Saturday, February 20, 2010

Larkspur: Two Marin County firefighters on a mission in Haiti

A pair of firefighters on Haiti front lines

Two men from the Larkspur Fire Department in California's Marin County feel drawn to go on their own to help in quake-devastated Haiti. Their acts of kindness are random and delivered first person.

Like strange pied pipers, the men often attracted a gaggle of children, intrigued by the sight of two white men hopscotching over open sewers and sidestepping the gigantic sows lying in piles of garbage along the streets. Some called out playfully after them, Blanc! Blanc!

While Cobb focused on medical attention, treating burns and cleaning wounds, Clark gave away hundreds of dollars a day. He tried to do so discreetly, giving mainly to the elderly and mothers. Though not religious men, they befriended a pastor at a church who was caring for a group of children and gave him a couple hundred dollars. They met a doctor who ran a clinic for the poor and gave him $500 -- enough, the physician told them, to let him treat 200 patients -- and, at the end of their stay, left him the unused medical supplies.

For two days they volunteered at a field hospital run by the University of Miami, where they assisted harried doctors in the pediatric ward, gently turning badly injured children to make their wounds accessible. To entertain one frightened child, Clark inflated a surgical glove and drew a smiley face on it.

"They just dove in and said, Put us to work,' " said A.J. Applewhite, a Dallas-based surgeon working at the hospital.

For all the highs, however, there were daily reminders of the serious limits to the help Cobb and Clark could offer. On their last day in Haiti, as they walked to visit a tent camp, a young man approached Cobb in the street.

"There are many people over there who need a lot of help," he said in broken English, pointing to a nearby neighborhood. "What can you do to help them?"

Cobb asked whether anyone needed medical attention. The man told him there were no injuries. "We need food. We need tents. We need a lot."

An older woman walked up to Cobb from the other side and started pleading in Creole, resting her hand on his elbow. "She's asking for a tent too," the man translated.

Clark had walked ahead. Literally surrounded by need, Cobb exhaled deeply.

"We're not the U.N. We're not anybody," he told the man, who stared at him intently. "We're just two firefighters from the United States walking around. I have no tents. I have nothing. I have a stethoscope. I can try to tell somebody about you guys, but I'm not sure anybody will listen to me."

He stopped and an awkward silence hung between the three. The man said something in Creole to the woman and they walked away.

"That has happened a hundred times a day," Cobb said. "I wish I had something to give them or knew how to get them on whatever list they need to be on for help."

Neither man denies that part of the reason they went to Haiti was for the sense of adventure that comes with being in the midst of such a historic catastrophe. They saw no contradiction, they said, between that and wanting to help, and emphasized that the survival skills and medical training they have as firefighters made them qualified to make such a trip.

"We keep our egos in check. But, sure, you want to be in the mix," Clark said. "We're firefighters. We want to be on the front lines of things." They cringed at the idea of anyone attempting a similar trip who was incapable of dealing with rough conditions or without the ability to help.

As they had promised Islande, the woman with the apparently broken ankle, Cobb and Clark returned a few hours later. They carried her down the embankment and hoisted her into the back of a pickup truck they had hired for a couple of dollars. As they were about to leave, a boy came running down a dirt path, pushing a wheelbarrow. In it was an elderly man, whose swollen knee was wrapped with green leaves and a dirty bandage.

Cobb jumped down and lifted the man into the truck. Clark banged on the roof and off they went. Another small victory.

Source: LA Times - Article link
Author: joel.rubin@latimes.com

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