The scene of sheer devastation and a mounting toll of dead bodies lying on the ground was far removed from anything Alex Cottin had witnessed before his visit to Haiti.
The Venice resident had worked other areas struck by damaging events in Sudan, Nigeria and Kenya with the international aid agency Merlin USA, but nothing to the extent of what took place in Haiti.
Arriving in the island nation within 48 hours of a magnitude-7.0 earthquake that hit near the capital of Port-au-Prince January 12th, Cottin says he found himself in an “incredibly dire” situation, recalling the massive structural devastation with building after building dilapidated.
“To see it firsthand is very hard and it’s one of the things you can’t really prepare yourself for,” Cottin described of the disaster scene. “Once I got there it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
Aside from the troubling sight of a poor nation in ruins and victims suffering from traumatic injuries, Cottin remembers being overtaken by the smell resulting from thousands of corpses covering the streets. The Haitian government has estimated that over 230,000 lives were claimed by the natural disaster.
“It was not just the sight but the smell that took me aback,” said Cottin, who recently returned to the U.S.
As regional director of Merlin USA for the West Coast, Cottin was called from his Venice home to join a team of five emergency responders with the international medical aid agency at Delmas, one of the worst-hit areas of Port-au-Prince. Merlin, which specializes in improving health care in nations devastated by conflict, disease and disaster, has served in 40 countries, including 16 currently.
Cottin, who noted that he always wanted to work for a non-governmental organization with a high level of efficiency, said he was pleased at the opportunity to take part in the Haiti mission with his team.
“It’s absolutely incredible; I’ve never been part of such a dynamic effort,” he said.
Cottin’s team members and the other international Merlin teams were charged with providing aid to victims and delivering medical supplies and equipment to the earthquake-ravaged country. They managed to construct a field hospital within hours of their arrival on an abandoned tennis court site they dubbed “Wimbledon” and were providing treatment within a day. The Wimbledon site consists of a fully equipped operating area with two operating tables and four ward tents that can provide 24-hour care to up to 40 patients.
Since its arrival in Haiti, Merlin has helped deliver 33 tons of relief supplies from around the world with enough medicine to treat 70,000 people over the next three months, agency officials said.
Though he does not have medical experience, Cottin says he was primarily responsible for assisting the medical team, helping to unload medical supplies and secure the warehouse, speaking French to workers and victims, and making sure the team’s logistical needs were met.
Merlin USA National Director Lucy Dorick commended Cottin for responding only days after the earthquake and for his exceptional work with the team despite his lack of training as an aid worker.
“We needed someone on the ground to help communicate back to the U.S. audiences what was happening in Haiti,” said Dorick, adding that Cottin’s blog postings have helped tell the story to others.
“What stood out was his ability to become part of what was going on in Haiti and become an aid worker, and at the same time, to have the perspective to communicate these stories.”
Cottin described how patients at the Merlin field hospital suffered debilitating injuries, requiring treatment for crushed limbs, amputations, infections as well as plastic surgery. But even with those traumas and the unimaginable loss of life, the people have been resilient and offered to help however they could, he explained.
“It’s a testament to their resilience and their courage that they went with it and not only accepted the severity of the damages, but were willing to help out.”
Having worked with the relief efforts in the challenging environment, Cottin was reminded of stories such as a two-year-old girl sitting on the back of her mother who was killed and said he found it particularly unsettling that many of the country’s children have become orphans.
Cottin, who said the most rewarding experience was working with the young victims, referred to a time when two injured girls got an escape from the devastation that tore through their city by playing with a soccer ball made of bubble wrap.
During his time serving with the Merlin camp, Cottin said he noticed dramatic improvements from the initial response with the amount of aid received and the number of international organizations providing assistance. He estimated that there are 900 organizations, including 170 medical organizations on the ground in Haiti and said the groups need to ensure that there is strong coordination amongst each other.
“To be able to see a progression was incredibly rewarding and it’s something I’ll never forget,” he said of the improvements.
But while the country has begun to move forward with aid donated from across the globe, Cottin noted that the recovery process for Haiti and its people is “very much a long-term issue.” He plans to return to the island nation in the next couple of weeks to follow up on Merlin’s efforts. The agency has been operating mobile clinics in the region and hopes to create a sustainable health care system for the long term, he said.
“I’m so glad to have been able to see the direct influence of an amazing organization like Merlin,” Cottin said. “For me to be able to get there from the very beginning and to help out physically is an experience I’ll never forget.”