I entered a simple room, seeing familiar metallic medical objects and hearing the beep of a heart monitor reporting each contraction to the hospital staff. The musty, humid air and the smell of infection control agents sting the nostrils of new visitors to this sterile environment. Soon, even those scents are overwhelmed by the smell of illness coming from sick people waiting on mattresses.
An ICU in Haiti moves in slow motion, allowing everyone who enters to fully take in every ounce of what is going on. Having spent my last week in the ICU at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, I thought I was preparing myself by understanding lab values, proper antiseptic technique for administering medications and starting IV’s, and general vent settings.
This ICU in Haiti is not what I had prepared for. Patients are brought into the ICU and placed on uncovered mattresses, attached to equipment that has been donated mostly by people who have never been to this country, but know they need assistance. We came to teach and were given a space in the back of the ICU to meet with all the nurses. As we gathered to begin a lesson in airway management, a female patient was brought into the ICU. She was a young girl in her early 20’s who was wide-eyed and eager for an intervention to ease her breathing. I left the room to head towards the nurses as she was tended to but remembered her waiting on that bed.
We began a lesson with the nurses, pausing every few words to allow our translator to change our English into Haitian Creole. We talked about the airway, the lungs, the position of the patient, and how to recognize when a patient is in trouble and needs an intervention to help them breathe. The nurses answered our questions, and asked some of their own. They each brought their own knowledge and the methods they use to provide patient care deal with limited resources.
The exchange of knowledge was informative and the nurses enjoyed the topic, some scribbling down notes and points to remember, but at times I saw the true importance of the conversation. Every now and then, the dialog changed from our lecture on airway management to learning how other places do the same tasks with less. As the class finished,we said our goodbyes and began to prepare for the next class, talking about how much we enjoyed the exchange.
As I headed outside for a break, my eyes met those of the young female patient who was having difficulty breathing. As I pushed against the heavy exit door, I saw a nurse approach the patient to help her with her oxygen mask and comfort her. I left the sterile musty-smelling room and stepped into the sun realizing the following: although the world is made of billions of different people and places, human compassion is one universal quality that truly is the basis of all care.