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Bremerton paramedics changed by work in Haiti

Bremerton Fire Department paramedics Sam Hernandez and Missy Griffith embarked on separate humanitarian trips to Haiti this year. - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
Bremerton Fire Department paramedics Sam Hernandez and Missy Griffith embarked on separate humanitarian trips to Haiti this year.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

Sam Hernandez served in the Air Force and Army and has been a paramedic for 20 years. He isn’t shocked by much. But he came back from Haiti in May as a changed man.

“It will take awhile for me to think like an American again,” he told his girlfriend and son, finding himself impatient with complaints that paled in comparison to the problems in the earthquake-ravaged country.

Missy Griffith came home last month to a 4-year-old daughter, wondering what kind of values she could pass on after what she’d seen — and wondered how she could do more to help.

“It was so hard leaving,” she said. “The only thing I could think about was coming back.”

Hernandez spent eight days in Port-au-Prince, and said it changed his life. Griffith spent 10, and said it changed her outlook.

The two Bremerton paramedics volunteered in Haiti with Disaster Response Northwest, a Washington-based non-profit founded in February to send medical professionals to communities reeling from disasters. The group has been active in Haiti since February, following the Jan. 12 magnitude 7.0 earthquake near the capital of Port-au-Prince and plans to establish an ambulance service in Sierra Leone in October. Though Hernandez and Griffith were happy to do what they could to improve the lives of Haitians, the two faced a culture shock coming back home and are drawn to return to the humanitarian work they say opened their eyes.

Griffith worked on a team of eight medical professionals at a clinic set up in a toppled amusement park in Port-au-Prince. Though she could help offer treatment for the diseases and injuries that came to her door, she was frustrated that they were only temporary fixes for people in a society suffering poverty and starvation.

“We can’t actually fix the problems,” she said. “It was hard in that you’re kind of putting a Band Aid on a lot of these things. But you can’t actually change their situation.”

Hernandez treated patients in a Port-au-Prince trauma center run by the University of Miami. Though he is trained to deal with “the worst society has to offer,” the hardest experience for him was seeing preventable injuries stemming from cultural differences he’d never before witnessed. He recalled a burn victim, a 12- or 13-year-old girl whose parents set her on fire because they believed it would chase out the demons they thought were causing her seizures. The girl went untreated for 12 days.

“It was a wake-up call to how good we really have it here,” Hernandez said, comparing his access to a warm bed, movies and Chinese takeout delivery in the U.S. to the Haitians’ lives in tents among the earthquake rubble.

For both paramedics, their time in Haiti was a practice of medical improvisation, where the routines and protocols that pace their lives in the U.S. are thrown out the window.

“We showed up not really knowing what we were getting into,” said Griffith, who couldn’t conduct routine x-rays or blood tests at her resource-poor clinic. “It was very by-the-seat-of-your-pants medicine.”

On Hernandez’s second day in Haiti, he helped respond to a truck collision that injured 30, with a team of people whose names he barely knew.

“Rank, title meant nothing,” he said. “If you were capable of doing it, you did it - just to make it happen.”

The crises Hernandez and Griffith saw changed their perceptions on the emergencies they respond to at home and even family complaints.

“You’re out of Cheerios?” Hernandez said, incredulous. “You’re kidding me,”

Hernandez said he is getting back to being more sympathetic to 911 callers here whose fixable problems often seem insignificant compared to crises in Haiti, where people fight to survive.

People who call in emergencies in the U.S. are often sick because of preventable things such as excessive smoking or eating, Griffith said - a mockery of sorts to those starving and with no resources.

Hernandez and Griffith know they could not change the life situations of those they helped it Haiti - they had no closure when they left because their work felt incomplete, they said.

“You can spend your entire life there and feel like you haven’t put a dent in it,” Griffith said. “I wanted so bad to be in that world and doing what I can to make it better.”

In coming back home, they even felt guilty.

“I felt that by leaving I was doing a disservice,” Hernandez said.

But, each with hopes to continue humanitarian aid in either Haiti or elsewhere in the world, they know they can improve lives one by one.

“There’s so much more to do,” Griffith said.

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