Amputees were everywhere. Blood seemed to coat every surface, and people were pulling IVs out to quench their thirst. Worse was the stench, a nauseating mix of rotting dead bodies and iodine.
Marie O. Etienne, a professor of nursing at Miami Dade College, was in her birthplace of Port-au-Prince, helping the deluge of those wounded in the devastating 2010 earthquake. She took charge of two makeshift hospital tents with 200 beds.
A 24-year-old woman walked in, freezing and bleeding. “Please save me. I don’t want to die!” she begged Etienne.
The woman’s blood sugar was dangerously high, but there was no insulin. Her body began shutting down. Etienne and her colleagues started CPR and tried to intubate the woman, but they couldn’t save her.
This was the scene that came to Etienne’s mind when she learned this spring she would receive the Florence Nightingale Medal, the top international honor for nurses. She was one of five U.S. nurses to receive the award from the International Committee of the Red Cross in recognition of her service in Haiti and other contributions to the nursing profession.
“I was in tears. I’m getting a medal for saving lives — what about the ones who didn’t make it?” Etienne said. “We couldn’t save every single life.”
Etienne was nominated for the award by Linda MacIntyre, chairwoman of the American Red Cross National Nursing Committee.
“Etienne’s passion for nursing, volunteer service and dedication are demonstrated by her years of work both locally and internationally,” said MacIntyre. “[She] follows in Nightingale’s footsteps as a nurse leader, a teacher, a scientist, pioneer and humanitarian.”
Although she had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder when she returned from Haiti, she’s been back a handful of times — including twice in May — to evaluate needs, lead medical missions and train local nursing students.
“You have to start all over again. You have to do what you have to do to take care of the next person,” she said.
Etienne has known she wanted to be a nurse since she was a child growing up with her grandmother and older sister in Arcahaie, a small city on Haiti’s western coast. Her mother, who worked as a maid in the Bahamas, sent money to put Etienne through Catholic school. Her father was out of the picture. Most of her relatives were illiterate.
“Growing up I didn’t see any role models, except what my grandmother taught me about honesty, compassion, integrity. She said, ‘If a homeless person walks in here and asks for a glass of water, get the best glass from my china and give it to him,’” Etienne said.
When Etienne was 8 years old, her grandmother took her and her sister to the capital to get their photos taken. But when Etienne stuck her shoes in the mud, her grandmother scolded her, and Etienne started crying. Suddenly, a nun knelt in front of her and wiped away her tears. She could never forget the way the nun looked at her, eyes brimming with compassion.
When she found out the nun was also a nurse, Etienne decided that was her calling. “I said I always want whoever I take care of to feel this way,” Etienne recalled.
When she was 14, Etienne and her sister joined their mother, who had remarried, moved to Miami and had four other children. Etienne spoke no English and had to enroll in seventh grade.