A Haitian-American nurse reflects on her service in Haiti

Like other first generation Haitian-Americans, Melissa Martelly had been itching to use her nursing skills on the ground in Haiti. Below, Martelly, who also has a masters in international peace and conflict resolution, writes about becoming an unlikely activist and her first trip back to Haiti since the earthquake.

Haitian-American nurse Melissa Martelly caring for one of her many patients in Croix-des-Bouquets, September 2010

I never thought that I would want to dedicate my life to developing Haiti but January 12th was my wake up call. Although I was born in the United States I’ve been visiting Haiti since I was a child.  Last September was the first time that I was there to help my people. Imagine: thirty-five seconds transformed me into an activist who now works to end Haiti’s history of poor governance, class division and social inequality.

I am a registered nurse and I had been trying to get on the ground since the earthquake.  All doors were shut.  To this day I don’t understand why international development organizations would not select a Creole-speaking Haitian-American health care professional to provide immediate assistance.

I grapple with that confusing fact, still. Luckily my persistence paid off and I met the medical director of Glory Unlimited Ministries, a small Texas-based nonprofit. Glory was the first organization that actually gave me a chance, not just wanting me to add my name to a volunteer database but welcoming me to their team. During our ten-day mission trip to Haiti I would help with translation, triaging patients and logistical support.

When I arrived in September I couldn’t believe that Port-au-Prince still looked like the television images shown on January 12th: rubble all over the street, buildings on the verge of collapse and tent cities everywhere I turned. It looked like no major rubble removal or reconstruction had even begun.  How could ten people have any impact amidst such devastation?  In three days we saw 300 people in Marin, Heuse-Dagout and Meilleur.  I saw patients who had previously seen doctors but who couldn’t afford to fill their prescriptions. Others couldn’t recall the last time they ate.

In 2009 I volunteered at a clinic in rural Tanzania in Eastern Africa. Supplies were scarce and there was also no running water or flushing toilets but that facility looked like the Mayo Clinic compared to what I saw in Croix-des-Bouquets. Driving down the unpaved and rocky road littered with trash, cattle and people I did not see any clinics, doctors’ offices or medical buildings. These people were alone—and, in speaking with them it was apparent that they knew it.

Glory gave each patient a bag of rice, beans and oil.  In addition we distributed almost two tons of food, clothes, medical and school supplies, and toiletries to hundreds of families throughout Croix-des-Bouquets. I realize that giving one bag of rice or giving some clothing is not much and I also realize that charity is unsustainable. I fear that short trips such as mine, while well intentioned, may hinder Haiti’s long term development. I fear that Haitians may grow accustomed to or dependent on aid agencies providing handouts until funding disappears–leaving the population without any job prospects or transferable skills.

However, I saw unimaginable suffering. Along with widespread unemployment and underemployment, food prices are rising. A bag of rice seems like very little but I can’t ignore the fact that our small gesture boosted morale among people struggling to get through the day.

By the end of our ten days in Haiti I left with a heavy heart.  I knew that I would no longer be the same after witnessing humanity at its weakest and most vulnerable. But I also saw hope amidst the frustration, desperation and anger.  That small glimmer motivates me to act as a stakeholder in Haiti’s reconstruction. I want to work with others who are similarly committed to Haiti in the long-term and not just to a one-time trip or experience.  I plan to return in the near future, ideally, by working with an international development organization on the ground.


2 Comments to “A Haitian-American nurse reflects on her service in Haiti”

  1. I’ll make sure Melissa sees your note. Thanks for visiting. Where did you go while in Haiti? How long were you there?

  2. I too am Haitian American and a nursing student. After visting Haiti for the first time this summer I was truly motivated to continue on in school and to go back after graduation and somehow help my people. I have always had a strong pride and love for my culture and its people but after actually visiting and seeing everything first hand I just can not sit back and not do anything. I commend you on all that you have done and all that you will do in the future. I am inspired.

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