I never find myself at a loss for words…but this is exactly what has taken place since my return from Haiti. Everyone says, “How was it?” I reply, “Great” and then proceed to explain how a trip to Haiti after such seeing such devastation could be great. I will never be the same. I will never take life for granted, and I will never forget such faith a human can have with such loss. And for all of that I have Haiti to thank. Probably the best way to tell you what impact it had on me is from some of my more personal excerpts in my journal.
So I had 2.5 hours of sleep. Woke up at 0230 and prepared myself for the unknown. We arrived at the Amway hanger in awe. This shiny private jet treats us like royalty. Fattening us up for the kill??? The airplane attendant says, “Its like a war zone down there. Would you like so more coffee with cream and sugar?”What have we got ourselves into? I’m so glad to have Tiffany with me. I’m afraid my courage would have taken a leap off a cliff. We arrive into Port-au-Prince. Military presence everywhere. How intimidating yet oddly reassuring. to have something familiar. The military will protect us right? I find myself in fear of the unknown. Fear, the same thing I was told from a dear friend Battleing cancer, “fear is a gift from Satan.” The streets are filthy. Garbage everywhere. As we drive I see more and more rubble and debris. Oh by the way we are riding in the back of a truck holding on to a metal frame. Our supplies are packed around us. As we stop for gas, one man waved off people with a rifle. I saw a piece of bubble gum in the crack of the barrel????? Again, “What did I get myself into?”
We show up after winding down rubble filled streets to Pastor Ro Ro’s. Patients are everywhere. The lines seemed endless. As we unload our supplies, children surrounded me and asked for, “money, one dollar, thirsty.” The look in their eyes is not one of true sadness but of survival. Not shame. Smiling, flirting with me, in hopes that you have something on you. Something to give with all your heart. How its hurts not to just set down my bag and say help yourself. This was given to me by God and should be yours just the same. But…..How will I stay safe and If I give to one then there will be hundreds watching. We have seen such sadness so soon. Too soon.
We start seeing patients right away. “grab a table and start seeing people with an interpreter.” What!!!!! I feel like a terrible nurse at the end of this day. I surely didn’t cause harm, but was I really helping? I told people they needed to drink more water which I know is non existent for most. I struggle with thinking in the future for these beautiful people. Who will care for them when we leave?
We return back to the guest house and introduce ourselves to the rest of the team. I probably held the impression of a baby bird getting ready to take the first leap off the giant nest by itself. Skittish and wide-eyed. Dinner was quiet. I remember sitting out on the porch and smelling the death from the Caribbean market and feeling sick. The theme of the day…..”What did I get myself into?” pops into my head. Then we hear hymns of praise in the tent city behind us. We all walked into this impromptu service. People from all ages singing under their sheets or just sitting on the ground. Smiling, holding their heads and praising God. I started to cry. This is beautiful. I felt an aftershock under my feet like a train going by. I put my hand up on the brick wall for support and this little boy smiles at me from the other side of the wall and says, “money, one dollar.” I laugh and he laughs back at me and starts to sing the hymn louder and more punctuated. Like if he was the only person on the stage of American Idol. All the while smiling at me. This is why I’m here. I want that faith.
Coffee!!!! O.k. I can do this. We break up and go to different clinics. I go back to Ro Ro’s. I have no fear today. I feel blessed to have met these people. “Tell me when your ready for a patient.” And patients I saw. So many people came today. One young man had a nail bed removal from a brink falling on his finger. I cleaned and dressed this then explained to him that the nail would most likely not grow back. I said this to a 19 year old young man that where I’m from would be devastated at his finer malformation. Not in Haiti. This young mans says. “I don’t care. I’m alive.” Oh yeah. That’s right. What was I thinking? Then there was a young mom with a baby that was 16months old and looked to be 2-3months. Malnourished. Uugghhh. My stomach is ill again. Could I ever choose which baby to feed. Which one to make strong? Do I starve as well? Then who will care for my babies? This sounds like something from a best seller novel, but its not. Its every day choices people make in Haiti. I mourn for these people but they don’t wallow in self pity. Who is this mission for?
This day I worked behind the Methodist guest house. Donette is the most beautiful Haitian. She is the pastors wife. When she talks it sounds like shes talking form the bottom of her soul. When she prays it brings tears to your eyes. She says, “O God” with such strength and belief. As we set up our clinic Patrick an interpreter says “You guys are moving to slow.” Then he smiles. Laughing for Patrick is a smile that fills his face. He reserves his belly laugh for when he really trust you. It was 2 hours before he trusted me with it. It amazes me today seeing so many people. Its crazy how you diagnose problems with no x-ray, labs or CT. I love medicine.
Sunday morning. No work today. We are going “sight seeing”. We get a late start which is good because we all stayed up late in conversation. It was deep and emotional. This was really when we all connected. “How old are your children. Why are you here?” Then it turned heartbreaking and raw. Patrick our interpreter and friend to the group for years has no home. He is returning to a sheet compound every night. No tent, no pillow. How did I not know this after 3 days? Because Haitians do not complain.
We ride in a tap-tap towards Mother Theresa Orphanage. We stand outside of the gate and wait to go in while the children are all in worship. The man at the gate opens a little peep hole like in a jail cell. He lets us in and all the children are dressed to the nines and have the hardest time watching the choir group performed hymns. Then sister lets is receive communion and we receive a blessing from the Haitian priest. What a good start to the day. The nuns passed out lunch to all the children. Rice with one small piece of meat and one small potato. It was all in styrofoam containers. What a production. We helped start an IV on a women who was on an exam table after giving birth that morning. The nun is a surgeon in Washington as well. She was in an all white linen cloth. What a sight to see. After communion, we walk a trail that leads to the children who reside in the orphanage. They are all lined up in beautiful clothes and all the toddle aged girls had great big white bows in their hair. What a stark contrast to the dark skin. Beautiful, beautiful, children. We grab bowls of food and each of us are directed by a nun which child to feed. I am blessed with this little boy who’s name I never learned.He had a repaired cleft lip/palate. He also seemed to have hydrocephalus. After I started to feed him he smiled and held my arms. The other boys in the crib tried to come close to me. But this little guy was not having it. He would cry and box them out. He even sat on one of them. After I picked him up he was singing to me. Serenading me. He would play with my hair and and giggle. He reminded me of some of the autistic children I have worked with. Its time to leave. I though how hard it will be to set them down and just walk away. Ofer the cinematographer catches me off guard and asked me how I was feeling. Well surprisingly I start to cry. “I miss my babies like crazy but I get to go home to them.” I set him down prepared for the tears and nothing. Not one whimper. At least not from the children. Grown men did not escape the tears this one caused.
Downtown Port-au-Prince was devastating. As we pull up to the National Cathedral, a little baby sits in the water, naked. The water was dirty. Bodies lay up the hill in the cathedral where the water comes from. This baby just stares at me. No one is around. The baby is covered in dust. My heart hurts for this baby still.
The Cathedral is crumbling down but what a beauty it still is. A women running a back hoe throws debris like mad. There are 2 bodies uncovered. They are dumped into a hole. People rush to claim them and any other pricey artifacts that may become uncovered. This driver of the back hoe does not slow up for one second. I stay with our maternal Creole speaking extraordinaire Beryle. She seems to mourn this loss like no one else has. She is not an American coming to see the destruction. She is a Haitian. ” I remember when the first cathedral was here in 1962 and I remember when this one was built.” I can not imagine how hard it must be to see this knowing what it was like before. These people are poor. Most just seem lost. Waiting.
I felt like such a tourist. We all walked around with our cameras and fanny pack/back packs. Pointing and staring. I felt ashamed. Patrick walks back to the tap-tap with me and I ask, “Does it bother you that we look like tourist snapping pictures at your church and country?” He just politely responded “No.” He did not look me in the eyes but I could feel his pain. Looking around, the cross still stands strong. This seems to be a theme at every church we saw in Haiti. Its like God saying. “Haiti is not forsaken. Trust in me.” This place has such devastation and beauty. My pictures will do this place no justice.
Next we stop at the Presidential Palace. Patrick says, “stay close this place is not safe.” Here comes that feeling of fear again. People are everywhere. People taking pictures and people who are living in the tent city across the street. People doing dishes and bathing their children next to the place they cook. I fear for these people when the rainy season starts.
The seminary is the next stop. This was by far the hardest for me. When we get off the tap-tap there is a whole with a body in it. Not covered, just laying there. Why did no one cover him/her up? Then we walk to the collapsed building and see such personal items. There were passports, hymns, rosaries, a dented chalice, a priest collar and pictures of students. This was much to real. Not just a pile of rubble but real people with real hopes and dreams lay in the bottom. I cried as we pulled away. I cried and cried and cried the rest of the night. Who am I kidding. I cried the rest of the trip. I cried for the this seminary, I cried for the man in the hole, the children and for Haiti. Such destruction, loss, grief. We forget to how lucky we are with what we already have. My family is my life. What would I do if I lost one or all of them? I would think it was the end of existence for me. My heart is broken for these people. They have lost so much. Their families, husbands, wives, children, grandchildren. Their clothes, homes and food. Why would anyone want to exist after such loss? But they do. They live fully. In the moment. Everyone is quiet and mourning as we leave the seminary. As we pull away from a stop a man riding on the back of a motorcycle yells and waves, “Thank you for coming!” O.k. Lets get to work. No more fear. No more self pity. After dinner we all want to shower to wash off the death. This was a quiet evening and early to bed for everyone.
The rest of our days were filled with great experiences and great people. Too much to write down in one evening. I miss the people the most. The deep down faith they hold is amazing. I think from everything I received from this trip it was a better understanding of what true faith is. I wonder if I could be so strong? Thank you Haiti.
Forever changed, Sarah Jo Ashley