With simple care, a Dominican neighbor tends to hair and spirits of Haiti earthquake victims

By Istra Pacheco, AP
Friday, January 22, 2010

Hairdresser brings kindness, care to quake victims

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — With bright elastic bands and simple care, Claudia Martinez is smoothing the edges of suffering for some of Haiti’s quake victims.

The 31-year-old Dominican tends to dozens of hospital patients who have made it across the border to her country, tenderly combing and braiding their hair for free.

Carrying a basket filled with colored elastic bands, a pot of petroleum jelly and a comb, Martinez comes every day to Santo Domingo’s Dario Contreras hospital where injured Haitians with broken bones and shattered lives began arriving soon after the magnitude-7.0 earthquake devastated their homeland.

Her task may seem trivial, but she believes restoring a bit of beauty and humanity to people who have lost everything and survived deplorable conditions is important.

Martinez says she wants to make people feel “clean and a little bit better.”

More than 150 Haitians fill the hospital’s trauma unit, many of them amputees or with spinal injuries, casts or bandages. Doctors work extra hours to tend the wounded. Extra beds are in the hallways.

The moans and wails of the patients pierce the air. Many have lost their families and suffer alone.

“It’s good that they get taken care of, even if it is only like this,” said the slender hairdresser.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola, and many Haitians work in the Dominican Republic. Some Haitians crossed the border to rescue loved ones and brought them back.

“I like it when she comes,” 13-year-old Julienne Billiard said shyly, her hair woven and held together by colored elastic bands — a sure sign that Martinez had passed by recently.

The girl read a book of stories in French. She showed how a metal bar pierced her leg, put there by doctors to help the bone heal so she can walk again.

Billiard doesn’t remember arriving at the hospital but says she feels lucky because her mother is with her.

Martinez, who also works in a dental clinic, said she began combing and braiding hair in hospitals in 1992 after her cousin had an accident.

“One day I started to comb her hair and she said it made her feel so much better,” Martinez said. “After that, I kept coming.”

She doesn’t understand the Creole spoken by the injured Haitians — she speaks Spanish — but she says she communicates by smiling and gesturing.

Sometimes, she said, patients smile back through the pain.

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