A byte or a bite?

I’ve been in Haiti for 5 full days now.  I have a ton of thoughts so far, but one big, pervasive one that won’t go away is the juxtaposition of needs.  Last Saturday I was walking down a half paved (yes, half, as in one lane was paved and the other one wasn’t) street straddled by a tent city where thousands of people live on less than a dollar per day day.  All around me are people carrying cellphones, and down the street drives a shiny, brand new VolksWagon SUV.

The Bus Ride

a road in haiti is also a river, and the washing machineOn Sunday we took a bus from Port-Au-Prince to Port-de Paix (notice at this link that there are no directions given…) – a harrowing 6 hour drive where 4 hours of it were in unpaved roads.  Unpaved here means 4×4 quality, not gravel.  We’re talking full-blown boulders, driving through rivers (sometimes driving down the riverbed for a while), huge mud pits and constant swerving and lurching.  This was the “nice bus” with about 25 people onboard and we all had a seat.  There was air conditioning (here that meant about 80 degree air) and music (I’ll call it “haimaixican” music because it sounds like a cross between Jamaican and Mexican music with Haitian enthusiasm added in).  After the bus ride we had an hour drive by jeep to LaPointe where my wife, Charlotte, is volunteering in a hospital called Beraca Medical Center.

I have a fabulous video to upload of riding the bus… but the internet speeds hardly support email and blogging, let alone a video upload!  I’ll post it when I get back home.

At Beraca

The Beraca hospital is considered “big” and serves a population somewhere between 35,000 and 70,000 people in the immediate city.  It is one of only two hospitals in the Northwestern region of Haiti (the other one is in Port-de Paix, a city of 250,000+).  The population numbers here are, according to the locals, based only on the people that show up for a census, so they are not very accurate.

This hospital is nothing like Grey’s Anatomy or the hospital you’ve been to in the US or other developed countries.  It is largely open-air with doors and windows open or broken or missing in many places.  There is no AC in the heat and humidity.  The cement construction does help keep things inside from getting much hotter than the ambient air temp outside, but it’s still HOT.  Things are dirty – people are constantly sweeping and mopping to keep the dirt at bay, but there are literally crowds of people and it’s a losing uphill battle.  There is a ditch running through the middle of the courtyard area that looks like it should be a nice pretty water feature.  It’s not.  It is for rain runoff and, as I have observed a couple times, latrine dumping.

Despite this, the staff seems to be in good spirits.  They are hard working.  My wife is helping with baby deliveries, assisting surgeries, and doing childbirth pain management classes for the nursing staff.

I’m Not a Medical Professional

Then there’s me.  I am NOT medical.  I have huge respect for people that love medical sciences but I am not one of those people.  During our initial meeting with our hosts at the hospital we clarified that I can help but not medically and that I “do computer stuff” professionally.  Aha!  They have computers, and so it began.  I can’t heal people but I can heal computers!

The first case was an old HP machine circa 2003 or so.  It wouldn’t boot.  Ran through some safe mode stuff and got windows XP Pro to load, only to get the “thou must activate” error of death.  Apparently Service Pack 3 had been installed and windows not activated within 30 days so it was locked.  I eventually got it activated via phone thanks to daisy chaining Google Voice to Skype and Skype forwarding to my local Haitian cellphone.

After success with computers they started showing me other electronic equipment… medical equipment in varying states of broken.  They have three Ultrasound machines and none of them work!  A hospital that serves tens of thousands without a functioning ultrasound seems crazy.  They agree, but have no options.  The first case is an old hopeless beast.  The second was a super awesome portable one that is still under warranty and will have to go out for repair.  The third… that was fun.  It was a super fancy Acuson Sequoia 512 and produced only “System Error: 30” on startup.  With no error code guide and the Internets unable to provide a useful answer, and after taking off all the panels we could that didn’t say “do not remove!!” I gave up and called Siemen’s tech support.  They explained that System Error 30 means “there is no OS available” which is usually a case of OS corruption or hard drive fault of some kind (no power to hdd, bad hdd cable or cable seating, broken hard drive).  Considering the ground journey I took to get here I was amazing the machine was even in one piece.  The tech support guy told be where to look for the hard drive… and it wasn’t there.  Then he guided me to the second place it should be… yep, also not there.  But there were power and SCSI cables!  So, problem solved.  It wasn’t a faulty hard drive, it was NO hard drive.

The bummer part is that repairing it basically requires a tech come out here to LaPointe, and they don’t send their techs out here.  So, if you’re reading this and are an ultrasound repair tech trained in Acuson machines, or know one, I have an awesome opportunity for you to be a hero!

Then, There’s the Internet…

They do have internet at the hospital.  A total of about 9 computers hooked up to a patchwork network made by cat5 literally hanging from trees and windows and building walls.  Their connection is an old sattelite based system that needs updating.  They use computers, but people here aren’t really computer literate.

The Big Thought: a Bit or a Byte?

This gets to the big thought: here in a place where there is so much basic need and medical need that I’m not able to help with, there is an absence of and possibly need for technology.  Which comes first, a byte or a bite?  I.e if we improved technology will it improve living conditions and things like human basics of food, shelter, clothing, and life saving healthcare?  Or would we be better to focus efforts on simply delivering more of those things to make lives better?

I’d like to think that both are needed.  That human essentials must be available, but without providing fundamental improvements, which should include modern technology and skillsets, human conditions won’t change permanently and we simply create dependance on aide.  That’s the question on my mind and I’d love to hear your feedback.


Leave a Comment