Sean Penn volunteers with Israeli soldiers in Haiti

Joe Shalmoni, a Los Angeles resident responded to the crisis in Haiti by signing up to volunteer at the IDF field hospital in Port Au Prince. Shalmoni, who comes from a devout pro-Israel family (his sister is StandWithUs director Roz Rothstein) volunteered through the Los Angeles Israeli Consulate and has been reporting from Haiti for the past week. Just the other day, actor Sean Penn stopped by the IDF outpost where he was photographed with Joseph, a Haitian survivor of the earthquake who was later subjected to police brutality.

Shalmoni’s story is below:

Text and Photographs by Joe Shalmoni © 2010, All Rights Reserved

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – Joseph’s story begins with four volunteers from the Israel Defense Forces Medical Corps Field Hospital in Port Au Prince, Haiti:  Dr. Rubin Cohen, (NYC), Dr. Milton Steinman, (Sao Paolo), Dr. Tanya Zamataro, (Sao Paolo), and myself, Joe Shalmoni, (Photographer/EMT, Los Angeles).  On a break, we had hired a car to show us around devastated Port Au Prince.

On Friday, January 22, 2010, the IDF field hospital physicians and I hired a car for a well-deserved break from our work at the field hospital and a chance to see more of Port-Au-Prince.  The physicians are from New York, Sao Paulo and I am a photojournalist and a trained EMT volunteer who livesin Los Angeles.

We left our compound, got onto the Bicentenaire highway, and stopped to photograph the demolition of a large building that had been leveled by the earthquake. When we started to drive again, we came upon a large, chaotic crowd of screaming Haitians pleading with us to stop and help them. Then we saw why. It was Joseph. He was in pools of blood. Just below his shoulder, his left arm was nearly detached from his body, and there were gunshot wounds to his lower back and neck. He looked as though he had been tortured. His hands were tied behind him with a black rope, and his arms were entangled in his shirt. He was fighting death in the hot Caribbean sun and was losing the battle.

Dr. Steinman freed Joseph from the ropes with a small knife. We had no medical equipment and no way to transport him to the IDF base. We frantically tried to hail down passing vehicles that could drive us all to the IDF base. A UN vehicle wouldn’t stop. The noxious fumes of the passing cars surrounded us as we tried to hair another vehicle. Then, finally, a helping hand. Alexander, a man driving with his wife in his “top-top,” stopped and let us climb into his truck.

We lifted the “dead weight” of the nearly unconscious Joseph. We didn’t have a stretcher. We didn’t have protective gloves. We had none of the normal accoutrements necessary for a rescue. With the help of some standers-by, including a six- or seven-year-old boy, we got Joseph onto the hard metal back of the covered pick-up truck. Dr. Cohen asked one of the men in the pick-up to form a makeshift tourniquet for Joseph’s nearly severed arm.

I noticed that Joseph had a laminated portrait of the President Obama affixed to his belt. It vibrated as we moved along.

I gave Joseph some water, risking the airway complications it could cause because we had no IV or trauma supplies.

Joseph kept passing in and out of consciousness, and we yelled over and over at him in French to stay awake and resist his desire to curl over the exposed wound on his arm and put it on the dirty metal floor of the truck. He was at risk of severing his brachial artery, though we didn’t realize it at the time, because his upper bicep was nearly completely severed from his shoulder.

Joseph had no c-collar, no backboard, nothing that would restrain his movements and prevent further injury or buffer the pain.

Finally, I heard the sound of steel sliding on steel. We had arrived at the safe haven of the air-conditioned emergency room of head nurse and ER supervisor Ruben Gelfond at the IDF field hospital. Just days before, the tough-as-nails Gelfond had made solitary, clandestine trips to an abandoned Port-au-Prince industrial factory, looking for sterile, surgical grade pins. The stock was running low. Gelfond wasn’t the type to let Joseph die without at least trying to hold the gates of heaven shut himself if need be.

Quickly, the professional team went into action. Intubated and finally sedated, Joseph was no longer conscious of his pain. But with his loss of blood, his blood pressure was dangerously low. He was given two liters of blood.

The medical team got to work. Surgery began. The medical team was concerned that there was no exit wound for the bullets and had to open Joseph’s abdomen to ensure there were no further internal injuries. Then Dr. Avi Yitzhak, general surgeon at Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva, had to make the agonizing decision. Could Joseph’s arm be saved? The choice boiled down to Joseph’s arm or his life. The doctor chose Joseph’s life.

Finally, the surgery was over. Joseph was transferred from the OR to the post-op intensive care observation unit. It remained to be seen if Joseph could survive the night.

Joseph survived. A few days later, I met Joseph, and he told me what had happened.

He was 20 years old. He and his good friend had just bought some Maggi, a beloved spice used in traditional Haitian cooking, and were walking home. Suddenly, two Port-au-Prince police officers stopped them and accused them of stealing the Maggi. They were put in hand restraints, forced into a police car and driven to a clandestine location, where they were told to lie face down, and they were and shot. His friend immediately died from a gunshot wound to the neck. The police left Joseph for dead, too. But he wasn’t.  He slowly crept to the location near the highway where we found later him. A crowd, horrified by his wounds, quickly gathered around, and they were the people who stopped us, begging for help.

We learned the name of Joseph’s girlfriend, whom I will call Asnet, and where she lived. We located her, and brought her to Joseph.

Then another surprise – nurse Justine Ndjoli Loyanga brought shoes her husband donated for Joseph.  Joseph also shook hands with American actor Sean Penn who was touring the IDF field hospital as part of his humanitarian relief efforts here in Haiti.

Joseph was finally discharged, with instructions to have follow-up care at the University of Miami Children’s Hospital Port-au-Prince Airport installation.

I lost touch with Joseph.

Things in Haiti seem to happen in a vivid reality. Then you blink, turn around, and that fleeting reality suddenly vanishes. But I feel a spiritual ease. Joseph and many other Haitian victims of the earthquake and urban violence are there, alive, because so many caring people and relief organizations wanted to be in the right place at the right time to save lives and ease the suffering.

During his whole ordeal, Joseph never cried or demanding anything. He only expressed gratitude, only smiled whenever he could. He was happy to be alive and frequently gave the hand gesture indicating “all is okay” whenever he posed for a photograph.

A life was saved by the random chance that a medical team would be where Joseph lay wounded and dying and would be able to save him because of the dedication of people from thousands of miles away.  A life was saved because within a day of the tragedy, Israel had set up a Field Hospital that could provide state-of-the-art care for the victims of Haiti’s natural disaster.

I’d like to see Joseph again one day. I hope he will get his follow-up medical care and be one of those who survived and lived to help rebuild his country.