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After the Earthquake:

A Cedar Crest Nursing Alumna Blogs from Haiti

Ensign Gwen MayhewRecent Cedar Crest College nursing graduate and Navy Ensign Gwen Mayhew '09 has been deployed to Haiti on the United States Navy Ship Comfort to aid victims of the recent earthquakes. She left the United States on January 15 and arrived for a scheduled six-month stay on January 20. Since arriving at Port-au-Prince, Ensign Mayhew has seen a non-stop array of people with serious injuries while working in the surgical ward, according to her mother and fellow Cedar Crest College Alumna Lois Mayhew '75.

Ensign Mayhew is very busy and is only able to provide periodic updates to friends and family. She has been gracious enough to allow Cedar Crest College to create a blog in order to share her experiences in Haiti with the College community.

The Comfort Team
[Click here to see larger]

Thursday, April 1

Earlier in my posts I narrated that I was sitting in the library of the Comfort, balancing as the ship swayed back and forth. While I am similarly sitting and relaxing during the writing of my update, this time the ground is staying put! I am now back at my apartment in Bethesda, Md., where I continually marvel at how much better a shower feels when it’s longer than 2 minutes and doesn’t involve wearing flip flops.

We were informed we would be leaving Haiti three hours prior to raising anchor, the announcement given to us by a special guest as we stood sweating on the flight deck in the hot mid-afternoon sun. Loud cheers and “HOOYAHs!” went up amongst the staff, made louder after the news was repeated on the shipboard overhead system. Excitement exuded from our crowd as we scurried to individual corners of the ship hoping to get in contact with loved ones back home.
I had mixed feelings about leaving Haiti. While I was exhausted, drained, and felt very ready to go home, another part of me felt guilty for leaving. There are so many people who still need help. But I support the decision for our initial core staff to leave after only two months. The two months we worked aboard the Comfort felt like six months…every person had been pushed to their physical and emotional limit.

After pulling into port in Norfolk, Va., I checked into my command at the National Naval Medical Center, where the returned staff were given a welcome home briefing and then divided to talk to our department heads about work schedules. It felt strange being back at the hospital. I walked through the halls feeling a bit apart from the people passing. When friends would greet me and ask “How was Haiti?” I wasn’t sure how to respond. What a loaded question! How could I explain and make them understand what my time there was like? That it was the most challenging, life-changing, worst…best …experience I may ever have. I couldn’t. Most of the time I would look at them and simply say, “It was an experience.”

After speaking with my department head and discovering I would be placed back at the beginning of my orientation on the mother-baby unit (I left for Haiti before completing my orientation time), I asked to take leave before starting work. I hadn’t been home since August and I was anxious to see my family. When my leave was granted, I hurried to my apartment to pack and sleep until 3 a.m., then leave my apartment early to drive the 10 hours (plus a ferry boat ride) home to Martha’s Vineyard.

Unfortunately I didn’t get much sleep. I lay there, uncomfortably listening to what felt like an oppressive silence. I hadn’t realized how much constant noise I was accustomed to on the Comfort. In my bunk I would fall asleep listening to waves slapping against the bulkhead, the clings and bangs of pipes and mechanics, the whirring of helicopter blades as the engines fired up, and the slams of heavy metal doors opening and shutting as women went to or came from work throughout the night. “Well gee,” I harrumphed as I rolled over for the 18th time, “never thought I‘d wish to live near a construction zone!”

Now that I’ve returned from leave and started my regular work schedule again, my sleeping habits have returned to normal, though the silence still bothers me a bit. The mother-baby unit is certainly a change of pace from the nursing I had been doing in Haiti. I find myself missing the adrenaline and independence of the adult surgical ward on the Comfort, and most of all the lack of charting! One of the best parts about nursing in Haiti was that I was able to actually focus on NURSING…the patient interactions and needs, not administrative minutiae.

Transitioning back to my life prior to Haiti is impossible. I am no longer the same person. Each of my patients touched me and affected my life more than they will ever know. My memories are distinct, clear, and humbling. Such as the man who sustained 50 percent full thickness burns across his upper body. Every movement, including breathing, was incredibly painful for him regardless of medication. I cringed inside the entire time I performed his dressing changes, yet he stayed silent and made no sign of distress other than the occasional tightening of his jaw muscles.

When I informed him that he would be transferred to a hospital in the United States and needed to be lifted into a gurney, he held out his hand in a gesture to “wait.” Ever so slowly, he inched his body upwards and shifted towards the edge of the bed. After multiple attempts to stand up, wincing with every motion, he unsteadily got to his feet. Seeing him sway precariously, I came towards him. A translator nearby stopped me, saying, “He is a determined man. He will do it. He must do it.” I held back and watched. The man painfully shuffled towards the gurney and turned. My stomach tightened when I saw that the gurney was too high for him to just sit down…he would have to hop up to get into a sitting position, and I doubted that would be possible in his condition. It was just too painful. Watching him, I learned a lesson in strength and determination that day. Not only did he get on the gurney by himself, but he looked at all of us (both the translator and myself had tears in our eyes) and smiled, the burnt skin on either sides of his mouth cracking and flaking. Shame on me for doubting.

In ending, I suppose that was the biggest lesson I learned in Haiti—not to doubt. Not to doubt my own strengths, the strengths of others, and most of all, the strength of the human spirit.


Tuesday, March 9

I haven't written in quite a while because…I just haven't felt like writing. While I made multiple half-hearted attempts, none were very productive. The past week and a half have dragged slowly by with all our patients gone and staff keeping busy with cleaning (and re-cleaning). No confirmation as to when we are leaving yet, although we are told it will be "soon."

We all seem to exude anxious energy, a product directly resulting from the combination of homesickness, lack of productivity and unholy coffee consumption—the latter of which is particularly unfortunate, since I had just weaned myself completely off the stuff prior to coming aboard. On the plus side, however, this down time has allowed me to reflect upon and process my experience in Haiti as a whole.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I'm sure many of you are asking "Hey, wait a minute! What happened to Darlene? When did she leave? Where did she go?" Darlene left us on one of the last days the Comfort held patients. I was off that day and hurried to the ward early to catch her before she left. I found her sitting up on the edge of her bed dressed in new clothes and sneakers. She saw me and broke into a grin.

"Ms. Mayhew! I was worried I would not see you before I go!" She moved over so I could sit next to her. We sat there looking at each other for a moment, not quite sure what to say. I was sad to see her go. I had been Darlene's nurse from the beginning of our mission to the end. She was the patient I knew the best and I considered her a friend. We had had many conversations regarding her hopes and plans for the future. She hopes to get married "if God is willing," have children and a pet cat.

She also wants to continue her schooling and get a job possibly in psychology or sociology so she can help people regardless of her missing limbs. As determined as she is, I have no doubt that she will accomplish everything she sets her mind to. Once she has completed her rehabilitation and receives her prosthetics from a facility on Haiti, she has the opportunity to study at a small college in the United States with a full scholarship.

Looking at Darlene, it was hard to believe she was the same young woman who came in weeks prior. She had been close to death, swollen with fluid, and unable even to shift herself in bed. Now, she was half her initial size with a huge smile, plenty of energy, able to sit up, stand and walk. It was an amazing process to see. I gave her my contact information, a big hug and wished her well.

There have been many people (like Darlene) who I've come into contact with aboard this ship that I will remember forever. Certain patients are stored like snapshots in my memory. I can see their faces and hear their laughs and cries clearly. I remember how I felt taking care of them, many times vacillating between uncertainty, frustration, determination and joy. I have grown as a nurse and a person by being thrust into this unknown situation, a large part in thanks to the other staff members I had the privilege of working beside.

We were in our own private floating war zone here, battling death, disease, fatigue and hopelessness. Each person went above and beyond what they thought themselves capable of, all for a common purpose—to save as many lives as possible. We came together and did our utmost, and I'm proud to say I was a part of it.

Gwen in Sumo Suit

This photo was taken after someone located sumo wrestling suits somewhere in storage. Of course, I felt the need to try one out (yes, that's me in the picture!). It was a great change of pace and much needed morale booster. Not to brag...but I am currently the undefeated sumo champion among our staff (haha).


Gwen's Inspirational Poster

This picture was taken by one of the corpsman and turned into a joke inspirational poster. I had been trying to get Darlene to make a goofy face for weeks, but she was much too lady-like to humor me. Ever persistent, I finally persuaded her to stick out her tongue :)

Friday, February 26

These are drawings by a Haitian patient of the U.S.N.S Comfort.

Click here for a larger version.

Click here for a larger version.

Monday, February 22

I'm sitting in the small library typing and balancing on my seat as the ship is rocked back and forth by waves. We left the harbor yesterday around 3 p.m. and are sailing out about 150 miles to meet with another ship to refuel and replenish our food supply before heading back to Haiti.

It was my day off yesterday, so in anticipation of raising anchor, a co-worker and I climbed up what felt like a million stairs (in reality it was only about 40) to a secluded top deck of the ship and sat in lawn chairs overlooking the hazy mountainous scene. We have to wear our uniforms both in and outside of the ship, but we rolled up our sleeves and pant legs, took off our steel toed-boots and heavy boot socks and with final flourish plunked a pair of sunglasses on and propped our bare feet up on the metal railing. Heaven.

The temperature is about as hot as the hottest beach day back home (I have no thermometer so that is about as accurate as I can give you) and only 15 minutes on deck will easily burn a fair skinned person. In a classic act of intentional ignorance, I however, stayed out for upwards of 3 hours. Yes, Mom, I wore sunscreen.

From my vantage point on the top deck, it was hard to believe that Haiti isn't just a tropical paradise. There is no obvious sign of destruction. All I could see through the mist were green mountains and white beaches dotted with small anonymous buildings. The water is an inviting calm turquoise, different from the dark brooding blue I'm used to in New England. Upon closer inspection however, the water is speckled with trash—bottles and papers float everywhere in the harbor. When we first arrived we were informed, (only partially joking) "Do not touch the water in Haiti. Or you will die."

After my monthly dosage of Vitamin D, I went down below to visit the wards. The past few work days I have been on a working party, cleaning the empty units rather than performing patient care. While it is a nice change of pace, I miss my patients. I came in to visit Darlene, who lit up when she saw me. "Miss Mayhew!" she cried, "I am glad to see you! I asked Miss Molt and Miss Carrie for you." She gestured with her head for me to sit by her on the bed. Angling her body towards me, she looked at me and nodded. "So how are you?"

Darlene always asks about me rather than talking about herself. Even when she was at her most sick and I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off, she would call me over and whisper, "You look tired. You should sit." By far she is the patient who has touched me the most, and who I will be the most sad to see go. No word as to when she is leaving and where she will go to, but the goodbye will be difficult.

I later went down to a lower deck that held only one patient. The patient was an 88-year-old Haitian woman who was dying. I had never had her as a patient, but had heard about her spunkiness in life and her interesting background. Apparently her father started the first Haitian newspaper and her mother was the first female novelist for Haiti. I went down to the floor to see if the nurse on duty needed any help, but when I opened the door to the ward, I saw the two chaplains singing hymns and praying over her. I came closer, drawn in by the scene. One of the chaplains looked at me and smiled. "Will you help us sing?" he asked, motioning with a hymnal.

Now, I am someone who loves listening to others sing (especially hymns) and will certainly join in with a large group...but the idea of singing with just three other people is mildly terrifying for me. Yet at that moment there was no hesitation. I immediately responded "of course" and took up a place at the foot of the dying woman's bed. As the words of "Lord, Abide With Me" filled the room, accompanied by the occasional soft sob from the woman's friend and other nursing staff, I felt overwhelmed with thanks. I am so privileged to here experiencing these sacred special moments.

Glancing up from my hymnal and looking about the room, all I could see were faces of people who are aboard this ship because they are doing what they are called to do—caring. I am blessed to be a part of it.

Wednesday, February 17

I haven't written in a while because we seem to be in limbo here. Our overall patient census is down to around 100 (and I think that may include family escorts), but more staff keeps coming aboard. There are volunteers from Project Hope, Project Smile, and numerous universities who have come to assist for two weeks. While I am very glad to have new faces on the Comfort, ready to work with what appears to be boundless energy and enthusiasm, there just...doesn't seem to be enough work to do. Yesterday there were 5 nurses on our ward for 11 patients. Most of those patients were minimal care.

The general consensus among the staff is that we feel like we've gone from a sprint to a screeching halt—that kind that is so sudden you fall flat on your face. Our days have gone from feeling purposeful to sitting around twiddling our thumbs hoping for some communication from the higher ups. The latest word is that "the mission is changing." Now we have successfully gone from emergency/disaster mode to focusing on maintenance and rehabilitation.

I'm proud of what we've accomplished and how many people we've helped. I'm also very aware that there is still much to be done. But I wonder...who should be the driving force behind the rehabilitation of Haiti? I would be much happier if I just had a date to focus on—whether that date is weeks away or months away.

Monday, February 15

Gwen Mayhew and her co-workers

Here's a picture of my coworkers and myself. From left to right are:
LTJG Molt, LT Easton, Me, and CDR Crumbley.

Thursday, February 11

Everything is slowing down now. Rumor has it there are only 12 more surgeries left to perform, and my personal patient load has gone from 10 to 3! Apparently I'm a glutton for punishment, because we let another nurse off so I could have more patients. Even so, I only have seven people to take care of. At this rate we should be heading home in a couple of weeks. Don't quote me on it...but it certainly seems likely.

The mood on the ship is changing perceptibly with the "light at the end of the tunnel" within sight. It's difficult to give 110% every single day without any notion of a time frame. Knowing we only have (roughly) until the end of the month, we're able to give our last ditch effort and push through to the finish line of our mission.

Our patients are now less acute and are much more social with the other patients and with the staff. Family escorts go from bed to bed offering to comb and braid patients' hair and the scene is reminiscent of a beauty salon, with sounds of chatting and laughter blending with music in the background.

Now that staff is allowed occasional half days off, our energy level has picked up as well. Last evening had a ward movie night after our shift, turning the empty mattresses into couches and providing a potluck of junk food provided by our ship store (where else?). Amazing what just a few hours off can do for morale.

Seeing our patients starting to get better is wonderful. Especially knowing they are being discharged to rehabilitation facilities or the Air Force field hospital rather than plunked back down on the shores of Haiti. Looking around at a ward filled with mostly smiling faces and positive attitudes fills me with pride for my coworkers, the Navy, our military as a whole, and the United States. The chief of police for the entire police force in Haiti (his son is Marine corpsman on the ship) came onto our ward today, shook our hands and personally thanked us. "You are America" he told us.

Yes, we are.


Saturday, February 6

Yesterday we had a really great moment on the ward. Darlene was reunited with her mom and cousin for the first time! Her mother thought she was dead until just a few days ago when Darlene was able to make a phone call off the ship. When she walked onto the floor, I knew who it was right away based upon her facial features (so similar to her daughter's) and the expression on her face—a mixture of excitement, hope and trepidation. She knew about Darlene's missing arms, but what a difficult thing for any mother to see.

I greeted the woman and motioned for her to follow me to the bedside. When she caught sight of Darlene, she rushed forward and stopped immediately before her. Without saying or word or touching her daughter, she silently raised both arms and waved them in praise and thanks. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. Patients and staff watched quietly from the background, unwilling to break the spell. That was definitely one the highlights of my experience here thus far.

There's such a mixture of joy and sorrow here. It's an emotional roller coaster that is incredibly draining. Darlene's reunion was a wonderful thing, but there are so many sad stories as well. My roommates who work on the pediatric ward told me about an infant with an arm amputation brought to them the other day. The child (only 6 months old) was buried under the rubble during the earthquake. Amazingly, he was still alive and his mother could hear him crying. Panicked, the woman frantically began to dig through debris to reach him...only to come across the dead bodies of her other children. She had to move aside the bodies to continue digging and reach her one living child. Thinking of that makes my throat tighten and my stomach clench.

There are babies who have been brought to us after being found in boxes. Infants and children with amputations and other injuries who were either already orphans prior to the earthquake or who now are. My roommates are having a very difficult time letting "their babies" go. Many tears have been shed after hours in our berthing over a child discharged back to Haiti whom they've formed a special bond with.

Memories of this mission, great and terrible, will stay with me forever. It's made me a stronger, more confident person in a very short period of time...out of sheer necessity. It will be interesting going back to work at NNMC (editor's note: National Naval Medical Center) Bethesda with this new mindset for sure.


Thursday, February 4

Today I had my first half day off! I was so excited to sleep in...and still woke up at 5:30 a.m. Getting out of bed at that time was absolutely out of the question, so I laid there willing myself to get back to sleep for a few more hard earned hours. No such luck. Sigh. So I got up and went to the ship's gym, came back...and twiddled my thumbs for a few hours.

It's funny. I've complained for so long that I've had no time off, and when I finally get some I'm bored out of my mind! I'm now so used to going going going, always moving, always busy...that when I have time to sit, it feels uncomfortable. There's also not much to do on the ship during off hours. My roommates all work night shift, so the room is dark and silent and I have to creep around trying not to injure myself on the small table welded to the middle of the floor.

I returned to work at 1 p.m. for the second half of the shift and took over for another nurse with a different group of patients. It was a bit difficult switching from my regular patients, because they could all see me in the room and didn't understand that I wasn't their nurse today. I had to have the translator go to each one to let them know Lt. Kennedy would be taking care of them and I wasn't just being negligent!

Many of my patients today are accompanied by family member escorts. The family members are very eager to help with care and are a huge help. They also go around to the other patients and offer to assist them with bathing and hair care. Everyone is very willing to help their neighbor and the room permeates with friendliness. There is a lot more laughter on our ward now and less tears (not to say that there aren't still plenty of those however!).

As a random and interesting side note: As I walked the ward today, I noticed little piles of red and white by each bedside. Bewildered, I cautiously moved closer to inspect (you never know what you might find here). They were piles of chewed up apple skins! Apparently none of the Haitians eat the skins of apples. Who knew? So now we're getting into the habit of handing out apples...and paper cups.

Tuesday, February 2

We've been informed that The Powers That Be are trying to cut back on the number of patient beds we fill on the ship, going from 500 beds to 250. If we can get to 250, we'll be at a safer nurse-patient ratio and quality of care will improve. We have seen almost all the earthquake induced injuries (for those who were strong enough to survive) and now find ourselves treating many illnesses and injuries that existed previous to the event.

While we don't want to turn people away, we don't have the funds or resource to become a primary care source for general Haitian medical care. We're in a hard position but health care in Haiti is not something that can be fixed overnight, and it is not our mission or place to attempt it.

My ward has had a much slower turn-over rate than we did our first week, so I have gotten to know our patients very well. This can be a great thing and a...not so great thing. There is a mix of personalities anywhere you go, and Haiti is certainly no different. Some of my patients quietly and independently deal with their pain and grief, and some project anger outwardly towards us.

One patient, a 26-year-old woman who was in nursing school when the earthquake happened, sustained bilaterally lower leg crush injuries. She was almost dead when she came aboard the Comfort and she was in renal failure. She is now sitting up in bed, her kidneys are regaining function, and she will walk again. She is an amazing case, and an excellent example of how our mission has truly made an impact for people. She is also one of the crabbiest patients I have ever dealt with.

The interactions I've had with her are almost humorous (you have to either laugh or cry). The other day she pointed to her bed linens and said "Sheets!" I was busy hanging medications and informed her that they were clean and had been changed earlier that day. She repeated her motion and yelled "SHEETS!!" I again informed her that the sheets were clean.

She stopped pointing, picked up her cup of juice, looked at me...and dumped the juice onto her bed. Delightful. She later on proceeded to pull out the IV access in her neck (the only access site we could get) as I stood there telling her to please leave it alone.

Not to say that all my patients are quite as...feisty. The Haitian people are incredibly spiritual and many of my afternoons have a soundtrack straight from the hymnals. The first time one of my patients began to sing, the room fell silent. The wailing ceased and the nurses stopped writing in charts. Then one by one, each patient added their voice to the song. Eventually every patient in the room (some very ill) was singing praise, some raising their hands and saying "Thank you, Jesus!" both in English and in French.

One woman in particular has taken it upon herself to be the "praise leader" and reads scripture out loud to the rest of the ward. After I placed a cold washcloth on her forehead, she kissed the back of my hand and blessed me. Each day here I am frustrated, honored, and humbled.

Sunday, January 31

I had quite a scare today. One of my patients spiked a high fever and I had to draw blood cultures. While I was removing the needle from her arm, the patient moved and bumped my hand...and the needle stuck me. I didn't realize I had gotten stuck until I removed my glove and saw blood on my hand. My stomach felt like it hit the deck. The HIV rate alone is incredibly high in Haiti, not to mention numerous other blood-borne pathogens.

I had to go to sick bay to report the incident and they drew blood from both the patient and myself to test. Needless to say, more tears were shed on my end (I'm running on a slightly shorter fuse than normal these days!). Luckily I just received my results—all negative. But it was a nerve-wracking day and a clear reminder of the dangers the health-care workers here face each day.

We have many patients in isolation with TB, parasites, viral, and bacterial infections and gloves can be in short supply at times. The chain of command is doing their best to get supplies to us quickly, but there have been times when we're down to one box of gloves for an entire ward.

Solange (who calls herself my "Mami" and refers to me as "daughter') was discharged today to a rehabilitation facility. While I'm glad she's getting better, I was sad to see her go. She was quiet, but always had thoughtful and positive things to say (via our wonderful translators). Her number and severity of injuries would have put many people into a depression...but her determination was incredible.

When we would try to help her move from her bed to a chair, she would politely (but firmly—she let's us know what she wants!) wave us away. She taught herself to pivot on her one leg and balance without the use of her broken arm and external fixation. As they wheeled her off the ward, she grabbed my hand, squeezed it tightly and said "Thank you" clear as day in perfect English. That's a memory I'll carry forever. That's what we're here for.


Saturday, January 30

Today was a difficult one. Many of the staff (including myself) are reaching their breaking point. I never knew I could be this physically and emotionally exhausted! The morning was particularly hectic—everyone needed wound dressings changed, labs drawn, help getting on and off of bed pans, antibiotics hung, etc. all at the same time. Meanwhile, patients are going to and returning from the OR. On the plus side however, I'm getting quite good at wound care.

We joke that we've become vampires since coming aboard, since we never see the sun. As soon as we wake up (about 5:30 a.m.) flight quarters are called, which means only certain staff may go outside because the helicopters are running. By the time we get off work (around 8 p.m.) we're allowed out on the deck but it's dark. So much for my plan of coming back with a tan! Hah (wishful thinking for sure).

I've had the same nine patients for about three days now, so I've gotten to know their individual personalities fairly well, which is great. Darlene (the young woman with no arms) told me she had a surprise for me and nodded to her small locker by her bedside. She gave me a bag of yogurt covered raisins one of the translators had gotten for her. Since that is one of the only things she has in her possession now, it was a very touching gift. She is such an impressive person.

I can't imagine dealing with the same injuries with such dignity and self control. I was talking with her earlier about her plans after leaving the ship. She got a little teary when she told me that she had worked to support her family..."Now what will I do?" she asked me, looking down where her hands used to be. "I want to be like you," she continued, "I want to help people. Now..." she shrugged. What do you say to comfort someone in that position?

I feel very out of touch with the rest of the world. We have no time to watch or read the news, so many times we're hearing information through family members who know more about our situation than we do. It's frustrating for sure. Still no word as to how long we'll be out here. Rumors vary from six weeks to nine months. Quite the range! Well, that's it for now...I'm sure there's more to say, but I'm too brain fried to think!


Friday, January 29

The drawing below is by a Haitian patient of the U.S.N.S Comfort. Click here for a larger version.



Wednesday, January 27

USNS ComfortI was told I would be leaving for Haiti aboard the USNS Comfort on a Wednesday afternoon while inserting an IV into a patient (bad timing for the patient!). I was informed the ship would be leaving Saturday morning and to get my things in order. Unfortunately, since I was so new, I didn't know what "things" entailed. I had to buy multiple shipboard uniforms and supplies such as work gloves and pocket knives (since we may be going ashore in the near future). We were also told to bring food, since the ship's kitchen wasn't stocked yet. Hmm…what food fits in a sea bag? Not so far removed from college days, I went to my old fall back—a trusty jar of peanut butter. On Thursday I was told the time for departure was moved forward to Friday. Things moved so quickly I didn't have time to think, let alone be nervous or excited.

The first few days aboard the ship, the nervous energy in the air was almost palpable. Staff had very little information regarding our mission—what to expect, when we would arrive, how long we would be in Haiti, etc. We attempted to set up wards that were skeletal after the last humanitarian mission this past summer. Supplies were minimal and outdated, but we organized and planned to the best of our ability. NOW I was getting nervous. I have had very little floor nursing experience previous to this mission, since I graduated in May and I have been orienting to a specialized floor. On the labor and delivery unit, we usually have 1-2 patients. Here, they warned us we could have anywhere from 10-40 patients per nurse. Talk about trial by fire. I am by far the least experience nurse here, and it's a bit intimidating…but makes me want to prove myself all the more.

As patients began to trickle in, the nerves went away. It felt much better to DO something as opposed to sitting and waiting anxiously. The injuries we see constantly flowing from Haiti are gut-wrenching. Almost all of my patients have at least one amputation. One of my patients is a 24-year-old woman who lost both arms after being trapped in a collapsed building for 3 days. She is an amazing person, incredibly intelligent (speaks English and Spanish in addition to her native French Creole), and determined to begin to walk soon, though she is too weak currently. At times she breaks down and begins to cry (and who wouldn't?)…especially when I have to perform the simplest of tasks for her like brushing her teeth. You don't realize how you take your limbs for granted until you're humbled by someone's loss of them.

The most frustrating thing for me right now is the knowledge that most of these people that we're "saving" will be going back to Haiti to most likely die. So many were homeless and starving before…and now they have no legs or arms? I know that I have a job to do and I can't control what happens after, but at times it's difficult to wrap my mind around.

We're incredibly short-staffed, although we have more people working than we have beds. Some people have to "hot rack"—share the same bed when they work different shifts, rotating the use of it. We have an enormous patient to nurse ratio, and everyone is working 14 hour days every single day of the week without a break. This will be my 15th day in a row of 12-14 hours of work. Everyone, including myself is drained and it can be hard to rally spirits when all we see is pain and hear is wailing and screaming. The other day I walked off the ward and burst into tears.

Today was a good day however. My goal each shift is to get as many smiles from my patients as possible. And I got quite a few today. Probably at my expense (with the language barrier, I have to rely on my charade skills…just imagine trying to explain to a patient through body language that they have to be given an enema!).

I have learned in this short week that I really do know more than I thought (I can already hear my CCC nursing professors saying "I told you so!") and that I will get through this one day at a time. But I hope this doesn't last for six months…we can't keep up this pace for any extended period of time without staff reaching a breaking point.

Monday, January 25

HaitiToday wasn't terrible. Hard patient load, but I made some nice connections with people. I changed one woman's dressings (broken right arm with external fixation, broken right femur and right above knee amputation with left hand and left thigh lacerations) and bathed her, and afterwards she started talking rapidly to the translator. I asked what she said, and the translator smiled and said 'She told me that you are the best daughter she could ask for. She says you will be blessed by God.' The woman kept calling me her "darling" and "dear" the rest of the day. It's moments like that where I feel like I really am making some impact here.


About Ensign Mayhew

Ensign Gwen Mayhew joined the Navy Nursing Candidate Program while at Cedar Crest to help pay for her education, thanks in part to the mentoring of Cedar Crest alumna Christine Boltz '80, a recently retired Naval officer. The program includes a five-year commitment to the Navy contingent on passing the nursing board exam, which she did in July. Ensign Mayhew graduated from Navy Officer Development School in Newport, R.I., in September. Since then, she's been on assignment in the mother/infant ward at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Her deployment to Haiti may have been a surprise to some of her colleagues, given her relative lack of experience, but not to those who know her from her days as an honors student at Cedar Crest.

"While she was at Cedar Crest College, Gwen served on the honor board and in a variety of leadership roles on campus. She really is an amazing person and I'm not surprised they selected her above so many others," said Assistant Professor of Nursing Amy Edgar.