Haiti crisis hits home

Jackie Valley

Haiti crisis hits home, Nursing professor treated injured after Haiti earthquake.

Nursing professor treated injured after Haiti earthquake

About 75 young adults formed a circle and sang hymns in a park outside Port-au-Prince last Wednesday evening, a day after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the Haitian capital.

“Jesus is the truth,” they sang again and again, as one person held a megaphone.

Earlier that day, children played the body-bending game Twister in the same park.

These are just a couple examples of the Haitian people’s spirit that Donna Martsolf witnessed in the aftermath of the natural disaster that struck the western hemisphere’s poorest country.

“Those kids took over,” said Donna, a Kent State nursing professor who arrived in Haiti shortly before the earthquake hit. “It was amazing.”


Donna Martsolf and her husband, Robert, got off their plane on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince at 3:55 p.m. last Tuesday, and she promptly called her two grown children to say they had arrived safely.

Donna, who has been traveling to Haiti for 30 years, was there to do business this time: She had planned to meet with nursing officials at the nursing school she helped create with a Fulbright Scholarship in 2003— The Faculty of Nursing Science of the Episcopal University of Haiti, located about 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince.

As a board member of a hospital in Haiti, she also was there to help the search committee vet candidates for a hospital administrator. Given her trip’s agenda, her suitcase was packed with business suits accordingly.

After grabbing their luggage and clearing customs, they headed to the airport’s parking lot about 45 minutes later. Before she could get in the taxi cab, the earth started shaking violently.

“It felt like you were surfing, like there were waves under your feet,” she said.

The cab driver grabbed her with one arm and the front of a nearby pickup truck with his other arm to steady them. The trembling stopped after 20 seconds.

“We had no clue that there really was any damage,” Donna said. “Everything looked normal. The airport looked perfectly fine.”

The group got in the cab and headed to their hotel, figuring that was the safest option. The cab driver stopped at his home on the way to verify that his children were safe and his house was still standing. But before leaving, he grabbed a baby and gave her to Donna. Then he vanished for 45 minutes as the sun began to set.

When he returned, he said he was so shaken by the earthquake that he couldn’t drive the manual car. The baby girl was his daughter.

They switched to an automatic car and proceeded up the hills, leading away from the city.

“That’s when we saw everything you see on CNN,” she said.

People crushed. Bodies lying in the streets. Everybody fleeing the city’s destruction.

As traffic started jamming up, they’d move 10 or 15 feet and turn off the car to conserve fuel. It took them about three hours to reach their destination, the Kinam Hotel, which was still standing.

Meanwhile, Donna said thousands of people were filling the park across from the hotel.

At 9:30 p.m., a woman with a broken arm came to the hotel asking for medical help. Her arm had been crushed when a piece of a building fell, killing her baby in her arms.

Robert Martsolf, a physician, looked at the woman’s arm before they took her to a Doctors Without Borders administrative office, which had turned into a makeshift treatment center.

Between 100 and 150 people lay on the ground, many with severe leg and pelvic breaks.

“There was blood everywhere,” said Donna, who along with her husband and several other people began helping the injured as the people cried, “Please see me, please see me.”

They tore cardboard to fashion temporary splints and administered the one antibiotic available, while officials from Doctors Without Borders sought hospitals to transfer the injured Haitians.

By 1:30 a.m., they had cared for each person there — doing as much as possible with the limited supplies.

“By this time, most people were lying there quietly,” Donna said.

She and her husband went back to their hotel, where they felt one of the larger aftershocks at 2:30 a.m.

On Wednesday morning, the 13 Americans staying at the hotel debated what to do next. Should they continue working with Doctors Without Borders? Or should they try to go home? By then, all the nearby medical supplies had been used.

“Finally in the late afternoon, the 13 Americans decided it was our job to do what the passports say to do and that is to get to the American embassy,” she said.

Before they left, a Haitian boy delivered a crucial item: a bag containing one of the men’s passports. The American man’s bag had been trapped under a collapsed building. The Haitian boy had walked four or five miles to the hotel with the rescued bag. Passports in hand, the group was ready to leave.

A consul at the American Embassy informed the travelers that their job was “to be extremely patient and wait in line.” It could be between one and five days before a plane would transport them back to the United States.

By Thursday, Donna and her husband decided nothing was too important in their luggage. She grabbed her university laptop computer and data for a research project, and they headed to a U.S. Air Force cargo plane waiting for them — a plane triple the size of her two-story home.

“The military is doing a phenomenal job,” she said. “I was there. I saw it. The young men and women on the plane were phenomenal.”

The cargo plane, filled with Americans heading home, took off two hours later for McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

“When we got there, the commander got on and said, ‘Our mission is to get you home safely,’” she said. “It was amazing.”

The Martsolfs boarded a plane in Philadelphia bound for Pittsburgh by 3 p.m. Friday and arrived to a very happy family. Their son, Grant, and daughter-in-law greeted them at the Pittsburgh airport.

Grant Martsolf posted this message on his Facebook account Friday evening: “My parents are safe at home. We got to hug them. All is good.”

He concluded by urging everyone to donate for the people in Haiti who were not as fortunate as his parents.

Back in Kent, an e-mail last Tuesday from friends in Haiti alerted Cheryl Cunnagin of the earthquake about an hour after it happened.

Cunnagin, a clerical specialist in the Office of International Affairs, had traveled to Haiti for the first time in October as a minister. While there, she met people from Youth With A Mission, a Christian group with ministries worldwide, who have been e-mailing her with updates from Haiti — a nation and people she grew to love while visiting.

“Even though the country is very impoverished, they are very rich in their hearts,” she said. “They are the friendliest.”

After Cunnagin preached one night, she said she was overwhelmed with the Haitians’ kindness.

“By the time we were done, they hugged each one of us,” said Cunnagin, who was staying several hours away from Port-au-Prince in a city called St. Marc. “They wanted to pray for us.”

Her weeklong stay in Haiti, however, was enough for her to understand the depths of poverty in the Caribbean nation. She wondered how the buildings and infrastructure could ever survive hurricanes.

“Any assistance they could get would be very good,” she said. “I’ve been to some poor places, but that’s one that definitely needs help.”

Contact enterprise reporter Jackie Valley at [email protected].