I was four months pregnant, sitting at my desk in the United Nations office in Port-au-Prince, when my world changed. It was nearly 5 p.m., but I was in no rush to leave because my husband, Eduardo, was in Italy training for a U.N. security job.
I heard a thunderous noise. Then the room was vibrating, and the walls were swinging. I wondered, "Should I hide under the desk? Run outside?" Everything around me was plunging -- bookcases, computers. I tried desperately to shield my belly as I, too, fell to the floor and pieces of the ceiling crashed down around me. Then my officemate grabbed me by the only thing he could reach, my ponytail, and dragged me down the front steps of the building.
Outside, I knelt on all fours on the pavement, which was still heaving. The sun was setting and the air was thick with dust, but I could see that the six-story U.N. building had collapsed. I realized I was listening to tens of thousands of people screaming. It sounded like Armageddon.
I couldn't have imagined such a nightmarish scene when I moved from New York to Port-au-Prince in 2003 to focus on HIV prevention. When the grant money for my project dried up, I began working as a radio correspondent, and eventually, the U.N. hired me as a television producer focusing on development in the country. One year after arriving in Port-au-Prince, I met Eduardo, who worked for the Brazilian embassy there. Haiti became home. Eduardo and I had jobs we enjoyed, wonderful friends, and -- best of all -- a baby on the way.
That was life on January 12, 2010, before the earthquake hit. I now sat, miraculously unharmed, watching as anyone who could climb into the rubble tried to save those screaming from inside the debris.
The earthquake had destroyed all the phone lines and towers, but at midnight, I was able to contact my parents in New York. My mother's voice trembled when she said "Hello?" She had no idea what news was waiting for her on the other end. I told her the baby and I were okay and provided the name of Eduardo's hotel in Italy so she could get in touch with him. Then the phone went dead.
The next day, I went to check on my apartment. Amazingly, it wasn't damaged, but I had no water or electricity, and the thought of sleeping indoors terrified me because massive aftershocks continued. I grabbed my passport, some money, and my photo albums and found a ride to the U.N. base, where food and medical supplies were being dropped in. The base was near the airport, and planes were carrying out refugees. But I couldn't leave. I owed it to the people who died in the quake to stay and do my part.
I realized I could help the world understand the tragedy that had clobbered my adopted country, so I put together news footage and sent it to broadcasters around the globe. Working kept my mind off my missing friends and the shortage of food and water. In fact, it was easy for me to forget that I was pregnant. Then my back would ache, and I'd remember that I needed to drink more water and get more sleep. I also needed a checkup. I couldn't locate my obstetrician, but I found an ob at a nearby Brazilian peacekeeping camp, who gave me an ultrasound and assured me that the baby was okay.
A week after the quake, Eduardo managed to return to Haiti -- and was dismayed I hadn't left yet. "You are carrying our baby, and you need to be in a place where you can see and smell beautiful things," he said. "Here, there is only the smell of death."
The next day, I felt my baby move for the first time. That sensation of fingertips grazing the inside of my skin changed everything. Our child became truly real. I understood our lives were a gift to be treasured. We decided Eduardo should stay in Haiti at his new job, but I'd go back to New York, at least until the baby was born.
Four months later, in a birthing center in Rhinebeck, and surrounded by my mother, sister, and Eduardo, I gave birth to Luna Jaeve Braga, a beautiful baby with a full head of black hair. I employed the same techniques to endure the contractions that I used to cope with the earthquake. To dull the pain, I disassociated myself from it, as if I was observing my labor from above. It was only after I stepped off the plane in the U.S. that I allowed myself to cry, and it was only when Luna was safe in my arms that I unleashed the flood of feelings I had for her.
Now, with Luna 7 months old, I'm in awe of my love for her, and I want to keep her safe. The love I feel is changing the way I want to live. I used to find a thrill in the danger around me, but now the simple pleasure of holding Luna trumps any excitement from my old life.
I don't know where we'll be a few months from now, let alone in the more distant future. It's terrible to have my family split up, with my husband in Port-au-Prince and us here, but it's the best solution, for now. Surviving one of the worst natural disasters in modern history has given me a liberating sense of perspective. I haven't panicked over Luna's every cry. In fact, I have a strong sense of connection when I am with her. Living through the devastation is something Luna and I will always share. We're survivors.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.