Seven days in Haiti: Barrow firefighter's volunteer mission aids country in need

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Among the ruined city streets and piled cadavers of the embattled Haitian capital, Dany Menard witnessed miracles -- tiny happenings, given the magnitude of the earthquake's devastation -- that attested to an enduring human spirit.

For instance:

The frail, dehydrated woman pulled from a crumbled Port-au-Prince church, only after a second quake shook the rubble enough to point rescuers her way. The 84-year-old's shriveled veins were so tiny workers used an IV meant for children to hydrate her.

Eight days trapped, and the woman survived.

"'Oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord' -- that's all she could say," said Menard, 35, of Suwanee, a firefighter and medic with Barrow County Emergency Services.

The adage "grace a dieu" -- or "grace be to God" -- echoed widely in the ravaged land of Menard's lineage.

Further proof:

On Jan. 20, as an encore 6.1-magnitude quake violently shook the capital's General Hospital, Menard huddled in a doorway with three coworkers and watched the ceilings crack. At first he thought the cracks were fast-moving bugs. In the background he could hear the amputees singing hymns.

"It felt like a movie ... it felt like an eternity," Menard said last week after decompressing in Miami, retrieving his car in New York and reporting to work in Barrow. "I'm a Christian, but for a moment I lost sight of faith."

They evacuated 175 patients to the street that night. Just one expired.

So went the whirlwind nature of Menard's weeklong volunteer mission to Port-au-Prince, ripped by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake three weeks ago, the worst in centuries. The city he found bore contrast to the Port-au-Prince of his boyhood memories; the tropical climes and sun-baked architecture remain, but they are mired in death and despair.

"In the EMS field, you are accustomed to death, but (in Haiti) you have to make room for live patients by removing the dead, like trash," Menard said.

Like Gwinnett churches, private philanthropists and a day care franchise, Menard tapped his professional expertise to assist the Caribbean nation. The United Nations estimates the quake injured or killed about 200,000 people, including thousands who required amputation of damaged limbs and now face dwindling medical supplies like painkillers, crutches and oxygen. Millions are in need of aid.

Fireman turned nurse

For Menard, the hurting is personal.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Menard completed elementary school in Haiti before moving back to New York with his mother, Yolaine Chatelain, a social worker. She and Menard's uncle, a vice president with Coca-Cola, were unscathed by the earthquake and have since sent Menard's young cousins to Canada for schooling while Haitian classrooms are defunct.

Menard only learned of his family's fortunes after a couple of uneasy days glued to CNN, before he was able to reach anyone by phone, his will to help burning.

"I felt helpless ... here it is I'm able to help, and there's nothing I can do," he said. "My chief told me to find a way to make (a volunteer trip) happen."

Interim Chief John Skinner granted Menard an unpaid leave of absence. After scouring the Internet for a couple days, Menard found a Brooklyn-based organization with clearance to enter Haiti, the Bedford Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corp, which in turn placed him with an international group of Haitian-American physicians.

The doctors' disciplines varied. Menard would fill a need. He drove to New York City.

Fluent in Haitian-Creole and handy during medical emergencies, Menard was a top priority upon landing in Haiti. His role was to act as a critical care nurse, to make use.

For seven days, Menard holed up in a structurally sound Port-au-Prince home, dozing a few hours per night in a sleeping bag. His diet consisted of protein bars, bottled water, an occasional mango and sugar cane. He shed five pounds.

"We knew that it wasn't going to be a luxurious trip," he laughed.

The group worked in a makeshift triage erected in destroyed offices at the General Hospital. Sometimes by the light of his firefighter's helmet, Menard attended to the dying and dead. He helped deliver two babies, using a pocket knife to cut the umbilical cords and plastic tie-wraps as sutures.

One shift bled on for 36 hours. Sanitation workers grew backlogged. At its grisly apex, 37 cadavers piled up outside the hospital, the smell as unthinkable as it was indelible.

A woman in Menard's care spiraled and died because her oxygen tank depleted, he said. There was no reserve tank, no oxygen. Her son blamed Menard for letting his mother die. All he could do was hug the son.

After a solid week, the residue of the conditions began to stick.

"It was overwhelming," Menard said. "I couldn't have lasted much longer than that. I think it was a wise decision to pull out."

Return trip

Menard won't say how much the trip set him back.

But employees in several Barrow County departments -- along with a local Boy Scouts of America pack -- pooled a few hundred dollars to help him recuperate lost wages and pay his mortgage, said Lt. Scott Dakin, Barrow County Emergency Services spokesman.

Menard's actions, in Dakin's estimation, have helped personalize the post-quake atrocities for his colleagues in Georgia.

"Dany has helped all of us to be more aware of the tragedy," Dakin said. "His commitment to helping in the rescue and recovery efforts is what we're about -- whether it's about local, or international needs and disasters."

Once back in New York, Menard said the group received U.S. Congressional honors for its rapid response. Thinking back, he most remembers the admirable, thankful spirit of the Haitian people, and their refusal to lose faith.

Back on U.S. soil for only a couple days, the itch to help seized Menard again. He's booked a return visit to Haiti beginning on Valentine's Day.

"I want to make sure the work we started has made some kind of correction," he said. "I don't want them to think I forgot about them."