Julie "Jitterbug" Pearce sounds changed by Haiti

Remember Julie "Jitterbug" Pearce, the former reporter at KBJR-TV in Duluth who quit her job to put her nursing skills to work with relief efforts in Haiti after the massive earthquake there in January?

She says she was due to head home yesterday. Instead, the hospital where she was working was shut down, so she's staying on to help discharge patients and reassign others to area facilities.

We checked in with her via e-mail. She sounds changed by her experience, and, as much as she misses her reporting gig and Minnesota, she isn't sure about returning to TV news.

"Doing this kind of medical work has become much more fulfilling," she said. "I will never be the same."

Here's more of what she had to say:

CP: Where on the island are you?

JP: I'm smack dab in the middle of Port au Prince. I've been working at CDTI hospital, about one mile up from the presidential palace.

CP: Is the work in Haiti what you expected?

Yes and no. I expected to land in Port au Prince and feel like I was in a war zone. I thought there would be fires still burning, violence in the streets, patients still laying the streets waiting to be treated. Instead, I encountered a much less chaotic situation. I'd describe it as organized chaos.

I expected to have all of my nursing/medical skills pushed to the limit. My prediction here was accurate. I found every one of my skills and knowledge challenged. I had to be an open sponge, being willing to try new things, take on additional roles, and absorbing new information honing my abilities. There were times when my role crossed the line into doctor and anesthesiologist. I'd find myself triaging and diagnosing some of the less serious cases and putting people under with moderate sedation for various procedures. When the job has to get done and there's no one there to do it, you have to simply step up to the plate and do what you can.

Visually, the city is destroyed. In some areas, you'd never know there was an earthquake, but in other areas, particularly downtown, the buildings have completely pancaked, fires do burn in the street, the ashes of freshly burned bodies leave charcoal black remnants on the cement, and human remains are still visible... one a tiny dead baby just left to decay under the sun.

Relationally, I expected that I would be so focused on patient care and survival that I wouldn't have time to bond with my patients and co-workers. I thought I would be so good at keeping a barrier up around my emotions. What actually happened is that my heart instantaneously broke. I came to love my patients like family. I came to depend on my co-workers for support and made life long friends.

CP: The impression one gets from the US is that the relief work will go on forever -- is there an end in site?

JP: Fortunately, Haiti has been one country that has been the recipient of enormous financial and volunteer work from NGOs (non-government organization) around the world. This has been convenient for providing much needed resources and support the country needs. However, when help comes in such an enormous wave, it can become counter productive. It can create an unhealthy reliance. What we are starting to see are issues like massive amounts of rice brought into the country and it's affecting the local rice farmer's economy. It's basic cause and effect.

From the medical front, we are seeing repercussions here as well. Doctors and medical staff are leaving their existing facilities to go work for better paying NGOs. Some of the local workers are finding employment difficult because so many people are here to "do it for free". And, the financial support that needs to be infused into the healthcare system to maintain it, rebuild it, and supply it... well, that money is just not getting to where it needs to go. Daquini hospital here had to cease all of its ER services a couple weeks ago, CDTI (the hospital I've been working at for last two months) had to close completely as of April 1, and General Hospital, the largest hospital in Port au Prince will be ceasing their Emergency Care come April 12.

It's a discouraging pattern that will leave Haitians with limited access to care in a system that is already lacking. So, to get back to answering your question, there must be an end in sight. But, it needs to be a gentle ending, a transitional ending, an ending the creates self-sustainability so that the Haitian people are given opportunities to step in and continue care long after all of the NGOs have left. Otherwise, there will be more hospitals facing the same fate as those which have closed.

CP: Has your work changed you?

JP: Yes, I will never be the same. My experience in Haiti has made a definitive impact on my life. I was pretty sure that I would be changed, but never imagined to this extent. My time in Haiti has helped to shape me into a more grateful, compassionate, simplified, and fulfilled person. Most importantly, it has solidified and strengthened my faith.

CP: Do you miss Minnesota?

JP: Absolutely. While I wouldn't argue that I've missed the Minnesota winter, I have really missed the friends and famliy that make it a warm place to live no matter what the time of year. I miss the fresh crisp air as compared to dust filled air and the smell of death. I miss the accent, the food, the good people, a sense of safety and security, and the beautiful lush green foliage.

CP: How much longer will you be there? What's next?

JP: Well, I was supposed to leave April 1. However, CDTI hospital had to close and we have had to go around and start discharging and transfering patients. I rescheduled my flight for another couple weeks so that I can assist in the process, fly one of our orphans up to Cap Haitian in northern Haiti so I can get him settled in, and continue facilitating the grief therapy program I designed with children and adolescents.

Future plans for Haiti include the deployment of more resources including a ton of tarps and tents. I'd like to locate some vaccines for shipment as well. Out of this disaster response, the Julie Pearce Medical Relief Team was formed. This non-profit organization will continue to serve Haiti and other disaster zones as an organized coalition of medical professionals who wish to self-deploy in an organized fashion.

CP: Will you go back to TV news?

JP: That's a hard one. I completely miss anchoring the news and carrying valuable stories and information to the people in my community. However, doing this kind of medical work has become much more fulfilling. There's a possibility that I might do little stories here and there once I get back from Haiti for the station I departed from. There are still many stories I'd like to tell in the Northland, although that will probably not be from behind a desk. I may not be an anchor anymore, but it can never take away the fact that I'll always be a journalist at heart. I've been able to use pictures and storytelling down here in my free time to decompress at the end of the day and process the days events. In the future, I'd consider the possibility of doing medical correspondence. I look up to those like Nancy Schneiderman [ABC News], and Sanjay Gupta [CNN]. They are able to maintain their integrity as medical professionals as well as journalists. Perhaps one day you'll see me in the network. Without a doubt, you can be sure the stories will continue to be told and the images will continue to be captured on whatever medical outreach mission my future holds. Bringing the real stories of real people doing real things amid desperate and shocking realities is something I will always bring to the table."

CP: Have you run across journalists in your work?

JP: I have run into several journalists while I'm here. We've had the Mexican, French, and German news organizations here touring through the hospital. Reuters and the AP have also been spotted around here of there. I was at the palace the day of Bush and Clinton's arrival and just missed the press conference with names like Nancy Sniderman and Anderson Cooper.

While making a stop by the Plaza Hotel downtown, I had someone stop me in the hall and say, "Aren't you Julie Pearce? But... people call you Jitter... Jitterbug?!" I laughed and agreed. The woman was a previous news anchor who knew me as the news lady who quit the desk to head to Haiti. It made me feel pretty good.

Pearce has been writing extensively about her experience in Haiti at her blog. Check it out here.

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