Anna Van Rooyen was appointed head of Catholic Relief Services (a US member of Caritas Internationalis) for emergency health response following the January 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Credits: Lane Hartill/CRS

Anna Van Rooyen was appointed head of Catholic Relief Services (a US member of Caritas Internationalis) for emergency health response following the January 2010 Haiti earthquake.

The day the earthquake hit Haiti, I became trapped in my office in Port-au-Prince. My colleagues didn’t know if their family and friends were dead or alive. None of us was prepared for it and we were all in shock. How do you prepare for seeing thousands of people dead or severely injured?

With so many buildings down and unstable I ended up sleeping in a garden not far from the office. There was no water or electricity and communication was down. This meant that to confirm information or to talk to people, you had to go out in a car and look for them in the city. With rubble blocking the roads, this wasn’t easy, but it was the only way of checking who had survived and which buildings still functioned for work purposes.

Staff who survived the earthquake were sent abroad to save them from further trauma. I went to the Dominican Republic for about four days for a rest after the disaster, but in the end I wanted to be with the team back in Port-au-Prince.

Despite the uncertainty and enormous difficulties, Catholic Relief Services along with Caritas Haiti and other Caritas member organisations, immediately started work. I was tasked with setting up and leading the health emergency response.

Within a few days we had a team of more than 100 volunteers and health professionals who wanted to help us. We were strengthened by hundreds of international medical volunteers. It was great how everybody – nationals and internationals, young and old – joined the health team and made an incredible contribution. There was a fantastic team spirit – no one ever complained.

We quickly did assessments and set up clinics in ten camps to provide healthcare. We also established secondary care in eight Catholic and faith-based hospitals in the country. Part of our strategy was also to provide public health messages to help raise people’s awareness about health issues.

The François de Sales hospital in Port-au-Prince was about 80 percent destroyed in the earthquake. I was the first outsider to go there. The hospital was closed and the surviving patients were lying on the ground in the parking lot. They didn’t have food, water or anything else.

A lot of the stuff I saw at the hospital, I can’t talk about. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you cover your kids’ eyes. I know I wanted to cover mine.

The medical director of the hospital asked me for support to evacuate surviving patients. A former colleague from the World Health Organisation had just informed me that we only had two operating rooms in the capital. All the hospitals were overloaded with earthquake survivors. We took the decision there and then to re-open François de Sales. Within 48 hours we were performing operations.

One of the things that remained a challenge in those first weeks was the enormous number of cargo planes and trucks coming in with supplies that needed to be coordinated, stored and distributed. At the end of the day we had a pharmacy warehouse team of more than 15 people just coordinating this, not counting the teams dealing with food and other items.

Since the 2010 earthquake, my portfolio has quintupled. Some people say I really know how to multi-task and the Haiti earthquake has really tested that ability. Based on a strategy to strengthen the faith-based network, we are working hard to achieve an overall improvement to Haitians’ access to healthcare. But it will take time.