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Up Close and Personal in Haiti

Slewis4_0

It's not often you get the experience of a lifetime that you will remember forever. I've covered the Academy Awards and I've personally interviewed Barack Obama, but my trip to Haiti has been the most unforgettable experience of my life thus far. When I first got the call asking if I'd be up for covering the story, a lot went through my mind quickly. Security would be a big concern. Inmates from the Haitian prisons had escaped and were already organizing gangs canvassing the city. There was no guarantee of food and water, nor of shelter. And I had seen the early TV and Web images to come out of Port-au-Prince that Tuesday when the 7.0 earthquake struck and was shocked at the human devastation and destruction we'd face. But, I knew this was a story that needed to be covered; an experience of a lifetime.

A few days later, very early in the morning, my reporter David Ono and I left the comfort of our ABC 7 News building in Glendale, Calif., and set out on our trip to Haiti with only the two 50-pound backpacks we carried. Camera, portable uplink satellite, SAT phone, laptop, batteries for everything, and all the gear from the sporting goods store that could fit would have to be enough. We brought PowerBars for food and packed our personal items lightly, bringing only the absolute essentials. I carried one pair of convertible pants, two shirts, and the one pair of shoes I was wearing. Many of my friends thought I couldn't do a trip like this, leaving behind the comforts of Los Angeles lifestyle we take for granted. They said I couldn't go without a shower, couldn't deal with the obstacles I was to encounter, and a couple even thought I was being foolish voluntarily putting myself in harm's way. But I knew I could do it, and covering a story like this was the reason I became a journalist.

Getting a flight into Haiti was difficult. Aid was coming in from around the world, and the airports were overrun with traffic. Our assignment desk was able to secure us two seats on a small missionary flight, but with strict weight limits for both of us. Flying in on a smaller plane was the only way to go at the time since the airport had frequently stopped larger jets from landing simply because there was no room on the runway. We left the United States from a small airport in Fort Pierce, Fla., stopping once to refuel along the way. The views from the air were amazing. The water below was so blue; the clouds were picturesque with their perfection. It was hard to reconcile the area's dire poverty with the natural beauty surrounding it.

When we touched down at the small Port-au-Prince airport it was immediately apparent to me that we had arrived in a different world. Hundreds of people were lined up trying desperately to get out of the country, and so many others were working to get to the supplies just sitting on the tarmac. Compared to LAX, it was chaos. No traffic control tower, no real order, and the everyday rules we were used to seemed not to apply. Just a day before we landed, the United Nations had taken control of the airport and its security, but it was still like no other airport I had seen. We walked about a half a mile on a small dirt road with our packs on our back to the main airport building. All along the path tents were set up on either side of the road, maybe totaling a hundred or so. This was where the early relief workers had set up camp. This is where they ate, showered, and slept. Every so often as we walked I would see a flag gently blowing in the wind of the country that tent city represented. The whole world was starting to come together to help in the relief efforts, and this was where many people started their day.

We got a ride to our network's compound from a guy we met at the airport who lived in Haiti. He was there when the earthquake struck but luckily lived far enough away from the center to not be adversely affected. I shot along the way as we drove through the city in his truck to our final destination high on a mountain. On the ride I was taken aback by what I saw. He showed me where a seven-story office building once stood; it was now a pile of indistinguishable rubble. Women were walking down the street, carrying what little possessions or food they had on their heads, with tired, blank looks on their faces. Hundreds of tents and makeshift homes made out of tarps had gone up in the parks and other open areas. Almost every building for miles was destroyed or heavily damaged. People had nowhere else to go. The structures that remained weren't safe to set foot in for fear of an aftershock, so everyone now lived in the parks. That tent in the park was their home.

After an hour of driving we arrived at the hotel where ABC had set up base camp. A hotel that compared to U.S. standards wasn't great but still it seemed like a palace compared to what I had just driven through. With every room, floor space, and spare hallway path taken up by media professionals, David and I were forced to camp out away from the crowd. That first night we slept under a green tarp on the concrete by the side of the pool. It was cold at night, much colder than I expected. And as we shivered trying to sleep amid the quiet chill of the blowing air, I looked out into the dark of the city, seeing scattered bonfires set by those who had survived the disaster, knowing tomorrow, our first full day, would be a difficult one.

The next morning we drove to the heart of the destruction. The smell of the city was unbelievable and inescapable. Death was all around us. Every fallen building had countless lives lost under the piles of rubble. It was all I could do to stay professional and not to break into tears. Our first stop was at a Catholic church that primarily did outreach to AIDS patients. It was heavily damaged and unsafe, but the sisters were still using the building because they had nowhere else to go.

Today the church had been turned into a makeshift hospital for the injured. One man who came for treatment had a large flap of muscle exposed on his right arm that had become infected. Just days before this man had been treated by the Haitian doctors and released with poor care and improper dressings. From the long line of Haitians waiting outside the structure entered a kid who had a broken leg. He would require more extensive surgery than the group we were with could provide, so we transported him in our car to the only hospital still standing, General Hospital.

I rode in a different vehicle ahead of the group shooting along the way from the back of our "tap-tap," the local equivalent of a taxicab. As we drove I saw so many people in the streets, many trying to get on with their "normal" lives, but for most, it was just a matter of survival.

As we drove up to the hospital, a body was lying on the side of the road. It seemed to go unnoticed, just being stepped over or walked around. There was a large presence of military guards stationed outside the hospital keeping the masses of people from entering. So many needed treatment, and there were so few resources to help. Three women took the boy from our car on a stretcher into surgery. He was lucky. Most had to wait much longer to even be looked at, much less treated. Beds were stationed outside the building near the morgue because there simply wasn't any more room inside. Ripped pieces of cardboard boxes covered some patients trying desperately seeking protection from the sweltering heat of the afternoon sun.

We soon entered the dimly lit room of the main triage unit. Under the greenish glow of the flickering fluorescent lights I walked past a boy missing his left leg. I gave him a smile and he smiled back. You could tell he was happy just to be alive. Farther down the hall, in another room, I walked past a mother tightly holding her baby in bed. Its head was covered with gauze. She looked up at me, and from her expression I could tell her baby was all she had left in the world. A woman was quickly rolled past us, delivered into the triage unit room lying in a wheelbarrow. Her right hipbone was completely exposed and white with infection. It had been exposed since she was injured in the earthquake nearly seven days earlier. She was one of the many in Haiti suffering from HIV -- the small nation has the largest number of people living with the virus in the Caribbean. There was nothing they could do to save her and she was made as comfortable as possible to die. A 0-year-old girl walked in with her older sister. She was told the big toe on her left foot would need to be removed because of the infection that had set in from days of going untreated. The look on her face spoke to her pain and fear. This look was an expression I would see many times over before I left the country.

The next few days in Haiti before we left for home were hard. They weren't hard because we went without a shower the entire time or because we lacked sufficient water. No, what was really hard was knowing that we were headed back home and would be escaping this, and this -- well this was the Haitians' home. The roads were often impassable because fallen buildings and traffic, and it seemed unimaginable that this country could be rebuilt, but somehow these people had hope and didn't give up. This is the kind of hope we all need to have, to never give up. The trip to Haiti was heavy stuff, but this is why I became a journalist. The world needs to know about the suffering, about the problems this country faces, and hopefully this message being delivered will bring more helpto a population needing all it can get.

This was my experience of a lifetime. If you haven't already, take a moment sometime to leave your comfort zone for just a bit, open your mind to what really matters in life, and see just how fortunate we really are. Have that experience of a lifetime for yourself. It'll change you for the better; I know it did for me.

Click through to the following pages for more photos from Lewis's trip.

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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