Day 1 – Dr. Kevin Fussell en route to Haiti

Day number 1 was a whirlwind of preparation and interviews. I had a hospital and clinic full of patients in North Carolina and yet all I could think about was getting to Haiti. I have always wondered what people mean by being “called” to do something, and now I know. I was being called to Haiti, and every minute that I spent anywhere else made me increasingly uncomfortable in my skin. Every patient deserves their doctor at his or her best though, so I put my mind on the task at hand and finished my day. The routine of my day was interrupted by the two television interviews and a newspaper interview that had been scheduled for me by WWR. My job was to get the word out on what WWR was planning in Haiti, and to provide a local connection to an event that although it is right next door seems as though it’s a world away. At first a bit uncomfortable in front of the camera and lights, by my third interview my message was more polished, and succinct. I felt like Sanjay Gupta, without the pretty face.
One of the News crews followed me through the PTI Airport. I will admit that checking in with a camera guy standing over your shoulder is a bit unusual and uncomfortable, especially when I couldn’t get the kiosk to work. “Are you guys really going to show that?,” I asked him, hoping for some mercy. I could also tell that people were trying to figure out who I was or what I could possibly be doing to generate such fanfare. I told the security woman on my way through the line when she asked who the guy with camera was, “yeah, I take him ever where I go.”
Once people did find out what we are planning on doing they were universally supportive, and I’m always amazed at how something like this brings out the best in everyone around you. I used every chance encounter to encourage people to follow what we were doing on our website and if they felt moved to do so, to support our efforts. I’ve never been much for fundraising, but if there ever was a time to put aside my pride and advocate for those less fortunate this was definitely that moment.
On leaving PTI, I flew to Atlanta and met up with Ben Seidl, my partner in this adventure. A proper send off had been planned by the WWR team, and based on the number of people there and the energy they generated, Ben commented that he felt like we must be going to the moon. Well to our organization and families, our mission is that important and it was at that point I really understood how lucky I was to have this opportunity to travel to Haiti and to represent this organization.
After polishing my Sanjay Gupta routine with two more TV interviews we took our water purification system and headed to security. While in line a woman standing with us asked if we were going to Haiti (she also asked if Ben and I were brothers, which I thought was a huge insult to Ben, but he didn’t flinch). Turns out we are speaking with the president of Shenandoah University and she lived in Haiti for a number of years when her husband worked for the UN. Just so happens she knows some well connected people in Port au Prince, and gave us contact information for the ones she feels may be able to help us once we arrive in the city. We’d been together for about an hour, hadn’t even left Atlanta, and we already had our first lead. We felt like it was good first step.
Our good fortune seemed short lived. Let’s just say that this water purification system has to look extremely scary to a TSA agent as it passes through the xray machine. There is a small box with wires and switches, and two big canisters and a bunch of tubes, so either it is a water purification system or we were the boldest terrorists to ever try to get through the Atlanta airport.
Upon opening the shipping container the TSA agent mentioned that it looked scarier in person, so they did the airport pat down and a thorough search of the system by taking it apart and running each component through the xray machine. Unfortunately when they wiped the machine down for residue it kept testing positive, which only increased their level of concern. So we started climbing the chain of command until we met TSAs bomb expert who came to inspect the system. To help calm their nerves I suggested we take the system into the bathroom, drop one end in a toilet and let Ben drink the water that comes out just to prove our point. He said that wouldn’t be necessary. I insisted that Ben wouldn’t mind, he laughed.
Also of note, in the box were a bunch of tools that we will eventually need to put the system together, a few of which were larger than the size allowed on a plane. These were confiscated, but because of the determination of one of the agents all the tools were returned as he was concerned we wouldn’t be able to purchase replacements once we were in country. I cannot emphasize enough how professional the TSA agents were. They were pleasant yet thorough, which is exactly what I think we all want them to be. In the end they knew what we were trying to do and seemed determined to get that system on the plane without compromising their protocols, and once everyone was satisfied we were able to move through in time to take off for New York.
As U2 says, “we touched the ground in JFK” around midnight and although we had a 7 hour layover with the promise of solid sleep in a nearby hotel we didn’t want to chance another encounter with the TSA upon reentering the airport. Would our northern brethren be as forgiving? Could I be any more judgmental? Well, it was enough to convince us to forgo the comforts of a bed and curl up under some tables in a closed café. We feel asleep to the sound of show tunes playing on the overhead speaker, and the birds chirping that had found their way into the airport and who scoured the café floor looking for crumbs. It was a fitful night of sleep to say the least.
At the end of day, however, our greatest concern had nothing to do with creature comforts, personal safety or what potential devastation we may witness in the coming days. Quite simply the only thing feared was that we might be ineffective, that we might not be able to accomplish our objective. We know that getting to Port au Prince from the Dominican Republic may be impossible due to the impassability of the roads or that the military convoy we’ve been promised may not materialize. It would certainly not be the first time that Ben and I have experienced Dominican promises that were made but not kept. But I remind myself as I fall asleep that we are off to a good start, that we have determination and purpose on our side, and I feel good about our chances.

Stay tuned . . .

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