Michelle Bohreer ’89 had been on the ground only a few minutes when the earth began to move. Riding in an ambulance sent to pick them up at the airport, Bohreer and five members of a long-planned humanitarian mission became rolling witnesses to one of the epic disasters of modern times: the Jan. 12 earthquake that claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 Haitians.
Months earlier, after assuming the presidency of the Rotary Club of Houston, the largest in the Houston area, Bohreer had made Haiti the cornerstone of her group’s charitable work. This quick trip to Port-au-Prince was to check on the progress of a much-needed water well for a girl’s school and the medical needs for a small hospital in the island nation’s capital. Everything had gone flawlessly – until the world’s seismographs confirmed that a magnitude 7.0 earthquake was hitting Haiti.
As they drove toward the hospital, Bohreer said they began to feel some bumps and jolts. “We thought it was car trouble or maybe just bad roads,” she said, “but we realized it wasn’t just us. The whole world was shaking. Power lines started swaying and popping like gunfire and people were waving their arms. Then buildings started falling.” The planned 30-minute drive to Daquini Hospital in the heart of the capital wound up taking five hours, with the ambulance inching its way through frantic crowds and weaving around the rubble of collapsed buildings. “People were knocking on the ambulance looking for help,” she said. “We basically became a ‘tap-tap’ (a makeshift taxi common in the capital) with people hopping on the ambulance looking for any kind of help.” One of those drawn to the ambulance was a surgical nurse, who joined the group in their odyssey through death and destruction.
Bohreer pauses to collect her emotions as she recalls the next few days, describing them as “intense” and “nightmarish” amid a landscape of broken bodies and death. She smiles when she remembers the rare moments of relief and even joy, but her face blanches when she struggles to describe the stench of decaying flesh that soon overwhelmed the city.
She and the others helped at the hospital where they could, assisting with triage, organizing supplies and helping to erect a makeshift surgical bay outside the hospital. Tuesday night, immediately after the quake, was “total chaos,” with survivors desperate to get medical care for family members and themselves. Injuries ranged from cuts and deep gashes to limbs that were either mangled or missing. Bohreer saw one mother clutching a boy whose intestines she had literally pushed back into his blood-covered abdomen. “It was like a scene from hell,” Bohreer said in a small voice.
By Wednesday, the crowd had settled down – both emotionally and physically – thanks to blankets and makeshift coverings supplied by aid workers. “People started to accept that there were no medical supplies,” she said. “They stopped grabbing at you and pleading for help.” When members of Bohreer’s group were able to pick up a small amount of medical supplies from a Doctors Without Borders facility, she described the return to the hospital as “walking in with one drink when you have 100 thirsty people.” The crowd cheered and applauded as the supplies were unloaded.
Bohreer’s own spirits were buoyed later that day when she found a working laptop at a nearby radio station and was able to quickly type an emotion-filled email to her family. The simple message: she and the rest of her group were alive. As brief as it was, the contact with home and family was “the best thing that could have happened to me right then,” she said.
“Everybody deals with tragedy differently,” Bohreer said. “I’m a lawyer, not a doctor, so I tried to help the kids.” Bohreer, the mother of an 8-year-old boy, found ways to comfort the smallest survivors huddled at the hospital, playing games and reassuring them that the world had not come to an end. She snapped pictures with her digital camera, and the children marveled and laughed when they saw themselves on the camera’s small screen. “I was just trying to keep them from collapsing,” Bohreer said. “And just for a brief moment, they forgot.” Bohreer won’t soon forget the sight of hundreds of corpses – bodies protruding from the wreckage, bodies lying in the streets, some left as they fell and others covered with sheets and blankets. As the days progressed, survivors stacked the bodies at street corners like human cordwood to be picked up by backhoes and conveyed, anonymously, to mass graves. By Thursday, she said, people were inured to the sight, walking by and even stepping over bodies without a glance. When the Rotary group finally made its way to the airport and returned home on Saturday morning, Bohreer and the others tried to give voice to their experiences. But how does someone describe the images of thousands of arms and legs and faces? Or the pervasive, acrid odor that no handkerchief or facemask could hope to overcome?
Bohreer, a founding partner of Bohreer & Zucker LLP, a small litigation firm with offices in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, went to Haiti with four other Houston area Rotarians and a University of Texas journalism student to check on the water project and to visit two orphanages and assess their needs. The mission fulfilled an early pledge she made when she assumed leadership of the Rotary Club. “I decided I was not going to be just a check writer,” she says. “I wanted to do something as president. I had seen a clean water presentation on Haiti and decided to focus on water and kids.” Half-way through her one-year term, Bohreer can take pride in her accomplishments: raising, along with others, $20,000 for the water well project, and shipping a mobile clinic that arrived just after the quake. As this story goes to press, the Rotary Club of Houston has an ambulance ready to go. But with each passing day, the needs of Haiti seem to escalate exponentially, just like the Richter scale.
“There are thousands and thousands of sweet people who are just trying to survive,” Bohreer says. “We’ve got to help rebuild Haiti, but we’ve got to get past the disaster and help the country form a government and create a sustainable culture. We need to teach the Haitians how to take care of themselves. We need to teach them the difference between a hand out and a hand up.”
Bohreer plans to be a part of that process. “I don’t know that I’m going back,” she says in a quiet voice. “When you go through something like this, it makes you re-evaluate your life, your family. I’m not a person that Haiti needs right now. They don’t need a lawyer. They need doctors. I can do more here telling congressmen that they need to help Haiti. If I can use my skills to convince and advocate here, then that’s the gift God gave me.”