Emory Report

Feb. 22, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 21

First person:

Amid 'rescue' drugs and disaster relief, one learns much on Nicaraguan trip

Editor's note: In late January Emory Hospitals Public Relations Coordinator Rashel Stephenson traveled to hurricane-damaged Nicaragua to distribute $50,000 worth of oral antibiotics and 10,000 pounds of clothes on behalf of Emory Healthcare and other WBS-TV Family 2 Family sponsors and the Atlanta Braves and Hawks.

Our 27-hour relief mission to Nicaragua was a quick lesson in humility. The country had been hurled back 20 years by the 180-mile-per-hour winds and rain of Hurricane Mitch. Harrowing images of the devastation these people weathered now hung heavily somewhere in each of us. The first time I tried to tell someone about it, I cried.

Absorbing the shock of miles of scattered trash and debris, dirty children wandering in the streets, and the many demolished bridges and buildings, we sat in silence most of our two-hour bus ride from Managua to Leon. Children barely 4 and 5 years old peered into the bus windows to beg for money and food. Skilled at using their eyes to tug at heartstrings, they were sometimes rewarded with chocolate bars, fruit or cordobas--but always in exchange for allowing us to photograph them. It seemed awkward to want to record their expressions and inconceivable to employ the "one, two, three, smile" routine. Their eyes were not smiling; they were hungry and desperate.

The bus finally turned onto a dirt road leading to a refugee camp that was home to nearly 150 people who had nowhere else to go. After the loss of entire villages as a result of the hurricane, many of the camp residents were the only survivors to carry on their family names. They came to take refuge at the camp without possessions, without family members, without alternatives.

Two military-straight lines of blue tents stretched across the open field. The facade feigned order. Four to six people inhabited each cramped quarter. They were the lucky ones. They had a door, a floor and walls.

A weak attempt at communication through raised eyebrows and a nod granted me the right to enter a young woman's home for five. As I pushed open the tent flap, I wondered what my purpose was. I was invading her home merely to spectate, as if my compassion alone could offer her something better.

Inside the blue walls two sets of metal bunkbeds were stacked, carrying thin mattresses and one worn blanket each. A bottom-less electric blender and three metal pots hung from a rope tied to one of the beds. In the corner a few random items: a baseball cap, five mismatched plastic dishes, an aged teddy bear and a sack of rice. I stood firmly on the dirt floor, drew in a deep breath and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I was still there.

Life in Nicaragua has never unrolled at any hurried pace. But now, more than ever, these people had little to occupy their time. As agricultural laborers, the land had traditionally provided for them. Aspiring only for modest living, the land fed them and allowed them to put shoes on their children's feet. Hurricane Mitch robbed them of even the barest of necessities-their top soil. They were truly helpless.

Each face shared its despair. We asked one woman, living with her family of five in a house made of cardboard boxes, how she manages. Her response was the simple and heartbreaking truth, "We're waiting for you to help us."

Food, water, shelter, clothing. Most of us will never come close to knowing a deficit of even one of these elements. It's probably impossible for many of us to even understand the consequence of not having access to something as basic as water.

After the hurricane hit near Leon, it was four days until anyone in the area received food or water. Even now, some three months later, 60 other towns remain unreachable. Roads and bridges are literally gone, and even helicopters can't reach remote areas densely covered with vegetation. Many Nicaraguans are forced to be players in a waiting game--a game where only the strongest will live to see relief.

As health care workers, what we do understand is the importance of good health. Most people affected by the hurricane have seen no signs of medical assistance in their areas. The refugee camp we visited was fortunate; they had a nurse whose home was a small clinic. She had one cot and two tables with a small collection of first aid supplies: Band aids, Tylenol, antacid and gauze pads. One thing she critically needed, she said, was oral antibiotics. We were able to give her nearly 30 cases. After all of the boxes were unloaded from our truck, I stood back and looked at the neatly lined supply that covered one entire wall in her clinic. And then I looked at the nurse, who was beaming. We already had made a difference.

Our truck also carried several thousand pounds of clothing and shoes--pairs of shoes from the backs of closets, shirts bought but never worn. Refugees swarmed the boxes as they opened, clawing to get their share of the goods. Outstretched hands mobbed the gift givers, and one of us pleaded, "Tell them there's enough for everyone! Please! Tell them there's enough for everyone!" The translation wasn't heard. An attack on the distributors and on each other ensued. Two small boys got into a fight over a pair of shoes a size too big for both of them. The painful decision was made to put away the gifts. They would have to be distributed in a more fair and organized manner once we were gone.

Bearing witness to that outburst was most important. These otherwise sedate and dignified people were tested by a demoralizing survival of the fittest. They didn't expect life to lead them this way. Their sole source of hope comes from faith, faith that people like us, people who have the power to make a difference, will take just a moment to look into their eyes-and see ourselves.

Rashel Stephenson works at Crawford Long Hospital.

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