Disaster relief in Haiti
Applying Sai Baba’s Teachings Amid the Devastation in Haiti
With her perfect oval-shaped face and beautiful brown eyes, the young Haitian woman could have been a model for a women’s magazine. However, the jagged wound snaking its way down the right side of her forehead, across her left eye, and down her cheek distorted that picture. It is one of the memories that stays with me after serving in Haiti as a nonmedical volunteer on the Sathya Sai international medical team.
In the past, it never occurred to me to volunteer with a Sai medical camp, as I am a journalist and media-relations consultant. However, reports of the devastation in Haiti led me to go within and ask my Self to open the door for me to serve. My prayers were heard – I was even provided with a free airline ticket that appeared miraculously.
And I was to go during the week of Easter, a time when Christians worldwide remember the passion of Christ. My heart was totally open, and my sense of compassion seemed to expand to another level. I traveled to Haiti on 3–10 April 2010 with eight other Sai devotees. We were the ninth team to make the trip to the impoverished Caribbean nation, where destruction had cut such an ugly path.
Arriving in Haiti
Our team arrived in Haiti the day before Easter Sunday, and I arrived at the Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport carrying six 50-pound boxes of supplies. Five boxes had been donated by the Sai Center of Bethesda, Maryland. In what we felt was Sai Baba’s intervention, the baggage fees had been waived by American Airlines. This allowed me to bring much-needed medical supplies as well as infant formula, rice, and other food for the needy. Carlos, a Sathya Sai devotee from Argentina, was overseeing the preparation of 500 meals a day.
Stepping into the intense humidity, I felt uneasy, as I was three hours late for my appointed pick-up time, the result of a canceled flight. In the chaos and throng of people, I wondered how I would catch up with the driver assigned to get me.
Additionally, every porter in the teeming airport seemed to descend on me, jostling to take my boxes. Thousands of people were unemployed, and the airport was one place where men could hope to earn a few much-needed dollars. As I stood pondering my next move, a folder that I was carrying with Sai Baba’s picture mysteriously flew open. Spotting the picture, one porter inquired, “Sai Baba?” then pointed to a man nearby, who turned out to be the doctor leading our medical team.
Our team gave thanks for the blessing of lodging in the home of Uncle Roni, a Sai Baba devotee. So we didn’t have to sleep outside in tents. We were even more grateful to have access to an indoor toilet and to have warm meals prepared with love by another incredible Sai devotee, Benita. Our daily routine began with devotional songs, many of which were sung in beautiful Creole language by local devotees. Afterward, we would prepare lunch for ourselves and the local translators hired to assist our team.
Our daily work
Over the next seven days, our team of five doctors and four nonmedical volunteers would get a close, personal view of the suffering of the Haitians. On Easter Sunday, we visited the local hospital and observed numerous patients being treated in donated tents from various countries. Nearly every patient we saw had lost an arm or a leg. Doctors and nurses labored to comfort patients in the sweltering heat.
By truck, we would travel daily to the local Catholic church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, in downtown Port-Au-Prince. There, over 300 people would be lined up outside the door, not far from hundreds of makeshift tents dotting the surrounding landscape. Displaced families struggled to make some sense of home, cooking outside on grills, living nearly on top of each other, in a desperate effort to survive.
Most of the people we treated had not been injured physically in the quake but were suffering from a general lack of routine health care. We saw numerous women with vaginal infections and people who had not seen a dentist in years. Many of the children had head lice and worms. Mothers carried small babies, many of whom had no diapers – disposable diapers are a luxury.
Our group of nonmedical volunteers, aided by a Haitian student pharmacist, double-checked the doctors’ prescriptions to make sure we were selecting the correct medications. We worked closely with our excellent translators to ensure that the individuals understood exactly how to take their medications, and the proper dosage.
What was not visible to the human eye, however, were the deep emotional scars that still lingered several months after the quake. Blood pressure checks revealed alarmingly high numbers in both older adults and teens. Our team psychologist took groups aside and taught them how to use breathing exercises to reduce their feelings of stress. Subsequent teams now use the protocol.
What impressed us all was the resiliency of the Haitian people. Never once did I hear a person complain – mothers were happy just to receive medicine and powdered milk for their babies. At the orphanage where we set up a camp, we treated tiny tots who had lost their parents in the 7.0-magnitude quake. Despite their loss, their faces lit up when given a single toy with which to play.
Our own transformation
Though it was never spoken about openly, it was clear that we, the team members, were being transformed by the experience. Each person seemed to go the extra mile to offer a kind word or to make sure that each individual received the absolute best care. At day’s end, our team would leave exhausted and sapped by the overwhelming heat that seemed to drain every ounce of strength. Yet, the indomitable spirit of the Haitian people, despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges, melted our hearts and reminded us daily of Sai Baba’s universal love and grace. Every encounter, from the translators that we worked with to the Sai devotees who cooked the nutritious food daily for 500 people, demonstrated tangible proof of Sai’s teachings about Love in Action.
Working side by side with our Haitian team, we learned that several of the translators had lost their own homes, and one, a college student, and his mother were even living on the open street without the shelter of a tent. Yet, he came each day – clean, on time, and full of vigor. Through the generosity of a Bethesda Sai Center member, we later sent the young man a tent to share with his mother.
Though it has been a while since my service in Haiti, the week-long experience continues to have a positive impact on me. I find myself more grateful for my daily blessings, whether it’s a hot shower or a warm, snug bed. I have more compassion for others, and I surrender more when faced with challenges, knowing that the Divine will take over. In addition, I am learning not to let fear impact my desire to be of service, particularly when financial challenges pop up. I am learning to take responsibility and dance the fine balance of stepping out in faith and simply being willing to serve.
Although I will never forget the face of the Haitian woman whose outer beauty was scarred by the debris from a falling building, I will remember her inner beauty, her sense of surrender, and the genuine gratitude she expressed to our team. I am grateful to Sathya Sai Baba for the opportunity to apply, and learn from, his teachings. May he continue to help me to surrender and do His Will.
Sathya Sai Center of South Bethesda
You must exemplify the same spirit wherever you may be. Wherever you may go, you must have the spirit of service. You must redeem your life through selfless service.
Sathya Sai Baba, 11 Mar 1994
This story reflects a service project the author undertook individually and as part of a long-term international project organized by the Sri Sathya Sai World Foundation, International Medical Committee, and the international Sathya Sai Organization, to provide relief services in response to the severe earthquake of January 2010 on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
Video courtesy of Dr Uma Srivatsa.