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Earthquake! The First 48 Hours
“If anyone had told us what we would be doing the week after the earthquake, we would have said it’s impossible.” An Ontario couple share their experience.

Cheryl and Lauren Van der Mark have been on leave of absence from their work in Ontario for a year and a half to serve with the Mission of Hope in Haiti. They were there during the earthquake and were so involved with medical aid to survivors that they didn't get a chance to connect with their family, friends and supporters in Canada for many hours afterward. This is their first communication. 

I don't now where to start. Maybe by saying, We are sorry for the lack of communication. Maybe with a thank you to our daughter Teagan for communicating with so many of you on our behalf. I am exhausted, emotionally drained but in control at the same time. It’s time to tell our story.

In a matter of seconds the house came alive. The shaking was incredible.

We are all okay! Our house still stands! That’s a blessing. If that were not the case, we would not have been able to help so many after the quake hit.

I was in the kitchen, my son Grayden was in his room. Bridgely was in the house but close to the door. We think one of the twins was in her bedroom and one was on the porch. Teagan and Laurens were on the porch. It started as a low hum and shake, then it grew....

My mind thought, That’s strange! Then my mind thought, What is that?

In a matter of seconds the house came alive. The shaking was incredible. I was at the end of my kitchen table and remember seeing the concrete walls moving violently in a wave-like motion as you might see at a wave pool. One to my right! One to my left! One in front – all moving in different directions! The ceiling was moving in a wave above me. The floor beneath my feet didn’t feel connected to me.

Grayden ran to me screaming hysterically. I grasped him tightly and instinctively semi-crouched. All of this may have only taken a few seconds. I don't know. The next thing I remember was Laurens running into the house yelling "Get out! Get out! Get out! RUN!"

As he grabbed my arm, I leaped into action. Still clinging to Grayden, I ran to the door grabbing as many of my children as I could, myself now yelling, "Run! Run! Run! Go! Go!"

We reached the concrete steps to the garden but could hardly run down them because they were moving so violently. We ran down the front driveway with the land tossing under our feet. Laurens was still yelling at me to run farther from the building. The dog followed us all.

When I got to the end of the driveway, I looked around and counted kids. I couldn’t see Bridgely. I whirled around toward the building and screamed "Bridgely! Bridgely! Bridgely!" I thought he was still on the upper level at our neighbour’s. Suddenly there he was in front of me. He had been holding my hand the whole time.

When we were somewhere between the driveway and the road, the movement stopped. For a moment. Then it started again, just slightly less intense than the first time, and seemed to last so long! I gathered the kids and instructed them to sit. We huddled until it stopped. Then it started again. And finally the earth rested for a while.

I stood to look and take inventory. From our rural hill, not far from Port au Prince, we have a view of the whole city. When I looked toward the city and the ocean, I realized what had just happened. The entire city had disappeared. A huge, uniform cloud of dust, like smoke after a bombing, rose from the entire massive city. I looked to the right and saw a similar, but smaller cloud over our local village, Source Matlas. I looked to the left and saw a large cloud of dust and smoke rising where the flour factory had previously stood. I was speechless as it dawned on me what it all meant.

That would have been enough to deal with, except we realized we had a team of 53 Canadian's visiting on a short-term mission trip.

We went into leader mode. Laurens, who is the operations manager for the 75-acre mission complex, went to check on something, and Grant, our full-time advance-care paramedic, went to get an ambulance. I gathered the team, the visiting nurses and a doctor. We jumped into the ambulance and headed for the mission clinic. Grant took the team in and I rushed to the front gate of our mission. By the time I got there, the injured were arriving. They came by tap tap (pick-up truck taxi) after tap tap – children, women and men.

Their arms and legs were crushed. Bones stuck out of their bodies. Their heads were gashed open. Some crying in pain; some barely alive – five, six, seven people per truck.

After a few minutes I left the gate, and security staff took over letting them all in. I rushed back to the hospital (clinic). For the next 33 hours straight we worked on the traumatic cases that lay before us. It looked like a war zone. We didn’t know the structural integrity of the clinic building yet, so we couldn’t go inside.

Aftershocks started and were frequent, but less in intensity. We had to access the supplies inside, but ran back out at every aftershock. The injured lay all over our outside walkway. Grant, our visiting nurses and myself – we triaged the worst patients first. We are not a full service hospital. We are just a clinic. Reports came in that the biggest hospital in Port Au Prince, General Hospital, had crashed and the Doctors Without Borders clinic had crashed – the only two main Emergency Rooms in the entire city. We got further word that other hospitals were down. We started to realize, that we were the only clinic in operation for miles and miles and miles.

At the 20th hour we told security at the gate we couldn’t accept any more patients because we still had to get through many, many who were with us. We sent our nurses (except for a few) and our helpers to work in shifts. Grant and I worked on. We “reduced” (tractioned) bones back in place from open compound fractures and put tibia bones back inside people's legs. We reduced and set many, many femur fractures, lower leg fractures, arm fractures. We sutured arms, legs and heads. We put scalps back together and we cleaned concrete out of wounds for hours. We stabilized pelvic fractures and we helped babies with head trauma breath on oxygen.

Three died – a baby, a two-year-old and a ten-year-old. Four others were on the brink of death. We saved many. Because we had no other choice, and there was nowhere to send them, after 33 hours, we had to discharge all but five who required follow-up. These five we offered to take to hospitals. Three refused, and asked to go home to die. The other two Grant and Laurens tried to transfer to somewhere in Port Au Prince.

It was true. Most hospital's were not functioning and those that were, were full of bodies, inside and out. Everywhere – some alive and some dead. Families had nowhere to take their loved one's bodies because their houses and funeral homes were destroyed. Bodies were piled up in parking lots because there was nowhere to put them. Most of the doctors who had worked in the hospital were dead. No one heard of them further.

We went home and slept six hours. Then we opened the clinic again. We worked another ten hours seeing the same types of injuries. Finally it stopped. There were no more tap tap's running because there was no more fuel for vehicles.

Almost everyone has lost a family member.

That same night, our president of Mission of Hope arrived. We began disaster relief planning with partner organizations. By this time reports of the damage across the country were clear. American and Canadian doctors began to arrive through the Dominican border to help. Then we began coordinating a grand scale disaster relief plan for the 100's of thousands of people who had not yet been medically treated and for food distribution. To say the least, it was no small task.

We hardly slept. We have not been able to communicate with anyone in Canada till now. I now have time to consider the destruction.

The capital is devastated. The national palace is on the ground (white house). The ministry of transportation is on the ground. The huge justice palace (the whole judicial system) is on the ground. The ministry of health is on the ground. The ministry of finance is not down but destroyed. In the entire downtown core almost every building is rubble. The insurance bureau is on the ground. Every national bank headquarters are in rubble except for one which still is standing but severely damaged. The police headquarters is rubble. The hospital where Laurens was taken (the best in the country) after his accident is severely damaged and non-functional. The building that contains all the adoption papers in the country is destroyed. The grocery store where all the missionaries shop – the one where I had almost gone that day – is rubble. It killed and trapped everyone inside. The Montana hotel where we had lunch not so long ago is rubble. Everyone inside was killed. Many colleges and schools are destroyed. The Digicel world headquarters (cell phone) and the tallest building in Port Au Prince is severely damaged, hence we have no cell communications, and on, and on, and on.

At the time of my writing, we have 160 staff on our mission and we already know of one who has died. We have not heard yet from about 100 staff. Whenever someone shows up we rejoice that they’re alive. Almost everyone has a family member who has died. One of our security guards lost four children.

Many of our staff are suffering severe post-traumatic stress. One of our friends was trapped in his school next to 50 classmates that were crushed by the building. He heard them screaming, but couldn’t save them. He watched them die. He was trapped for three hours with a dead man on his chest before he was rescued.

Whenever a plane passes overhead, or a car drives up, we brace ourselves and jump until we realize that it is not another quake.

Aftershocks are stressful. We often have a false sense that the ground is moving. People are afraid to go into buildings. Our building is structurally okay, but I don’t like to be in my bedroom very long. It’s too far from the door. Laurens sleeps on the couch – a protective move to be closer to the kids in case another evacuation is necessary. We sleep with the front door open for quick escape. At least it’s better than sleeping in tents the way we did at first to make sure the building was safe.

This earthquake was like no other mainly because it hit a country with such poor infrastructure. It was completely unexpected. It’s like kicking a baby down before it knows how to stand.

But we are moving on. We are alive and our house is fine. Mission of Hope is an oasis compared to the city. The kids are good. They are resilient and they started back to school today. Despite the destruction, we are seeing hope, we know that God will use this to shine His light. Now is the time for the body of Christ to shine. We know many people who have come to Christ because of this event. Amazingly, so many buildings destroyed, yet most of the Christian missions survived.

God has big things planned for this country. God used us in mighty ways that first week. He used us for the Haitian people. He has used in the media. He used us to bond with each other and He continues to use us mightily.

I learned more in that first week than in most of my lifetime. I now know how to reduce compound open wound fractures. I know how to cast. I know how to suture and have become proficient enough that I sutured the flap of someone's nose back on (quite well too, I might add)! I know how to handle cases when there is no other option. I know how to attempt coordination of disaster relief and to run functional field clinics. I have been on TV and am part of meetings at the UN logistic base with the World Health Organization, UN, military and other NGO's. I am one of the few North American doctors on the ground living in Haiti, and I am visiting and coordinating inside many field and broken-down hospital set ups. It is strange! It is surreal!

Rachel (a missionary here) and I were just saying today that if someone had told us prior to the earthquake that this is what we would be doing the week after, we would have quit. We would have said, No way God! I can't do all that! We would have underestimated our abilities based on our comfort zones. We have learned that God knows more than we do. He knows what we can handle and He has more faith in us than we have in ourselves.

We thank you all for your prayers. It’s not over. There’s a long road ahead.

Please continue to pray for the Haitian people. Every person was affected by this. Please pray for supply chains to open up, pray for the port to be fixed, pray for timely food and water distributions, pray for organization of relief efforts through relief organizations and the military. Pray that now eyes will be opened to the need we had at our clinic and hospital prior to the earthquake, and that now funding will come in. Pray for our family and staff.

Cheryl and Laurens Van der Mark attend The Meeting House, Oakville, Ontario. Cheryl maintains a chiropractic clinic, North Ridge Family Chiropractic, in Oakville, Ontario. Laurens is an Ontario Provincial Police officer from Burlington, Ontario, on leave of absence to work in Haiti. Cheryl and Laurens have lived and worked in Haiti since summer 2008 with Mission of Hope. In Haiti, Cheryl is the medical coordinator of the NGO's medical program which includes an outpatient clinic and a hospital currently being built.

Originally published as the Van der Mark’s E-newsletter, January 2010.

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