Everyone in Haiti Lost Someone
On a trip to visit college friend and NPH Haiti volunteer Molly Hightower, Rachel Prusynski describes how a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked the Caribbean country and changed her life forever.
January 9, 2020 - NPH International
On my first trip to NPH Haiti, as well as visiting Molly Hightower who was midway through her volunteer year, I was considering volunteering for NPH after finishing my doctorate in physical therapy. I wanted to see what the volunteer experience was like. Molly and I had become close friends while studying at the University of Portland in Oregon. While spending a lovely time in Haiti with Molly and her fellow volunteers, I helped her at St. Damien Pediatric Hospital and spent some time traveling around Haiti. Then earthquake struck.
The Moment Disaster Struck
I was on the top floor of the Father Wasson Center, a six-story building in Petion-vile where volunteers lived and where NPH had offices, day programs for kids with disabilities from the community, and an event space. I was sitting in the lounge area next to Ryan Kloos, who was visiting his sister Erin, another volunteer. Erin and Molly were both downstairs in their rooms showering after our trip to the market. One minute, Ryan and I were checking email and the next I remember I was on my feet scrambling as the floor tipped sideways. There was no time to react. I was buried as the entire building crashed down around us. The top floors collapsed onto the floors below like a stack of pancakes. Unfortunately, both Ryan and Molly were killed.
I was pulled from the Father Wasson Center by strangers who I believe were involved with NPH and who drove me to the U.S. embassy that night. I was evacuated to Guantanamo Bay Navy Hospital due to my injuries and then flown back in the U.S. within a few days after negotiating a flight to Florida. I was injured and unable to help immediately in the aftermath. As a visitor unfamiliar with Haiti, I likely wouldn’t have been very helpful, but I ached to help and felt disconnected from everyone struggling in Haiti, especially considering my only connection to the country had died with Molly.
Because of the strength and scale of destruction of the earthquake, everyone in Haiti lost someone.
Supporting NPH in the Aftermath
I returned to Haiti for the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and was graciously hosted by Molly’s former boss and colleagues. I have returned multiple times since, to train physical therapy technicians and nursing students at St. Luke Foundation schools, St. Damien Hospital, and the Kay Germaine program for youth and adults with disabilities.
I also had the opportunity to establish a university scholarship in Molly’s honor at our alma mater. Two young adults who grew up at NPH Haiti have now successfully completed their bachelor’s degrees at the University of Portland on full four-year scholarships.
I have seen our NPH programs in Haiti go through many changes in recent years, with the initial Father Wasson Angels of Light (FWAL) program born in acute response to the quake shifting to a more permanent program. I have continually been impressed by the quality of care at St. Damien Hospital, with the addition of the pediatric residency program and expanded oncology services, among other achievements. The Kay Germaine programs have expanded to serve adults with neurologic impairment, a huge gap in rehabilitative care present even before the earthquake.
I also sponsored a young child who was left at the NPH home after the earthquake. He is now turning 18. We have communicated for almost 10 years and I am extremely proud of his compassionate nature and drive.
10 Years Later
Staying connected to NPH was essential for my personal recovery after the earthquake. Having an outlet for some of my survivor’s guilt and my desire to help, as well as a connection to the NPH community, makes me feel like part of a family and continues to give me purpose. I founded NPH USA’s first Associate Board for young professionals in the Northwest region. Through the years, the Associate Board has raised thousands of dollars and energized young donors through many community events and child sponsorships.
I now serve on the NPH USA Northwest regional board and continue to support NPH Haiti. In terms of the two university scholarships, I got to be a part of the students’ support team as they tackled college here in the U.S. I feel lucky to consider both of them as family. I know that when I look back on my life in years to come, my role in their journey and their place in my family will be one of the biggest points of pride and love in my life.
I was hoping to be in Haiti with the NPH community for the 10th anniversary of the earthquake but I cannot, in good conscience, be a burden to them at this time. NPH Haiti is struggling against the daily challenges of keeping the home and hospital running amid gas and transportation shortages during the current political crisis.
The NPH Haiti staff are competent and courageous people and I will continue to send them as much financial support as I can manage, especially during the worst crisis Haiti has faced since the earthquake. Considering that they have faced a cholera outbreak and multiple hurricanes since 2010, the fact that this current systemic unrest has had even more negative impact on our operations and poses more uncertainty for the future is a testament to the massive challenges our staff face daily in order to provide care for the vulnerable families we support.
To donate to our programs in NPH Haiti and St. Damien Pediatric Hospital, visit nph.org.
Board Member, NPH USA Northwest