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Teaching about Health, Tent by Tent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – “People were saying it was the end of the world, or God doing his work.” Tony Saint Germain recalled the moments after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti on January 12th. “Everyone was running, people were falling to the ground, badly injured.”

An experienced nursing instructor, Saint Germain, 44, had been volunteering with the Haitian Red Cross for 23 years. In the hours after the earthquake struck, with more than 200,000 Haitians dead and many more wounded, he immediately put his years of training to use. Caught in a part of town far from his home, he immediately went to the aid of injured people around him and then flagged down a passing Red Cross ambulance that took him to one of the few big hospitals in Port au Prince that hadn’t collapsed. The hospital was overflowing with badly injured people but had few doctors available. Saint Germain spent most of the night administering emergency first aid to the victims, including a young boy whose feet were almost entirely severed.

Fortunately Saint Germain’s own family was safe, though half of their house collapsed and they spent the night sleeping in the street for fear of aftershocks and the next day he spent another 14 hours treating injured people at the local town hall. With his home too unstable to live in, he moved into one of the spontaneous camps that sprang up around the city, living under a tarp as more than one million Haitians did in the days after the earthquake. He has since rented a small apartment, but the strain on his family life has been tremendous, he says. His wife and children are currently staying in a makeshift structure on the grounds of their former family home.

Now Saint Germain is working as a health promoter with the American Red Cross in Haiti. Every weekday morning, he and a group of fellow health workers pile into two silver minivans to travel over the hilly, pot-holed roads of Haiti’s capital city to reach some of its most desperate residents.

Saint Germain and his colleagues are part of an American Red Cross-funded effort to keep this vulnerable population as healthy as possible under difficult living conditions. For weeks they have traveled from one crowded, spontaneous camp to another, going from tent to tent teaching residents of camps across the city about good hygiene, protection against HIV/Aids and malaria. As native Creole speakers, they interact well with local residents and have an opportunity to see first-hand the challenges of daily life.

Despite the difficult conditions in the camps, Saint Germain says he sees signs of progress thanks to Red Cross efforts. “Yesterday I met several members of a camp committee who told me they want the Red Cross training to continue,” he says. “The Red Cross is helping them improve their capacity to deal with this disaster.”

There is still much work to be done, and Saint Germain remains dedicated to the organization he has worked with for more than two decades. “I hope I can continue with the Red Cross my entire life,” he says.