Haiti’s Cholera Epidemic: One Nurse’s Account

[An eye-opening, first-hand account of the epidemic from Connie Ghiglieri RN, who left it here as a comment on my last cholera update. Posted here with permission, for which I am grateful: it is very difficult to get first-hand,on-the-ground information from Haiti unfiltered by media or aid agencies. Very slightly edited.]

I just spent two weeks at the cholera treatment center in Hinche. I am a RN from Arizona. Here is what I wrote to a friend to describe my experience:

I am in Hinche. . .working at a cholera treatment center. . .Cholera is a very dark hell, plain and simple. Not like anything I have ever seen or could have imagined. . . and thus far we have been able to keep things under control and have not lost many, which is a small victory but an unrelenting battle. . .there is not a moment to breathe. . .it is just work and sleep and sometimes eat.

Never have been in a situation where the urgency to perform is so damn constant. Keeping people hydrated is the key, they come in often close to death and look like they are dead except that they are puking and shitting volumes. IVs are such a challenge to keep going and patent. Their clotting factors must be way off, have to constantly restart them. Then keeping them drinking when even tho they often end up vomiting what they have just taken in, and keeping them clean. . .oh the inhumanity. . .there is no dignity involved in this disease other than the compassion that we feel, and them saying an occasional quiet merci, or just making eye contact. . . but for the most part they are too sick to really care.

Most of our patients are on cots that are soaked with liquid cholera (looks like rice water. . . sort of. . .that’s being generous ) and bleach, with a bucket alongside to use if they can. . .We try to keep a plastic barrier between them and the cot. . .yeah not entirely successful, the rest are on the wooden MSF cholera beds. . .wooden benches covered with plastic with holes cut in them with a bucket underneath. Pretty much everyone is naked and then covered with whatever we have, mostly plastic surgical gowns. . .and at night they are freezing. We used to diaper most patients when they first came in because they are too weak to use the buckets, yes adults. . . but we have run out of those, so you guessed it. . .naked. . .what I would give for a pamper. . .We too wear plastic surgical gowns as barriers. . . and gloves. . . at all times, I probably change my gloves at least 50-60 times in a shift. . .not kidding. . .I wear rubber boots and I wash my hands several times a night with a clorox solution…and do not get my hands near my face. . .for any reason.

Hard not to touch people skin to skin, but I just don’t do it. The best I can do is give the patients back rubs with lotion…but rarely have time for that. We try to clean people with baby wipes, but I’m not sure there are enough of those in the world for this disease. . .we run out every day. The smell is. . .well, it is distinct and now I am used to it and am sure I will recognize it anywhere. . .right now it is just what it is and I don’t think about it. I actually don’t think about much except checking IVs, keeping them going, keeping people drinking, keeping them clean, keeping the tents as clean as possible and then hydrate. . .checking IVs, drinking, clean. . .hydrate. . .IVs, drinking, clean….simple, simple, simple yet exhausting. . .BUT when you see someone go from death to life in a matter, sometimes, of hours. . .it is all good and for a moment you remember life really is beautiful. . .and then you take a breath and . . .hydrate. . .IVs, drinking, clean. . .

The news of it spreaking rapidly in Haiti is the worst possible. I don’t want to leave.


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  1. #1 by Jenn Jilks on Monday 22 November 2010 - 1442

    It is awful, isn’t it? Much as we complain about our health care system, it is still a system and an infrastructure.

    Bless those of you who give this kind of care. I could not. Give me a classroom of unruly gr. 8’s anytime!

  2. #2 by Jackie on Tuesday 23 November 2010 - 1128

    Wow. I don’t know if I could do that. The worse part is until a consistant source of safe water and sanitation is established then this is going to be an on-going battle.

    My heart breaks for Haiti, I wish I was strong enough to go there and help. I don’t think I could do it.


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