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U.S. Navy Brings Comfort to Haiti

Staff Sergeant Loobens Alphonse Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Loobens Alphonse is serving as a translator in support of Operation Unified Response aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20). Alphonse speaks and understands both French and Creole, language skills that make him a valuable member of the Comfort team. By translating between doctors and the Haitian earthquake victims they are treating, Alphonse helps to identify medical conditions more quickly and provide ease to patients. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew Jackson/Released)

I understand that you were born in Port-au-Prince. Could you give us a little glimpse of what it was like growing up in Haiti?

I came to the states 28 years ago, when I was 8. My father sheltered us from street life, so really, I didn’t experience a lot of things that went on outside of the confines of our home and school. I only remember going to school, going to the movies, reciting the pledge of allegiance every morning, going to church, eating and playing in our front yard. Why did you choose to join the Marines rather than another branch of the military?

Upon graduating high school, I got a scholarship to go to the Community College, and I always wanted to further my education. However, because I was not an American resident, not to mention a citizen, I couldn’t. To continue with school, I would have to pay international fees, which at that time were three times that of regular tuition. So the next step for me was to join the military. I joined the United States Marines because I’ve always been a very disciplined person and I thought that the Marine Corps would be a very good thing for me. We all heard of the devastation, the loss of life from the earthquake. What were your thoughts on the way down there?

I’ve been deployed to Iraq before, but when I boarded the aircraft at Norfolk to leave for Haiti, I experienced some anxiety, and I think everyone else did too. Going to Iraq, I knew I would be in imminent danger, but in Haiti, I knew that I would see someone hurt, and that could have very well been me. My mother put us on a plane to the U.S. in 1982, and now I was going to see people in Haiti who could have been me, had she not done that. Can you take us through a typical day for you?

We muster at 0700 and then report to our respective posts, which can either be the

recovery ward, the operation room, or the intensive care unit. After muster you’re looking at a 14-15 hour shift. In the wards, we are there to help translate for the health care providers, doctors, nurses, corpsmen, and patients. Most of us do more than just translating. Many times we take it upon ourselves to help with the hygiene, help moving patients from bed to bed, folding sheets, making beds, helping the patients drink and eat, and often times holding their hands for comfort.

How has your degree in Social Psychology helped you in this mission?

More compassion. Not much creativity in what we do. We learn from the corpsmen and ask for instruction as it relates to what we can do to help out. If we’re not translating, we want to know if there is something that we can help with. We’ve been challenged to take it several notches beyond just translating.

My degree in Social Psych has helped me put myself in their shoes and understand that everybody is frustrated. Not just the patients, but the doctors, the nurses, the corpsmen, my fellow translators. I try to help them deal with their frustrations and regain composure. What I try to do with every patient is touch them. Whether it’s their hand, shoulder, or head, I feel that it’s important to have that physical connection to help build comfort. A simple human touch.

When sort of things are you translating?

How has the mission changed your life?

The two things that I’ve heard over and over again is, “I’m in pain,” and “When am I going home?” These patients are hurting physically and emotionally.

I don’t think it will change me much in how I interact with my unit, but it has changed forever how I interact with people in general, especially my family members. I’ve been placed in a situation where I’m giving emotional attention and consoling people that I don’t even know. If I can care for these total strangers, then I can do the same for those people close to me. I’m also interested in pursuing something in the health care or medical fields, and might be going to nursing school this fall. This perspective has given me a better understanding of human suffering in general. I will be a better, more compassionate person having had this experience. PDJ

Have you found yourself doing things differently in Haiti than you would stateside?

What’s the most unique translation that you’ve had to do while there in Haiti?

When I first got here, there was a young lady who was an amputee and surgery candidate. The reason for needing amputation was that her leg was rotting away. They had been trying to get her to agree to have her leg amputated but she refused. And they were telling her that she was going to die if she didn’t have the surgery. I asked if I could talk to her; I told her the situation and about 15 minutes later, she agreed to the surgery and was discharged about a week or so afterwards. That was the most unique situation that I’ve had since I’ve been here.

P ro f i l e s i n D i v e r s i t y J o u r n a l

March/April 2010

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Diversity Journal - Mar/Apr 2010  

U.S. Navy Brings Comfort to Haiti