"I survived the earthquake in Haiti"


March 24, 2010 | dentalproductsreport.com web exclusive "I am changed." An excerpt from our exclusive interview with Dr. Julia Zervos, a U.S. dentist in Haiti at th

March 24, 2010 | dentalproductsreport.com

web exclusive

"I am changed."

An excerpt from our exclusive interview with Dr. Julia Zervos, a U.S. dentist in Haiti at the time of the earthquake earlier this year.

by Thais Carter, Editor in Chief

Photo: Getty Images

Dr. Julia Zervos runs a general practice in Raleigh, N.C. With 5,000 active patients, 15 people on staff and one partner, she is a busy woman.

Attending Loma Linda University in California exposed her to a variety of volunteerism opportunities that instilled a passion for local efforts and fundraising at her current practice. When a patient off-handedly mentioned a trip to Haiti and the oral health needs of  the children and staff of an orphanage there, something clicked. In spite of a busy schedule, Dr. Zervos felt it was something she should do and worked to rearrange her appointments for that time frame.

Knowing very little about the country-travel books were difficult to find because it’s not really a vacation destination-Dr. Zervos and the team headed to Haiti on Jan. 12. They had been in the country for about an hour and were sitting in a Pastor Val’s (the director of the orphanage) truck  just outside the airport, when the earthquake hit.

The following are excerpts from DPR’s hour-long interview with Dr. Zervos. The full transcript is available online at dentalproductsreport.com.

When it hit
You could see in the hills the dust started coming up almost immediately. I was thinking there is no way-this place is supposed to have hurricanes. I couldn’t believe there was an earthquake. The dust was rising up in the hills and you could see the buildings start to fall.

We headed toward the orphanage but, as it turns out, the orphanage was in the epicenter of the earthquake…there was no way. The bridge was out and it started getting dark pretty quickly. Someone had directed Pastor Val toward a church and fortunately, he knew everyone. We pulled down a side street and there was just so much debris everywhere. Down that side street, there were a number of dead people already and a lot of interred. We sat there in the truck trying to decide what we were going to do.

I thought we’d sit there all night, but Pastor Val came back to the truck and said, “We have to go right now, it’s not safe.” There had been aftershock after aftershock and they were afraid more buildings were going to fall down. We each took our carry-on bag (because they had our passports). He said we were going to a soccer field. He didn’t know exactly how to get there and everything was dark, no power. So, in my Rainbows (flip flops), carrying my backpack, we started hoofing it. There were live power lines down everywhere. I have no idea how far we walked…it was probably two hours. They were having a cold snap (probably 68°), but we didn’t have anything to cover up with.

Then there were all the roosters crowing. They crow all night long-not that we would have slept anyway. It sounded as if there were thousands of them.

Were you afraid?
I think we were all just in shock. I don’t think anyone was afraid at that point.
A lot of people weren’t going anywhere, just sitting in the middle of the street, scared to go to their houses or the houses had collapsed. There is a barrier in the middle of the street that is 6 inches tall, 4 inches wide, and they were sitting shoulder to shoulder and it went on for miles. They didn’t know where to go, so they sat there.

There was a lot of singing everywhere and praising-they know their Bible really well and a lot of them would say verses together. They sang all night long on that soccer field. It was amazing. There were thousands of people. I wasn’t afraid at all. I wasn’t afraid of the people, ever. In retrospect, much of what I heard about Haiti prior to my trip was highly distorted. I do think there is plenty of crime and corruption there, I do, but I think a lot of it is distorted. The people are very kind and there is a lot of faith there.

I’m not a really religious person, the three women I went with are, but I was amazed. Especially in a situation like we were in. You’d think that would breed a lot more crime than I witnessed. I was in a several earthquakes in southern California and they throw up a lot of crime prevention immediately. In Haiti, it wasn’t necessary-partially because there was nothing to steal. The people were very peaceful and so good about taking care of each other. I saw nothing but kindness, which really amazed me.

Dental school didn’t cover this
The second day, we were on the soccer field across the street from the hospital. A man came over and  got us. How he decided to do that, I don’t know, but he said, “I need you. My wife is having a baby.”

Everything was depleted from the hospital and the staff was beyond exhausted. I think in that sense, yes we were treated differently. I think they view Americans as having some higher medical knowledge.

When he walked up and said I need you, I said I can’t and my group said yes, you can. I thought I was going to vomit, but one of the other girls said she would go with me. So we went across the street and the whole entry to the hospital was covered in bodies.

I think that was the hardest part for me. We stepped over hundreds of dead to get in. When we got inside the hospital, the foyer and all of the halls had dead and severely injured people-a lot of missing limbs and I’ve never seen anything like it. They grabbed onto us and just begged for help, but there was no way to help. I think that will stay with me my whole life. It was horrible.

We found his wife in there and we had taken some gloves from our stuff and sewing scissors-we had planned to help the orphans make aprons. We had sewing scissors and fabric and one of the women had these little alcohol wipes that we took with us. The man’s name was Pastor St. Mark and he just kept opening doors until we found somewhere to take her. It was actually a maternity/delivery suite.

In five minutes there were six more pregnant women in the room. Linda kept telling me it was going to be okay. I was thinking, oh my God, this is why I didn’t go to medical school. So the two most ready to go, we got up on the table…I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be feeling for. The first one, the baby was in a breach position. Linda said, okay, we need to pray right now. We were both crying. In about 20 minutes that baby turned and that baby girl came out healthy and when I caught her it truly was amazing. I don’t want to switch professions, but it was amazing. The second, a baby boy, was a little easier and then, miraculously, a nurse midwife came in. The rest we left to her.

How did it feel to leave?
I felt guilty. I wanted to get home, I couldn’t wait to see my son. But at the same time, I felt bad leaving all of them. I felt bad when I was there. I felt bad knowing I was going to get to go home and that was their life.

As we were standing around at the airport, it was amazing to see how many flights coming in that weren’t American. It was nice to see support from other countries.

I would have come back changed, regardless of the earthquake. It’s just amazing to me, the devastation, because they really had nothing to begin with and it takes so little to devastate a country like Haiti.

This experience will help me value every day of my life and everything that I have in a different way.

I find some days that my tolerance is not what it used to be. I’m usually so compassionate, but now I feel like I haven’t slept since the ’70s.  I don’t know if that tolerance will ever come back again and I don’t know that I want it to. It’s too soon to really know.

The things that I thought I cared so much about, I don’t know if I do that much anymore. I do know that every minute with my son is golde. 

Thais Carter is editor in chief for DPR. Contact her at tcarter@advanstar.com.


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