Sister Patrice Coolick, RN Visits Haitian Cholera Clinic

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Sister Patrice Coolick, CSJ, RN, is an oncology nurse at O'Connor Hospital in San Jose, California. Here she shares her experience of her recent trip to Haiti serving in a cholera unit.

My Unique Haitian Vacation

It all started on a beautiful day in late November. It was one of those days when the stars line up, grace is there and you know it is just right. I got the request to go to Haiti and volunteer for work in the cholera units.  I still had a month's vacation, I was healthy, I had the skills, I wasn't afraid of cholera because I had dealt with it in Africa and I knew what part of the country they were asking me to go to. I also thought, "Good, I am going to get good use out of all those vaccines I got before going the last time."

At different times in my life I was asked to go and work medically in different parts of the world and I just knew it was not right and did not go. It was a humbling recognition of my limitations and the realization that it is always a gift of grace when I do respond and go.

I worked in Milo in northern Haiti, a half hour from Cap-Haitien and worked with other volunteers under the umbrella of CRUDEM. It was the same place I worked after the earthquake. The tent I was working in at that time was now the cholera unit.

The first two weeks we had torrential rain morning, noon, and during the night. We wore high boots and sloshed our way from our compound to the cholera area. The month of December saw the height of the epidemic. We had about 30 to 40 children and about an equal number of adults. By the third week I was tired and feeling my "advancing age." By January, the numbers began to decrease and by the time I left we had about eight kids at any one time and about 10 to 12 adults. 

The doctors and nurses I worked with were amazing and generous. Several of them brought their young adult children with them. They were also wonderful and ready to do whatever was needed. Their youth, positive energy and willingness to do anything spread joy and hope to all of us, patients and medical volunteers alike.

There are two Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, one from Ireland and one from England who are and have been working in Milot for two years. Sister Maureen left for holiday after I arrived and Sister Anne (nurse mid-wife) invited me to stay with her. We had so many good laughs. She has that delightful Irish wit that would show itself at unexpected times.

The only disappointment of my time in Milo was that I didn't lose one pound.  I love my rice and beans and the Haitians are great cooks and created the delicious sauces to go with everything.  That being said I also felt like a chlorinated swimming pool walking around. All of our water was chlorinated and everything was washed , including ourselves in diluted Clorox.

There are many touching stories that could be shared but I will only relate one. The last two weeks I was there I worked with the children in the cholera unit. The children were so stoic. I would put in an IV line and they would just watch me do it holding very still. When I was done and looked up there was often a tear running down their cheeks.

There was one little girl brought in by her father. It was difficult getting an IV line in her because of the dehydration but we managed to do it. It was cool at night and the father took off his torn and dirty shirt to wrap around her for warmth. He never left her side. After 3 days she was much better and was going to leave to go home (up into the higher hills). We always tried to have the children leave with vitamins, soap, and any clothing we had etc. etc. I collected whatever I could. They were all so poor and they touched my heart deeply.  A week later I was taking two visitors on a walking tour when the father saw me and brought the little girl out to ask me if I remembered her.  He gave me a small bead necklace to say thank you. It was more important to me than gold.

I returned to the states as healthy as I left and I was grateful for the opportunity to have gone, grateful for all the prayers and support that I received going and coming from my family from community, grateful for the volunteers I worked with, grateful for the people I cared for and grateful for the care I received in return.

Many people ask, "Are things getting better in Haiti" "Do you see a difference?" How to answer those questions?  The indomitable spirit of the people has not wavered. The political situation is still a quagmire of corruption. The people still strive to carve out a life of joy in small ways. The overwhelming problems that faced Haiti before the earthquake still exist and were compounded after January 12, 2010. It will take years to sort it all out and get the small Island on its way to recovery and sustainability.

So that is my rather unique vacation in Haiti and I wouldn't have missed it for anything!

Learn more about the cholera epidemic in Haiti from Catholic Relief Services.

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