A mission, a passion
Victoria Campbell is not one to be told that she can't do something. When the 34-year-old Vineyard native considered going to Haiti a few days after the January 12 earthquake to see if she could help, friends and family told her it was too dangerous and probably not even feasible. "That only fueled the fire more," she said in a recent conversation. "The more people doubt me, the more I'm going to continue on my way."
And so, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Ms. Campbell, a filmmaker, and Abby Pope, a photographer friend and colleague, embarked on a relief effort - and an adventure into the unexpected and unknown. Though neither has any medical training, they both speak French and were fully prepared to pitch in as needed.
With communication to Haiti disabled, the first challenge was to find a way to volunteer their services. Eventually Ms. Campbell was able to connect with a pediatric clinic in Port-au-Prince through an organization called Artists for Peace and Justice. They left the U.S. on January 18, headed for St. Damien's hospital.
Armed with simple medical supplies and a cache of water and food for themselves, the two began their journey in the Dominican Republic where Ms. Campbell has friends. Although they were told that nobody was getting into Haiti in the early days after the quake, they took their chances and boarded the once-a-day bus for the Haitian capital. The two dressed in long skirts and head scarves and carried rosaries, effectively fooling the border guards who stamped their passports "Religioso" and waved them in. "Coming into Haiti, there was poverty that I've never witnessed before," Ms. Campbell said. "The Dominican Republic is considered third world. Crossing the border was like going from third world into tenth world."
After a grueling 11-hour bus ride on potholed roads, they arrived in Port-au-Prince at night with no phone number and just a vague description of the location of the hospital. "There was just this wild energy," Ms. Campbell said. "Everyone was shocked by what had happened. We were surrounded by pancaked buildings and people on the streets. No one knew where to go. There were people sleeping in sleeping bags, fire pits, people preaching. It was the craziest human climate that I've ever witnessed."
Opportunistic cab drivers were hawking short rides for up to $100 but a French journalist from the bus trip recruited a Haitian friend to drive the two women to the hospital. There they were met by chaos and suffering almost beyond description. "There were hundreds of people lying in the hallways, on floors, in bathrooms, everywhere," Ms. Campbell said. "There was mass disorganization. Everyone was in a state of total shock. There were hardly any doctors or nurses. It was like we walked into a war zone."
The two women arrived before most of the official international aid or supplies, and they discovered that the things they brought were desperately needed - like gauze, peroxide, antibiotic cream, and over-the-counter pain-killers. People were making makeshift casts with sticks and cloth and using Tylenol as a substitute for anesthesia. "There must have been 100 to 200 amputations daily," Ms. Campbell said. "We witnessed amputations with children taking Tylenol. We were holding kids' hands during surgeries."
Ms. Campbell and Ms. Pope worked virtually around the clock, dressing wounds and providing other medical assistance. They also found that their command of French made them invaluable as translators for the American doctors and nurses.
The two women slept for a few scant hours each night in the only available space - on the rooftop of the hospital. During their first night there, Haiti was rocked by a 6.0 aftershock (the original quake registered 7.0). "The building was shaking like crazy," Ms. Campbell said. "There was a mass exodus from all the buildings in the area. You could hear the whole city shrieking in terror. You could tell that these people were just terrified that this was another [earthquake]."
More help for Haiti
This Saturday, March 6, at 6 pm, the M.V. Fish Farm for Haiti project (www.fishfarm haiti.org) will hold a potluck dinner fundraiser at Island Co-Housing in West Tisbury for victims of the Haiti earthquake. Ideas and plans for fundraising events this summer will be discussed. Call 508-696-6645 for more information.
Ken Lay is offering a free one-hour fitness session using the Tiger-Clawz/Power Posture Program to anyone who donates at least $30 to the Fish Farm for Haiti. More information at 508-627-8350.
Ms. Campbell and Ms. Pope used their French to reassure people. "There was serious hysteria," Ms. Campbell said. "Everyone was predicting a worse earthquake and saying 'God is angry.' A lot didn't understand what an earthquake was."
The challenges the two women faced were not only medical. While transporting a critically ill woman by ambulance, an armed policeman tried to extort money from the driver, who explained to Ms. Campbell that this type of encounter was common.
Religious zealots had converged on the city, proselytizing and offering food, while official aid was being held up by bureaucracy, miscommunication, and red tape. Everywhere there was mass destruction, chaos and fear.
Ms. Campbell's most enduring impression was of the resilience of the Haitian people. "I was amazed at these people's ability to have some joy and graciousness with so much pain and destruction," she said. "They were stripped of everything. All they've got is their human spirit, yet the amount of life roaring through the place was amazing. I've never felt such a palpable energy of people."
After ten days, with their water supply depleted and official aid starting to trickle in, the two women flew home, bringing with them video and photo documentation of what they encountered. Ms. Campbell and Ms. Pope hope to return to Haiti later this month to follow up on their mission to the clinic and hopefully provide some funding.
Ms. Campbell is considering making her next project a documentary about the tragedy and its aftermath. "It will be more of an artistic portrait than a journalistic approach - a story of how the human spirit rises," she said. After witnessing the endurance of hope and joy, she will focus on the positive. "The Haitians are the most loving, beautiful people. I have never seen such patience and kindness. They're just glad to be alive."
Next Wednesday, March 10, Ms. Campbell and Ms. Pope will host a fundraising event for a hoped-for return trip. Ms. Campbell's first film, "The House of Bones," will be screened at the Vineyard Playhouse, starting at 6:30 pm, followed by a slideshow and Q & A. A reception with cheese and desserts, with wine donated by Our Market, will wrap up the evening. The cost is $20, $15 for the film only.