PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A 19-year-old mother sat silent Friday, still and expressionless.
In her lap, the eyes of her 1-year-old baby girl looked off.
“I’m afraid that it was a very serious illness that affected the baby’s brain,” Margaret Bortko, 55, told an interpreter.
Bortko is an experienced nurse practitioner and paramedic volunteering with the Naples-based Hope For Haiti humanitarian organization. She was visiting her sick father in Bonita Springs when she learned of the group and flew to Haiti.
Hope For Haiti and the International Medical Corps have been operating a clinic in Carrefour, just outside the capital, where 8,000 displaced Haitians live in a tent city.
Before the quake, the baby’s symptoms began, the mother told an interpreter. She was taking the baby to the hospital when the terror struck. Now, 10 days later, Bortko believes the baby is blind.
“She was a normal, healthy child until January,” Bortko said.
Bortko and another Hope For Haiti volunteer, Mary Lesperance, 65, a nurse practitioner with the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, have been learning since Saturday how the quake has affected the already desperate health care situation here.
Before the quake, 80 of every 1,000 babies born alive would not reach age 5, according to the Pan-American Health Organization. The situation is worse now, and the emotions struck those at the clinic.
“I’m just feeling so overwhelmed by the needs,” Lesperance said. “It’s just child, after child, after child coming in.”
The clinic was set up inside a carport on the campus of a Salisiennes monastery, which has a brick wall around it. People line up at the gate, waiting to be seen.
Immediately inside the gate, Haitian nurses, who volunteered after the quake, treated numerous open wounds, which became infected on the garbage-strewn streets of the city.
Lined up along the ledge of a flower bed, screams could frequently be heard as the nurses picked debris from feet with amputated toes and applied alcohol to wounds on arms and scalps.
Rick Dutton, a volunteer with Medical Corps, touched the leg of a young woman complaining of pain. He isolated the pain on her hip. She fell during the quake.
“It does not feel broken,” Dutton said as he examined the area.
She stood. Dutton placed his hands under her armpits. He walked her into the clinic.
“I think she has a big bruise and a bit of hysteria,” Dutton said. “Post-traumatic stress. I think she’s just traumatized and sore.”
It’s something the nurses have been seeing. A lack of knowledge about health care, combined with a nation of stress, have led many to psychologically inflate the seriousness of their injuries.
Other patients aren’t necessarily victims of the quake, but Haiti’s poor health care system.
A baby born two months premature six months ago was brought into the clinic. Bortko gave the father some formula and syringe as an interpreter explained their use.
The father, like many of the parents, showed little emotion, only an expressionless face.
“It’s amazing this baby is still alive,” Bortko says. “Let’s hope for Haiti.”
The syringe drops formula in the nickel-sized mouth of the malnourished child, who mustered a quiet cry. The baby was in pain.
Lesperance later admitted the boy is unlikely to survive. An interpreter said his name is Bereka Valcin.
In the tent city, sheets and tarps provide shade, but block the breeze and result in stifling hot and humid shelters.
Boys ride bikes and play jokes on girls. Men sell ice water. Women fry potatoes and chicken. It’s almost a normal day in Haiti.
But then, inside one of the tents, a 10-month-old child lay motionless. Flies gathered around.
A group of people approached as Skyler Badenoch, 32, an engineer with the international school-building organization buildOn, inspected the situation.
“The end,” a girl kneeling near the baby said in Creole.
A mother returned and the baby was brought to the clinic. The nurses and a doctor inspected the child, who was born with several medical conditions.
“It’s too late,” Dutton said later. “There is nothing in Haiti that can help.”
Lesperance broke down. Sitting on a chair away from the clinic, after tears formed and emotion choked, Lesperance said she never gets like this back home.
“I want to help them, but I’ve never felt so helpless,” she said. “I feel guilty about going home tomorrow.”
The baby who was blind received an injection of antibiotics. For the first time, Steline, an interpreter said her name is, moves. Long, breathy spurts of “ah” — cries — blurted from her small mouth.
The mother was given formula and explained its use. She got up, grabbed two bottles of water, and exited the gate walking off into the refugee camp, her future unknown.
“There’s going to be a lot of deaths here very soon,” Lesperance said later. “We’re going to see a lot of deaths here, and it’s going to be the children. I’m very scared.”