What possesses a suburban housewife and school nurse to leave the comforts of her home and travel to Haiti to help victims of a massive 7.0 earthquake? If you ask Marian (Schwab) Byrnes ’76, it was the work of the Holy Spirit which encouraged her to take that leap of faith in the summer of 2010.
Byrnes joined the BAYADA Nurses for Haiti volunteer campaign which went to the ravaged county through a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Heart to Heart International. Heart to Heart arrived in Haiti a few days after the January 2010 quake struck and established several clinics in and around the country’s capital, Port au Prince. More than 300,000 Haitians died in the earthquake.
Byrnes, who works at the Vanguard School in Chester County, knew her nursing skills would be useful to the victims of the earthquake.
“Because I had the summer off from my job, I wanted to spend it in a worthwhile way. I was really moved by the tragedy. I was very affected by that and thought I could do something but I wasn’t sure what,” Byrnes recalled.
All it took was a Google search of “volunteering in Haiti” and Byrnes was immediately directed to the Bayada webpage. Originally the Bayada organization was sending its own nurses but, because the need for care in Haiti was so great, the company extended the offer to outside nurses.
Byrnes was accepted very quickly by the Bayada program – perhaps another sign that she was meant to take this journey. “Things fell into place so quickly and I thought, ‘Well, gosh, there’s no reason to say no.’ My family was all shocked,” she said.
Traveling by herself was another leap of faith for Byrnes. She was not quite sure what to expect when she landed in Port au Prince. Initially she was shocked. Although it was six months after the quake, Byrnes was amazed by how little had been done to clear the wreckage.
“I was overwhelmed when I first got there. It was almost as if it had just happened. The people were traumatized,” Byrnes said.
Heart to Heart had set up a make-shift clinic in a Nazarene Church located in Port au Prince. The church was virtually undamaged by the quake due to its sound construction. It was called the Bel Aire Clinic, and while the name may sound chic, the clinic was far from being upscale.
“We had no running water or toilets in the church. It was very basic. It was quite an adventure. I got more out of it than I’m sure I gave,” said Byrnes.
In the clinic, Byrnes worked closely with Haitian nurses and learned that the earthquake completely destroyed a nursing school killing hundreds of their nurses.
“The people were traumatized. The women were unsafe in the tent cities. I saw a lot of women who were abused. We prayed a lot. We were in a church and that was a blessing,” said Byrnes.
Heart to Heart had the volunteers stay in a home an hour away from the clinic. Each day Byrnes and the other medical volunteers would drive in a flat-bed truck to the clinic. They nick-named the truck “the cage” as they traveled on rough roads back and forth to Port au Prince.
Byrnes explained that most of the medical issues that she dealt with involved acute care and chronic health issues. “I did basic stuff like wound care. We had a donation of hundreds of cases of tetanus shots that we gave out. I had to take my instruments back to the house each day to sterilize them. We did a lot of shots, injections, antibiotics and pain medication,” she said.
One of the barriers that Byrnes experienced was the ability to communicate with the Haitian people. Most of the locals speak Haitian Creole so she needed to have a translator with her most of the time. Some spoke French but very few spoke English.
Byrne’s return to the states was difficult because she had a hard time leaving the Haitian people and the volunteer staff that she had work so closely with. Physically, she was wiped out but exhilarated too.
“It was truly an opportunity of a lifetime for experiencing personal, physical, and professional challenges, and most importantly, spiritual growth. I am so glad that the Holy Spirit guided me in this journey and that I was open to it,” Byrnes said.
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