last until Thursday night. We tried to get information from a radio, but heard only static and the words “tsunami watch” and “Mexico.” We worshipped that evening with members of the Thoman church and slept on the floor of the school.

Robyn: “During the night, we began to feel the aftershocks. Some of us sought refuge under desks. Each time an aftershock began, my water bottle would shake hard enough on the desk that I’d hear it. I would jump up and head for the door. It was my aftershock alarm. As I rested on my sleeping bag, I prayed that somehow my husband Jim would know that I was okay. I thought that if he felt that I was okay, then my daughters and my family would be at ease. Throughout the night, we heard the villagers praying, wailing, crying, and chanting. The sounds of the drums and the desperate cries will be forever etched in my memory.”

Earthquake survivors on the streets of Port-au-Prince

Wednesday, January 13

Beginning shortly after dawn, following a brief reading and prayer that reminded us that “we are not alone,” we provided a scheduled medical clinic for well over three hundred families. Anxious about members of the Port-au-Prince church, we abandoned painting, health seminars, and recreational activities we were prepared to give and focused on the medical clinic.

As we were about to close early, people who had travelled up the mountain brought a man and a youth with crushed limbs. For some of us, that is when the reality of a major earthquake set in.

Robyn: “We attended to over 350 people. High blood pressure, malnutrition, ear infections, arthritic ailments, skin rashes, and wounds were common. The line to the clinic was long and constant, but the people seeking help were patient and so thankful. The morning went by quickly. We were so busy that at times I had forgotten about the earthquake.

Robyn Park Campbell ’92 (left) at the clinic with survivors of the Haitian earthquake

Robyn Park Campbell ’92 (left) at the clinic with survivors of the Haitian earthquake

“During the late morning, people began arriving at the clinic, injured in the earthquake. They traveled up the mountain seeking medical attention. Then a young boy about twelve was brought to us. He was suffering from a closed brain injury. We were not equipped to handle his injuries. It was both frustrating and heartbreaking. A man was brought to us in incredible pain. His friends carried him in on a wooden door with a severe open fracture. Dr. Levandowski stabilized the fractured leg with a limb that he sawed from a mango tree, a sleeping bag, Saran Wrap, and duct tape. We gave him pain medication and directed them to head for the Dominican Boarder.

“After tending to those injured in the quake, we started to get a better grasp of the severity of the devastation that we would later encounter. We packed and headed down the mountain. We all tried to search for cell service in order to send out a message that we were safe. At one point a message did go out, but then the service went out again. We had no idea if the text message went through.

“As we drove closer and closer to Port-au-Prince, we noticed more and more damage. Once in the city, the devastation was everywhere. Cars were crushed. Houses, apartment buildings, schools, churches were all destroyed. They were pancaked, each floor collapsing onto the floor below... houses and building reduced to rubble, arms and legs jutting out of the piles of concrete. The horrific images that were televised were real and they were widespread. The dead were piled on the streets. The people walking were stepping over them. They were in shock….walking….just walking…with nowhere to go. Their faces showed pain and disbelief. We continued towards our hotel. I did the only thing that I thought I could do in that moment. I prayed. I prayed...”

Cleanup begins after the Haiti earthquake

Not knowing what to expect, and with the advice to be flexible and “go with the flow,” we travelled to Port-au-Prince.... The parks and streets were filled with people. Twice, our security guard forcefully pushed men away who tried to board our bus. When we arrived near our hotel, we could see down the street that it had pancaked.

Pastor Luc went to find a place for us to stay. On his return, he said, “There was no one at the hotel”—his way of saying it was destroyed.

It was then that we decided to head for the U.S. Embassy. Seeing the great need of so many people, some in the group wanted to stay and offer help in the chaos, but we had no supplies or infrastructure. All of the medicines, gear, and sleeping bags were on a second truck somewhere on its way to Port-au-Prince. To ensure our future effectiveness and not become victims ourselves, the safety and security of each member of the group was paramount. We proceeded to the embassy.

Wednesday-Thursday, January 13–14

the embassy staff collected passport information and sent e-mails to our families that we were safe. We each signed a five-page promissory note to pay the U.S. government the equivalent of coach fare from Port-au-Prince to wherever we were to be airlifted in the states.

Since we had three doctors, an R.N., and folks with medical experience, the embassy asked us to set up a medical facility in a conference room to treat U.S. citizens who needed to be evacuated by helicopter.

Robyn: “We set up a triage in the one section, and created an emergency area in a conference room. Members of our team provided pastoral care to those in shock. We gave out crackers and cookies. Our doctors and nursing support staff provided medical care with very little supplies. We carried patients on stretchers to the helicopters, and we mopped floors.

While at the embassy, we met two young seminarians, Renee and her husband’s cousin, Jon. They had been trapped in the collapse of the St. Joseph’s Home for Boys. Renee and Jon had managed to free themselves and crawl out from the rubble, but her husband, Ben, did not. They arrived in shock. Our group took them in, and Jon and Renee became part of our group and were eventually airlifted out with us. (On return to the states, four members of our group went to Iowa for the husband’s memorial service, which was broadcast over the Internet.)

Assisting earthquake survivors at the clinic

Assisting earthquake survivors at the clinic

“The smells of infection, the crush wounds, the fractures, and the cries of those in pain will never be forgotten. I will forever be inspired by the dignity and spirituality of the Haitian people. Their faith in God’s steadfast love was uplifting. They showed such strength that I will always remember that in their darkest hour, in their physical pain, through the loss of their entire extended families, they showed me hope through their unwavering faith in God.”

Most of the injuries were broken and crushed bones and lacerations. Even though we quickly ran out of supplies that the embassy had given us, as well as the pain killers and antibiotics solicited from those waiting to be airlifted by plane, we operated the clinic from Wednesday afternoon to Thursday evening, when an Air Force medical team of doctors arrived. Each member of our group provided assistance—carrying makeshift stretchers, treating injuries, cleansing wounds, offering comfort, engaging in prayer, and giving shoes, clothes, and money to patients and their families. We “slept” each night outside on the grass and sidewalks and ate snack food we had brought with us. Thursday night, the embassy staff gave us MREs, the first substantial food since Tuesday evening. Early Thursday evening, the group paused for a moment of prayer.

Pastor Luc Deratus (right) talks with a man who lost his children

Pastor Luc Deratus (right) talks with a man who lost his children

One member of our group was a Chinese citizen with a U.S. permanent resident card (“green card”). We were told that American citizens would be airlifted first, with green card holders last. We insisted that the twenty of us were a group and that all should be treated the same. Maintaining the integrity of the group was essential to the well-being of each member. Late Thursday morning, several of us were privately assured that we would be treated as a group and the embassy staff thought our request to travel together would be honored. It was.

Friday, January 15

Thursday night, around 11:00 p.m., we were given five minutes’ notice to load into SUVs to be taken to the airport, where we were flown in an unmarked “special ops” turbo prop to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then the next morning by commercial jet to JFK. We were greeted Friday afternoon by family and, yes, the press. Our church staff did a superb job with our families, supporting them when they did not know whether or not we were safe, and helping them with our return.

Members of the mission trip to Haiti from the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville

Members of the mission trip to Haiti from the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville. Robyn Park Campbell ’92 is at far right with the pink cap.

the embassy staff was terrific in supporting us and keeping us informed. We are grateful beyond words to Pastor Luc, our host, our driver, and our security guard, Solomon, who stayed with us through the ordeal until we arrived at the embassy. They saw the destruction and feared for their families, but they stayed with us. Pastor Luc’s wife survived; our security guard’s wife did not.

We have learned since our return that Pastor Luc hired a doctor and distributed the medicines, vitamins, tarps, air mattresses, and sleeping bags from the second truck to those most in need.

We are now organizing a consortium of seven churches (three Presbyterian, two Episcopal, one Baptist, and one nondenominational) to focus support on rebuilding and sustaining four schools, three churches, and a medical clinic. Additional churches and organizations are encouraged to join in support of Harmony Ministries in Haiti.

Pastor Luc Deratus (left) surveys the devastation

Pastor Luc Deratus (left) surveys the devastation

Robyn: “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Prior to the earthquake, one half of the population did not have access to clean water. Malnutrition and anemia are prevalent. Order, safety, comfort and the basic needs of survival—clean water, shelter, and food—barely existed before the earthquake. Following the earthquake they were nonexistent.

“The catastrophe has caused the world to take notice of the plight of the Haitians. Now we should challenge ourselves, as human beings, to take action. Do not let the people of Haiti be forgotten. Do not let those who have died be forgotten. Please continue to support the ongoing efforts of those committed to change for Haiti.

Our group, our congregation, and the consortium of churches that are working together remain committed to Pastor Luc, Harmony Ministries, and the people of Haiti. And as the people of Haiti said to us over and over again, ‘Mesi, Mesi, Mesi.’ Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Read Robyn’s personal account of the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath.

Haitian children at a makeshift church

Haitian children at a makeshift church

Note: The purpose of the consortium of churches and organizations is to facilitate coordinated support among its members. Central to the purpose is regular and consistent communication among its members. The focus of support of the consortium for Harmony Ministries includes:

  • The rebuilding and maintenance of Harmony Ministries’ facilities: churches, schools, and medical clinics
  • Maintaining the programs and services of the churches, schools, and clinics
  • Helping with the personal needs of the founder and pastor of Harmony Ministries and his family.

To make a monetary gift, please make your check payable to the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, writing Haiti in the memo, and send it to The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, 2688 Main Street, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648.

—May 2010