Thursday, February 04, 2010

Haiti left off

In this week's Standard the jump for the Haiti story was left off... here it is in its entirety.

By Jenni Osborne
Todd County Standard

Celebrities sing for its survival, our texts can direct change in its coffer and the news is mired in its misery. But long before the world's attention turned to Haiti, Dr. Tom Grabenstein had turned to the Haitians. The medical director of the Helping Hands Clinic in Elkton has been on 36 medical missions to the impoverished nation -- now a disaster area following last
month's earthquake.

Indeed, a few times a year, Grabenstein flies to a Caribbean island where the official language melts in your mouth like fine French cheese. It's not a vacation, yet to say it's not a pleasure trip isn't quite accurate, either. Over the years, Grabenstein’s natural compassion has graduated into a genuine affection and appreciation for those he tends to -- and his concern for them didn't begin like much of the world's. He was there before the earthquake, after all, and he'll be there afterward. Actually, in a way, he was there during it. Grabenstein, who's from Clarksville, Tenn., and works at the Elkton clinic on Thursdays, said he was chatting online with an RN he knows from one of the Haitian clinics at that fateful moment when the sky – or at least the ceiling – started falling.

"He was saying, 'Oh, my God, the building is shaking, everyone is screaming, we're having an earthquake,'" recalled Grabenstein of his friend. "All of a sudden, it went dead. Everything was cut off for 24 hours. My wife said, 'Keep that.'"

He was referring to the series of e-mails in which two buddies discuss a natural disaster that will go down in history. At the time, however, the doctor was unaware this event’s scale was so grand – he watched the news that evening thinking it was "still a little thing to shake them up." When he learned what really happened, it was Grabenstein who was stirred, especially when there was no immediate word from his friends. One in particular was a little occupied – she was buried in the rubble for two days, he said. When they finally pulled her out, Grabenstein recalled her delight: “‘An angel came and got me out,’ she said.” Until he heard from the people he knew who were on the island, the man who always helped was pretty much helpless.

But eventually he learned that not only were all his friends spared, so was the clinic where Grabenstein does much of his practicing, at which he is now president of the board. His trips usually last 10-12 days and are often spent at the Visitation Hospital he helped design, now one of the few left standing, he said -- pointing at a photo worthy of a travel magazine, with its pristine white architectural scapes against the kind of blue sky you’d almost demand from somewhere in the Caribbean, whether you take time to lounge on its beach or not. Grabenstein chooses not, as part of his incentive in having picked Haiti for medical missions in the first place was that he felt called somewhere that really needed healing – both kinds – rather than a glamorous hotspot.

"Haiti being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, I figured that was a good place to start." It couldn't have needed him more -- then or now. "Haiti at that time was a country on its knees; Haiti now is a country prostrate in rubble," Grabenstein said. "Bad then... unbelievably horrible now."

He recalled his first trip to Haiti in 1994, pointing out how surprised he was to learn how warped an impression the rest of the world typically has of the country. It's not “voodoo” and chicken-bone curses, he said. "When I got there, everyone was reading the Bible and walking donkeys and kids to school. That’s it!" The east Tennessee native began trekking to Haiti to touch others' souls, true, but also to minister to his own, in a sort of religious Robin Hood mentality.

"You’ve got to have an accounting for your life when you check out," the devout Catholic said. "The biggest thing is, you have to look at yourself-- 'Why do I have all these goodies: good education, nice car, nice house, nice job, family?' and other people are just born into total misery? Well, the people who have all this are obligated to serve those that have nothing."

It sounds like a country song, but Grabenstein was in his early forties when he decided to change his life by taking on mission work – before it was too late.

"This is when you start thinking about the end times," he said.

Through the Catholic church, he found linkages set up to work in foreign countries, where he joins medical teams with other doctors and nurses, mostly funded by church organizations.

While in Haiti, Grabenstein performs primary care medicine -- that means delivering babies, operations under local anesthetic, you name it, he said -- which "keeps it interesting; you're not as constrained as in the United States.”

That includes being bound by four walls or any of the four seasons – hey, it’s the Caribbean: Grabenstein has actually seen patients under a tree, he said. He was scheduled to hop an HCA jet out of Nashville just after the earthquake hit, Grabenstein said, but that idea was scrapped, so he will be making his regular trip in March, armed with a large amount of medicine Helping Hands has purchased and a different playbook than ever before. After a calamity so toll-taking, doctors are worried about a major, en-masse onset of PTSD, he said, and sedatives and anti-depressants are being requested for the first time-- yes, the first time, even for a country so famously poor and needy.

Psychologists and psychiatrists may also tag along as part of the medical team, Grabenstein said, especially for children who have lost parents in the deluge. "I wondered if they would blame God for this," he said. "They haven't. You just keep thinking, 'These people cannot get a break! They've been beat down for 200 years, and now this!'”

Perhaps they are handling the latest bad news better than the media would have us to believe, according to Grabenstein and his inside sources – a.k.a., the people he keeps up with regularly.

“All the looting they are reporting, none of them have ever seen so much as a purse stolen,” he said, also calling heightened violence reports “hype.”

If Grabenstein had been able to rush to Haiti instead of waiting until next month, as a first responder, he would be looking for crush trauma, he said – limbs, skulls and the like; then burns and lung disease from concrete dust. Unfortunately, necessarily quick work in unavoidably shabby locales – there’s how you end up having your baby under a tree – don’t always mean the best medical care. And this is in a country that had only five full-service hospitals before the earthquake, with some of them entirely destroyed, he said.

"A large number of them have had amputations and very quick procedures,” Grabenstein said. “The numbers are staggering, 200,000 dead; 1.5 million homeless, 7-800,000 injured.”

Adding to his colleagues’ frustration and his worry is that people still need regular care, which means in the aftermath they aren't getting everyday life-saving treatments like HIV or blood pressure medicines. Grabenstein’s mission work has never been proselytizing, he said – in fact, it’s all very laid back, island-style, with Catholic services featuring a come-as-you-are vibe for those seeking knowledge and redemption.

They very likely may have already found it; “Haitians are much more religious now,” Grabenstein said, adding that they sometimes go to services that last for hours. “They believe in God, not the dollar bill,” he said, though their GNP was just starting to rise when the earthquake left Haiti ajar. “I’ve seen some improvement over the last few years,” he said, remembering his early trips to Haiti. “It was starting to get better, and then this hit.”

And it is quite a setback, he said. But if anyone is used to handling them, it’s the Haitians.

"They are pretty resilient. They've bounced back from all kinds of things.” Todd County native 1st Lt. Nate Moseley has been to Haiti more times in the past few weeks than Grabenstein will go in a typical year – without actually having been to Haiti, really.

As an Air Force pilot on a C-17, the current Tacoma, Wash. resident flies supplies in and American citizens out of Haiti; he barely has time to load and unload the plane, much less see past the Port-au-Prince Airport.

Working 15-hour days to reunite what he calls “American refugees” with their loved ones waiting in Florida, Moseley said he knew the C-17 would be playing a huge part in the relief effort as soon as he heard about the Haitian disaster, since it featured heavily in the Katrina and tsunami response.

He wasn’t a part of those missions, but Moseley was thrilled to join the crew of “Operation Unified Response,” an effort in which the military planes are sometimes so full of people returning to the United States there’s sitting room only – on the floor of the aircraft. Moseley speculates a U.S. presence will be in Haiti “at least six months,” said while he’s usually too busy to talk to any of his 200 or so passengers, he has noticed the C-17 isn’t the only thing lifting at take-off: spirits are higher too.

“People look like the shock is wearing off,” Moseley said. “Things are getting better every day.” The 2000 Todd County Central High School graduate is gratified to finally see some improvements in such a somber situation. “I love my job,” he said. “I feel a higher calling leading me.”


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