ST. JOSEPH — Dr. Sherry O’Donnell and her medical relief team thought they were prepared for the destruction they would find in the Bahamas, hit last month by Hurricane Dorian.
What they found was almost indescribable devastation, and a people wracked by emotional trauma as well as physical wounds.
“Worse than the news can capture, without a doubt,” said O’Donnell, director of the Rappha Medical Center in St. Joseph and a veteran of missions to many disaster sites. “We heard story after story of what they had lost. That brings it home.”
They also found Bahamians determined to survive.
One woman, whose two children were literally ripped from her arms by the storm and dragged into the sea, told O’Donnell “‘But Madame, I am still alive and God will help me rebuild.’ The resiliency of the people is absolutely amazing.”
O’Donnell will share some of those stories, and relate the needs of a country still digging itself out of the rubble, at 7 p.m. Friday at the Lake Michigan Christian Center, 9955 Church St., Bridgman.
Hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands and the Grand Bahama Island as a Category 5 storm on Sept. 1 and 2. The death toll was around 80, with thousands still listed as missing. The damage is estimated at $7 billion.
O’Donnell traveled with five other physicians, four nurses, a lay person and a minister, spending 10 days there offering medical, emotional and spiritual support.
They ran into bureaucratic roadblocks and other challenges, “but God was one step ahead of us, and our needs were met,” O’Donnell said. Their driver found them hotel rooms when their expected lodgings were not inhabitable. A Bahamian woman they met at the hotel spent her entire vacation with the team as a guide.
A chance encounter at the airport secured for the group a large army tent to set up their clinic. That conversation even kept O’Donnell from accidentally leaving her phone and all of her contacts at the airport.
While the team anticipated the medical needs they would find, they were surprised by the depth of the emotional toll.
O’Donnell was treating a 32-year-old woman named Anika for back injuries. When she leaned the woman backwards to manipulate her spine she started “hysterical sobbing. She couldn’t breathe.”
When Anika calmed down, she explained the reason for her extreme reaction. She had spent two days in the roof and attic of her home as the waters rose “with her phone in one hand and a flashlight in the other.” Twice she fell backwards into the flooded room.
She told O’Donnell that when the doctor leaned her back, “I felt like I was falling again.” She finally escaped the roof and with 13 other survivors spent three hours walking through the cold flood waters up to her neck, carrying a 6-month-old baby over her head to keep it from drowning.
“That is what the news doesn’t capture,” O’Donnell said. “It’s not if you were affected, it’s how you were affected.”
The team treated around 520 patients in their time on the Grand Bahama Island. While O’Donnell had been to places such as Haiti after an earthquake, others were experiencing their first disaster mission.
Talking nightly about their encounters helped. Having a hotel room to return to eased some of the discomfort, as well, “if you excuse the rats, and the shower with salt water, or not having water at all,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell cautioned the rookies against the “reverse culture shock” that occurs when you get home and can’t adequately convey to others what you have witnessed.
There also is the guilt from enjoying the luxuries available, she said. “You think ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ It’s very humbling.”
They had their own disorienting experience while still on the islands. An aide worker took them to an amusement park on Paradise Island, which hadn’t been touched by the hurricane, “to show us the good side” of the Bahamas.
O’Donnell said it was “very surreal” to see that kind of frivolity when 100 miles away “their nation was crumbling.”
She was proud of the American response to the crisis. The U.S. Coast Guard “was out in force,” O’Donnell said, and most of the non-government organizations providing aid were based in America.
She hopes to return soon with another team that includes counselors trained in crisis intervention.
The first thing that O’Donnell indulged in when she got home was “a nice, long hot shower” that didn’t include salt water, and then “a good, healthy homemade salad.”
Essential to their ongoing efforts, as well, is what O’Donnell calls “taking a spiritual shower” and turning the situation over to a higher power. “It’s saying, ‘Lord, you saw it, you take care of the long-term, I can’t.’ If I took it on myself, I would be battle-weary. By taking that spiritual shower, I can go back.”
A link to a video on the mission on Youtube is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=le8C10E0F3Y.
Those who want to donate to the Bahamas effort through Heartbeat Missions can contact O’Donnell at 408-1777.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak