CLEARWATER — The journal with the soft brown leather cover made its way from Pinellas County to Miami before boarding a plane bound for Haiti.
It chronicled the long, hot days and sleepless, mosquito-bitten nights of a Clearwater firefighter-paramedic who used his vacation time to immerse himself in the worst modern-day disaster in the Western Hemisphere.
During the last week of January, the firefighter, Brad Keating, and several other medical professionals from Pinellas worked 18-hour days in Port-au-Prince, performing operations, cleaning infections, changing diapers and doling out medicines to a population devastated by the catastrophic earthquake that struck Jan. 12.
Keating recorded it all in his Haiti journal.
After a 90-minute flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince on Jan. 25, Keating caught his first glimpse of the rubble-strewn city from his seat on an American Airlines 737.
"As far as the eye can see, destruction. Throughout the city there are plumes of smoke from smoldering buildings left to burn."
The team was greeted by a thick, tropical heat, the U.S. military and something else.
"The second we touched down, an overwhelming stench of death comes over you. … We see thousands of starving Haitians standing in the street, a scene of untold death and destruction. … I look down at the scores of lost souls, all with blank stares in their eyes."
The group headed for the Haiti Gospel Mission on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Run by American missionaries, the mission would be home base for the team for the next week. The group found the medical clinic there in dire need of supplies.
"We have to MacGyver everything. I made a sling from a piano music stand and a bandana."
On the second day, the group returned to the airport, where a University of Miami field hospital was overwhelmed by critically injured patients.
"In bed 1, a 3-year-old with an amputated leg. … Bed 2, a woman who has gangrene and will have her leg amputated. Bed 3, a little girl with burns."
At the stroke of midnight, Keating celebrated his 26th birthday with his team and some pilfered pilsners.
"We are still sitting in a circle having cold beers. … It's an honor to be with these people on this special day."
The next day, Keating and his team were working at the field hospital when he was called to help open the airway of a critically ill girl dying from meningitis.
"No suction, I have to pull vomit from her mouth by hand. She will die soon. … We take the girl off to an isolation tent to die alone. No staff available. Only her and her father in a dark tent. We set a body bag outside of it. By the time the sun comes up, she will be in it."
Day 4 brought Keating a 6-pound miracle.
"It was a boy, a beautiful, healthy baby boy. To be part of bringing a life into this world amidst all this devastation is a feeling I'll never forget. The look on the proud parents' faces gives me hope for all the Haitian people that they can overcome this tragedy."
Two days later, the group visited an orphanage.
"The children still there have to sleep under tents made of sheets and sticks. The look on all of their faces breaks even the strongest of hearts."
Later that day, they visited a school founded by one of their team members, a St. Petersburg-based doctor, Dr. Fred Guerrier.
"… the building is broken in two, and the first floor is gone. Two hundred kids now have no school to call home. No school equals no education."
From there, they headed to the field hospital, and Keating helped care for a new mother on the verge of death.
"I don't know what her long-term prognosis will be. I will pray for her tonight. A child needs its mother."
On the sixth day, Keating wrote, the team shared a farewell feast of goat, chicken, rice and plantains with Guerrier's extended family. It hurt to leave, Keating wrote, for there was so much more work to be done.
"The local people were wonderful to us and opened up their arms to us. I couldn't have asked for a better team of misfits to have come down here with. Every member of this team taught me something about medicine and life. I won't soon be forgetting them."
Shoved into Keating's backpack, the leather journal hitched a ride home on the floor of a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane. Just 28 pages are filled with the sorrow, frustration and triumph Keating experienced during his week in Haiti.
But the blank pages beckon.
He hopes to fill them with more Haitian experiences in just a few weeks.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.