Adjusting after trip to Haiti: depression, anxiety and hope

Nelson Aquino, a nurse anesthetist from Children’s, went to Haiti with a group of Children’s clinicians as part of a disaster response team. Now, after two weeks back in the United States, he reflects on the life-altering experience.


Haiti MissionHD Port Au Prince, Haiti 2010
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It has been two weeks since I have been back from our mission to Port Au Prince, Haiti, and I would like to take this opportunity to personally thank each and every one of you who have followed this blog and shared it with family and friends.  This blog was initially intended for the families of the CHB team, to inform them of our progress during the mission, but I am happy that many have taken an interest in Haiti and what can be done to help so many of those in need.

Two days after returning, things really started to hit me emotionally and I began to have overwhelming feelings of anxiety and withdrawal. I had never experienced anything like the situation in Haiti before, and the feelings that followed this experience frightened me. I needed to talk with someone who could understand what I was feeling. I needed to know if the feelings
were normal, or if it was a severe case of post-traumatic stress. I called a longtime colleague, and spoke with him about what I was experiencing. It was at that moment that it finally hit me: The mission in Haiti has forever changed my life.

After 10 days of running on adrenaline despite physical and emotional exhaustion, I was only then starting to process what really happened in Port Au Prince. I tried to “re-enter” into my daily routines, but the tragedies and horrors of all those we left behind haunted me every day. I would start speaking to someone I hadn’t seen in a while and I would get teary-eyed and all choked up. It didn’t really matter what I was talking about. It would just happen, and I know many who went on the mission came back feeling the same way.

Now that I am here, all I want to do is be back there (Haiti). There, nothing is wasted. Everyone is real. There, it didn’t matter what I was wearing; it didn’t matter what people were thinking; it didn’t matter what I owned. There, I was just one human being helping another.

“How was your trip?” “What was it like?” That’s what most people ask, and usually I answer: “It was life-altering, unfathomable, indescribable.” Other times, I didn’t know what to say or share. Should I just share the positive? Or do I talk about the corruption, describe the smell of death,
explain how it feels to see people starving, homeless, and injured knowing hundreds and thousands continue to die because of the lack of resources? The questions are difficult.

Going to Haiti is not about you. Going to Haiti is about THEM. It’s about helping people who need help. As these past weeks have progressed, I’ve found myself crying at odd times. I’ll be in the supermarket or walking down the hallway, and suddenly tears begin to fall. Until now, I’m not sure what triggers these moments, but something inside of me is different. It has been one month now since the earthquake. The shocking news is now old news. The Winter Olympics will now
be the main attraction. Many people who haven’t been to Haiti probably aren’t interested in hearing about it as much anymore. I know it’s human nature to be this way, but after seeing all those people suffering in Port Au Prince, it is hard for me to accept. The earthquake is not old news to the people in Port Au Prince. They are living with the devastation every day–and they will be living with it for many months and years to come.

The other day, my friend John Kimbrough, RN, returned from Port Au Prince after working at the General Hospital. I asked him if things had gotten any better. He said, “It is so disorganized and by any stretch of the imagination, people are still dying.”

I keep wondering how this is even possible with all the volunteers, donated supplies, and supposed financial aid? Still, the struggles the Haitians continue to face are so basic–getting water, food, medications. I hope after reading this some of my questions may inspire others. What do I do now? How do I not forget? What can I do to contribute if I can’t be there?

Here is what I am doing: I have started to learn more about Haiti. I am trying to become more aware of their struggles and what challenges face them now. When I am feeling helpless, I remember the good things I witnessed: the love the patients in the hospital had for one another, their amazing faith, their resilience, and their laughter despite the fact that they lost family
members, their home, their livelihood.

A group of us are also currently working on stories and pictures to share with colleagues, family, and friends. Some will be returning to Haiti this March with Dr. Meara and his team. Ultimately, we must not forget Haiti and continue to give Haiti some exposure and aid in whatever way we can. The people there need all the help they can get.