PORT-AU-PRINCE — Thirty-five seconds, a pinprick of time at the end of a three-day trip, forever altered the trajectory of Harold Roy’s life.
American Airlines had just called Group 1 to board the plane to Miami, the first leg of Roy’s journey back home to Boston. This had been his first trip ever to the country of his parents’ birth. Roy sat there in the airport breathing in Haiti one last time, air conditioning blasting, arms tucked inside his shirt. His cellphone rested on one knee. His book, Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father,” balanced on the other.
“That’s when the rumble took place,” he said. “The rumble became a tremendous shake.”
People ran. Things fell. And time, he said, slowed down. For the first time in his life, Roy, a security officer at Massachusetts General Hospital, was paralyzed with fear. He had no idea what to do. “Working in my department, you’re taught as a first responder how to react. I just froze.”
Thirty-five seconds later, the earthquake was over, and he had a decision to make. His mother and uncle were still in the Haitian capital. He had no way to reach them.
And American Airlines was proceeding with the flight.
Stay, or go?
Finding his roots
An imposing figure with a quiet disposition, Roy walks around a conference room on the sprawling campus of a medical orphanage just outside Port-au-Prince, feet from rambunctious preschoolers and special-needs children. He calls out the steps for cardiopulmonary resuscitation and waits for his pupils, 17 men responsible for protecting the orphans, to absorb the life-saving information.
It was March, three years since that day in the airport.
Every now and then, a slight breeze drifts through the open window, cooling the students and their instructor, who struggles to be heard over beeping horns, oscillating fans, and gravel crunching under fast-moving tires.
His pupils are security officers for Zanmi Lasante, the sister organization of the Boston-based charity Partners in Health. They are the first point of contact for scores of men, women, and children who arrive at 12 hospitals and clinics. Some people arrive carrying the unconscious. Many arrive distressed. Most arrive seeking healing and health.
And these men unlock the gates.
Roy, a tall, athletic 32-year-old with handcuffs clipped to his belt buckle, hopes to transform them from security guards into first responders, capable of ensuring safety and providing basic first aid, skills so many lacked that day three years ago.
It was Jan. 12, 2010 — the day the country was forever changed by a catastrophic earthquake.
“I remember it,” Roy says, “like it was yesterday.”
He had come to the country for his grandfather’s funeral. For years, he had stayed away, scared off by tales of peril and poverty from friends, family, and headlines. But when his 87-year-old grandfather died, Roy had to come. He had to pay respect to the man who helped raise him. He had to fulfill a promise that one day he would set foot on the soil from which his roots grew.
Roy was born in the United States to a young mother who worked as a live-in nanny, so his grandparents raised him and his sister. His grandfather had trouble adjusting to American life, traveling back and forth to Haiti, and leaving his grandmother to do the child-rearing. And with a grandmother who spoke only Haitian Creole, Roy often served as translator.
At 11, his family moved from Brooklyn to Boston, and New England has been home ever since. But when he walked the gravel and dirt roads of his family’s property in Marlique, a town high in the hills south of Port-au-Prince, Roy said that, too, felt like home.
“You could feel the history,” he said.
He walked the halls of his grandfather’s home, standing in the room where his mother slept as a child. He stood on a concrete patio, drinking in the postcard view of the city, the coastline, the mountains.
In these hills, you leave behind the capital city’s streets congested with vendors selling tires and chickens and brightly colored paintings. There are no honking tap-tap trucks picking up passengers, no buzzing motorcycles, no boys hawking water, yelling: “Dlo!” Gone are the exhaust fumes and oppressive heat.
This, he thought, was the image he would take back with him to Boston. He would carry this heritage from the Caribbean, sharing it with his two young daughters.
Instead, after making the hard choice to leave Haiti and his mother behind, he took with him an overwhelming sense of remorse.
He arrived a few hours later in Miami. News crews waited. Television screens broadcast scenes of destruction. That was when he realized what he had just missed: Buildings crumpled like pieces of paper. Tens of thousands dead.
It would be four days before he spoke to his mother. “Four of the longest days of my life,” he said. She survived, but so many others did not. He lost at least 10 members of his extended family.
“I had a lot of guilt for getting on the plane,” he said. But he also had a new resolve: Help Haiti rebuild.
Roy was completing his master’s degree in health care administration at Cambridge College, and upon returning from Haiti had just two weeks to finish his 50-page thesis. He rewrote the whole thing, changing the subject to disaster preparedness, writing about the need for Haiti to develop the infrastructure to save lives and limit property damage during disasters and public health emergencies.
Months later, he attended a lecture at work by Dr. Larry Ronan on the cholera outbreak in Haiti and a trip several doctors had made to help. At the end, Ronan jokingly asked: “Who wants to go to Haiti?”
Roy raised his hand.
Ronan told Roy, who has worked at Mass. General for six years, about the Thomas S. Durant Fellowship for Refugee Medicine. Named after the hospital’s former associate director who traveled the world providing care to people whose countries were in crisis, it allows employees to travel for up to a year, working with refugee populations and disaster victims. Usually, Ronan said, the first people to jump at the chance are nurses and doctors.
“When Harold raised his hand, it raised all kinds of issues,” he said. “We’ve always hoped for a non-nurse or non-doctor, but the opportunity and person never came forward.”
Never did the selection committee think someone from security would apply. Ronan admits: “It did challenge us.” But they also understood the vital role security plays, dealing with everything from combative patients and irate relatives to securing the nursery and transporting patients.
“The people who get all the credit and all the glamour tend to be the health care professionals,” Ronan said, “when, in fact, security is just as important. He’s not putting a stethoscope on someone or sitting next to a bedside. But there’s a whole community of people who make the building work.”
Over the past year, Roy has spent a total of six months in Haiti. First, he was a security adviser for the American Refugee Committee, a nonprofit working with those displaced by war and disaster. He returned in January, working with Zanmi Lasante’s security chief to outline rules and regulations, create job descriptions, and select uniforms.
But he quickly realized what was really needed: training.
So during the break between his second and final visit, Roy became certified to teach CPR and courses in managing aggressive behavior.
And during this third and final visit, he trained ambulance drivers to load and unload patients, taught security guards the Heimlich maneuver, showed nurses how to deal with aggressive patients and their relatives.
Roy has trained about 75 of Zanmi Lasante’s 120 security officers, making lessons culturally specific. For example, a lot of training manuals call for dialing 911 in an emergency — a service that does not exist in Haiti.
In one session, in the sterile conference room in the organization’s administrative offices, Roy finished the morning’s CPR lessons and began showing how to manage aggressive behavior.
“When you’re talking to someone, you don’t want to be on the phone,” he told them in Haitian Creole, as they pushed chairs out of the way to prepare for the hands-on demonstrations. “You need to maintain eye contact. Eye contact can tell you if the person is looking for trouble.”
There is no need, added Ernst Montoban, the organization’s security chief, to come on to the aggressor in a menacing way.
“The people you’re interacting with at the hospital are the people in your community, your family, your friends,” Montoban said.
It might seem more like customer service than security, but Roy and Montoban say it is essential to their other goal in training the staff — changing the culture of what it means to be a security guard in Haiti.
Security jobs often come with a weapon but little else. It is not uncommon to see a security officer in Haiti holding a shotgun in front of a grocery store or an assault rifle at a bank. It is almost expected.
Not at Zanmi Lasante. Security officers do not even carry mace. Here, they are reminded, we protect life, not destroy it.
Still, being unarmed initially left Laneo Pasqedt, 50, who works at Zanmi Lasante’s original hospital in Haiti’s Central Plateau, uneasy. Now he is comfortable without a weapon. He has noticed a difference in how people react to him. “The person is not afraid because I don’t have a weapon.”
Use defensive tactics
In the span of four hours, Roy runs through what signs to look for when someone is agitated. He tells the guards to stand their ground using a modified boxer’s stance. He teaches them to use their knuckles to grind the backs of hands and break someone’s grip.
“God gave you forearms and knees, so that you can handle situations,” he said. “You don’t need a weapon.”
But, he insists, even these defensive tactics should be a last resort.
Jean Zico has worked with the organization since September and was one of Roy’s first trainees. And while he has not had occasion to employ his recently acquired CPR skills, he has used his method of talking, calmly but firmly, to potentially disruptive individuals. This is no small feat in a culture Roy describes as, “You talk loud; I talk louder. You flex; I flex harder.”
Zico checks identification and ensures that no one walking into the administrative building is carrying a weapon. One day, an unfamiliar employee tried to enter without showing a badge and became agitated when Zico stopped him.
“So, I started talking to him,” the 33-year-old security officer said. He explained: “It’s for your security, and our security . . . And he understood.”
This is the kind of tension-defusing wisdom Roy has been sharing.
This is why he plans to return.
Standing on his family’s hilltop compound, where they are rebuilding his grandfather’s home, destroyed in the earthquake, Roy says he too plans to build. He wants to create a center dedicated to disaster-preparedness training. He has his family’s blessing to build it on their land.
This, he says, is “my culture, my background, my home.”
Akilah Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.