In Haiti, finding strength amid the pain

Andrise Baptiste plays in the playground of the quake damaged Ecole Nationale Republic School in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday.
Andrise Baptiste plays in the playground of the quake damaged Ecole Nationale Republic School in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti - Lanitte Belledente was cooking rice, beans and chicken in the kitchen of Haitian Ministries' Norwich Mission House in Petionville when the first wave of tremors hit. Then a second.

A moment earlier, Belledente had heard Jillian Thorp and Chuck Dietsch, fellow Mission House staff, talking in a nearby room of the two-story concrete building. When she didn't hear them after the tremors, she started to run outside.

The house had been built partially onto the side of a hill and the kitchen was on the lower level on an outside wall. Belledente grabbed a railing and headed up the four or five steps that led outside.

Another tremor hit. Belledente felt something rise from the ground and hit her left hip. She had no idea what it was.

"It felt," she said Tuesday through an interpreter, "like a heat came out of the earth."

She saw dust everywhere and the world around her was white. She crawled around in a small terrace outside of the kitchen and cried out for help for Thorp and Dietsch.

The tremors continued.

"She said it felt like something was walking under the ground," Belledente said through interpreter Dominique Georges, a project assistant for the Norwich Mission House.

Tuesday marked three weeks since the 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti. In that time, Belledente, the senior cook for the Mission House, has been in three makeshift hospitals and has had her left leg amputated at the shin.

Her remaining sister - her other sister was killed in the earthquake - said she thinks Belledente wouldn't have lost her leg if she had had better care in the first few days following her injury. Belledente disagrees; she would have lost it anyway, she said Tuesday.

Belledente is currently staying at one of the tent hospitals set up on the grounds of the Port-au-Prince International Airport. The tents are bright white with circus tent-like peaks. Each is about half the length and width of a football field.

Inside Belledente's tent, 200 or more patients lie one next to another on cots. The floor is made of sheets of plywood laid down on grass.

It is difficult to get to Belledente, to step gingerly between cots and past IV's and people lying on the floor, and to keep out of the way of the constant flow of doctors and nurses.

Toward the front entrance of the tent, patients receive wound care, usually a change of dressing. When Mission House staff and a team from Haitian Ministries visited Belledente on Saturday, doctors had put her under anesthesia to change her dressing.

An American anesthesiologist from Florida said Belledente had been given a three-drug cocktail: the first, four times stronger than Valium; the second, 100 times - yes, 100 times - stronger than morphine; and the third, a drug like PCP to send Belledente to Neverland and to make sure she kept breathing. The narcotics could be that strong, he explained, because they were very short-lived.

On Tuesday morning, Belledente told her visitors, a different doctor, a Haitian doctor, gave her nothing for the pain when changing the dressing.

The stump is still an open wound, raw and bleeding, the end not yet sewn up. Anger - and what looked like hatred - burned on Belledente's face as she described the amputation ordeal Tuesday afternoon. Never in her life, she said, had she felt so much pain; she had screamed, loudly, throughout.

Belledente was supposed to have surgery this week to sew up the skin around the stump, but an infection set in and doctors decided Tuesday that they will need to take more of her leg, will have to go higher up because the bone is too close to the end. She is a good candidate for a prosthesis, doctors had said during the previous visit.

Belledente has a long road to recovery from the physical and emotional wounds. Still, she gave Mission House staff and the Haitian Ministries team a thumbs-up when they visited her Tuesday, bringing her fresh fruit.

"She said she has been very strong," Georges translated, "except for this morning when they were treating her wound and she had so much pain.

"She said she's always been strong."


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