A Medical Clown’s Week in Ravaged Port au Prince

02Feb10

HAITI AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE
by Wendy Elliman

An Unfinished Sentence.
Strewn amid the rubble of what had been Haiti’s capital, was a heap of splintered school desks and benches. Nearby, lay a blackboard, still improbably whole, half a sentence chalked on to it.

“That unfinished sentence symbolized it all for me,” says Hadassah medical clown Dudi Barashi, 33.  “In my mind’s eye, I could see that Port au Prince teacher writing on the board and the children following what she wrote, as the earthquake struck and probably killed them all.”

Part of the medical team at the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem for the past six years, Barashi has volunteered in HMO’s out reach in India, with AIDS-stricken orphans in Ethiopia, with survivors in tsunami-ravaged south-east Asia and with civilians under bombardment in  Northern Israel during the last war with Lebanon.  But, he says, he has never seen anything that compares with the misery and destruction into which he plunged last week in Haiti.

“It was as if the city had been no more than a house of cards,” he says. “I have no words to describe the chaos and devastation.  And when I thought that in every one of those crushed buildings there had once been life, and that life had been extinguished, it was unbearable.  In my many years’ experience as a medical clown, this was the first time I ever felt that here is a tragedy that’s too vast to grasp hold of.”

Friday Night.
Barashi was one of four Israeli clowns who arrived in Haiti on the Friday following the Tuesday quake.  “Each of us agreed to go immediately,” he says.  “We left Israel on Thursday, the day on which the Israeli rescue mission set up their field hospital in a Port au Prince soccer stadium.  Anyone who’s followed the news knows about this hospital — how efficient and well- equipped it was, how for days it was the only place to get effective medical help, how its doctors and nurses worked endlessly and tirelessly.”

The clowns’ journey got underway with a 16-hour flight from Tel Aviv to the Dominican Republic and continued overland into stricken Haiti.

“We arrived at the Israeli field hospital on Friday, as Shabbat came in,” says Barashi.  “The exhausted doctors, nurses, reservists and soldiers were about to make Kiddush as we arrived.  We’d driven for hours through hell, and then, in the midst of this deranged and wounded world, we’d reached an oasis of humanity.”

The medical team — organized by the Israel Defense Forces and staffed by physicians from Hadassah and from every other major Israeli hospital — was weary beyond words, but the Kiddush, says Barashi, seemed to energize them.

“I was overwhelmed with a sense of being part of this Israeli team, part of the Israeli people,” says Barashi.  “I’d come to this place of tragedy and turmoil, under the Star of David, to do whatever I could.”

The Medical Clown.
What can clowns do among so much suffering?  “We can act as a filter,” saysBarashi.  “Even if your eyes are awash with tears, you can still help.  I went upto a child, perhaps two or three years old.  His family was gone, his home was gone.  But he was still a little boy.  His attention was drawn by the man in the funny clothes.  I smiled.  He smiled.  I made a funny face.  He smiled more broadly.  I started chatting gibberish.   For him, here was a man who didn’t know about the earthquake, but knew how first to smile, and then to sing and to dance.  For a little while, at least, he left his fear and his pain.”

As delicately as Barashi and his colleagues work with sick youngsters in Hadassah, seeking their unspoken permission to come closer, that delicacy was magnified many times among the traumatized children they met in Haiti.

“We took our cue from the youngsters,” he says.

One among too many in the Israeli field hospital, a little girl had had her crushed leg amputated just above the knee.  “The dressing had to be changed, but the child was in pain, and screaming in her language: ‘Be careful of my leg!’  I went over and repeated her words, as best I could.  She stopped struggling and stared at me.  I said her words again.  And then I chanted them and then began to sing them, mugging around.  She giggled and joined in my ‘song,’ correcting my pronunciation as we sang — and the nurse changed her dressing.”

The Clown as Medical Aide.
The needs were overwhelming.  “I saw a child crying on a bed, his young mother sitting next to him holding his hand, a vacant smile on her face,” says Barashi.  “I asked the nurse about them.  ‘The child is hungry,’ she said.  ‘The mother isn’t feeding him, and I haven’t got a spare minute.’” Barashi took some chocolate cake and a cup of milk, and went over to the distressed mother and son.  He smiled at the mother, and although she didn’t smile back, she made eye contact.  He turned toward the child, broke off a piece of cake and soaked it in the milk.

“The little boy sucked it from my finger, tasting its sweetness,” he says.  “As soon as he’d swallowed it, he opened his mouth for more.  I gestured to the mother than she could take a break.  She was very young, and it was a good time for her to step out of the tent.   The child ate the whole piece of cake and then some porridge.”

Dozens of babies were born in the Israeli field hospital (many births brought on prematurely) and there were no cribs for them.  “I saw a line of buckets, filled with blankets, and asked what they were for,” says Barashi.  “They were for the new babies.”

Later that day, he saw Hadassah-Mt Scopus operating room nurse Reuven Gelfond come into the field hospital with a package.  Inside: screws for external reinforcement of limb fractures.  The team had run out of orthopedic screws, and Gelfond had found a local workshop which adapted nails to help fix fractures.

The Clowns and the Israeli Medical Team.
“We worked in tandem with the Israeli team,” says Barashi.   “It’s important for me put on record what an honor it was to work with them.  As a team and as individuals, they had come from across the world to work in the worst of conditions because they wanted to help.  They’d work 36-hour shifts, and then feel guilty when they rested.  The hospital tents were hot and stuffy, with only one air conditioner functioning.  There was scarcely water to wash in.  But they carried on as if they were in the best of facilities.

“We medical clowns realized very quickly that our role wasn’t only to reach out to the battered people of Haiti, but also to our own emotionally and physically shattered team.

So instead of sleeping when an exhausted nurse was on duty, I’d join him or her for a coffee.  Soon after we arrived, I was standing outside the field hospital, when one of the doctors I knew from Hadassah came out of surgery. Catching sight of me, he smiled and said: ‘What in heaven are you doing here!’  And I answered him: ‘I’m here to bring that smile to your face.’”

Search and Rescue.
Israel also fielded a large (and highly effective) search-and-rescue team to Haiti following the catastrophe.  They, too, made use of the clowns.   “We’d go with them to people living in temporary camps — people who’d lost everything and had made themselves shelter from a blanket on sticks,” says Barashi. “Many were in shock, and none had anywhere to go or anything to do.  They’d simply sit there in the heat all day long. The search-and-rescue people thought that perhaps we clowns could provide a diversion.”

To reach these shocked, bereaved people, with whom he had no common language, Barashi relied on instinct.  “I’ve been a medical clown for seven years and a street clown for 15 years before that,” he says.  “It’s all about finding connections between people, being sensitive to them and thus allowing them to attach and open themselves emotionally.

“As the children started coming up to me, drawn by my clown costume, I simply responded to what seemed to interest them.  There was a little girl with long strands of twisted hair, so I ruffled it and called ‘Spaghetti!’  She laughed and some others grinned.  I looked at more kids and likened their hair to other foods and pretty soon we had a whole kitchen going, with more and more children and some of the adults joining in.

“I started speaking gibberish.  They backed off for a moment, and then began to smile again.  I pulled a face.  Some of them imitated it.  I made a sound. They repeated it.  I sang a note.  They followed me.  And soon we were singing together, songs about nature and the goodness of the earth — despite what had happened, or perhaps because of it.  The children were in a circle around me, and the adults on the outside, all of us singing.”

One time when the Israeli search-and-rescue carried a giant water container into a camp like this, Barashi started up a Hebrew song:  ‘Moses Struck the Rock, and Water Gushed Forth.’  “I don’t know how that even came into my head!” he says.  “It’s a song that Israeli children sing in kindergarten.  But, of course, the whole search-and-rescue team knew it and joined in.  And with its repetitive Mayim, Mayim at the end of each line, it wasn’t long before the Haitians were singing along as well.”

Haitians and Israelis.


“The people I met in Haiti were, without exception, grateful and responsive to everything we tried to do,” says Barashi.   “Amid the horror and the loss of everything they’d ever known, children were children and were ready to play.  An old woman came up to me and grasped my hand, smiling into my face.

“Spoken language wasn’t necessary.  People are people everywhere, and despite barriers of language and culture, clowns can play a unique role in helping them.  It was excruciating to see the depths of their need, but we were buoyed we could open avenues of communication and, for a short while, guide people away from their fear and pain. There’s nothing as serious as knowing how to make a frightened or suffering child laugh, to separate that child from its pain and fear.

“I had the Israeli flag as part of my clown costume, and our personnel and our hospital were all clearly identifiable as Israeli.  The Haitians knew who we were and they were simply grateful that we’d crossed the world to help them.  Alongside the overwhelming grief that I felt for these people, was a vast pride in Israel, in Israelis and in being Israeli.”

The Hadassah Medical Team in Haiti

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One Response to “A Medical Clown’s Week in Ravaged Port au Prince”

  1. 1 Suzie

    Fantastic! Loved the story and I am so proud that Israeli’s came to the aid of the Haitian people. Keep up the wonderful work that you do. Todah!


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