Outside the Port-au-Prince airport in Haiti, Heidi Behnke looked around. In place of what had been an active city, she saw rubble—no paved sidewalks or streets, just piles of rubble everywhere she looked.
“You would’ve thought we arrived the day after the earthquake by the way it looked. It was amazing to me how little had been done,” said Behnke, a physical therapist and director of Rehabilitation Services at Weiss.
She traveled to Haiti in August—eight months after the catastrophic 7.0 earthquake rocked the island country. It left an estimated 230,000 people dead, 300,000 injured and 1 million homeless.
With Weiss as a sponsor, Behnke went to volunteer at the Bernard Mevs Hospital. She helped patients remobilize after suffering the loss of limbs and other serious orthopedic injuries.
Prior to landing, Behnke hadn’t known what to expect—other than that she was entering the poorest country in the western hemisphere. At Weiss, she attended Dr. Kris Alden’s presentation on his orthopedic work in Haiti, which inspired her. She also remembered the stories a former colleague had told about volunteering in the Dominican Republic.
“It wasn’t something I’d ever done before. I was definitely out of my comfort zone,” Behnke said.
She was out of her husband’s comfort zone, too. Initially, he asked her not to go. The couple has two children, ages 3 and 5, and the potential that Behnke could return with bodily harm or loss of limbs—as warned on the U.S. embassy website—unnerved him.
“He thought conditions weren’t safe,” Behnke said.
But she persevered, called by a greater need. She researched various projects, talked to other volunteers and eventually signed on with Range of Motion Project, run in conjunction with another well-established program, Healing Hands for Haiti. “My husband was incredibly supportive in the end. He was really proud of me.”
On the way to the hospital, Behnke noticed tents everywhere, blanketing the broken streets for miles. Homeless and with little room to spare, some families began setting up tents in the middle of the road—without so much as a functioning stop light or stop sign to slow down passing vehicles.
“There were no rules of the road,” Behnke said, “so we saw a lot of car accidents, continuous trauma coming through the hospital.”
One of those tents had housed the hospital until the week before Behnke’s arrival, when it transferred to Bernard Mevs, a financially troubled hospital. The space was split into the intensive care unit, emergency room and surgical areas—where surgeons treated each patient free of charge—and where a team of volunteer nurses and physical therapists assisted patients in a large open room.
“It was a little nutty, but it worked,” Behnke said.
When a 5-year-old fell off a building, Behnke helped diagnose him with a soft tissue injury. With the X-ray machine broken, she asked questions and ultimately had to problem-solve his injury. “They just don’t have what we have here,” she said.
Read more tomorrow about Behnke’s work in Haiti.