Friday, January 13, 2012

Haiti #7 - Au Revoir

Dear Friends,

Happy New Year!

I returned to Phoenix 2 weeks ago and am still startled by how quiet life is here; how clean and organized the streets are and how civilized we are to each other.

A few loose ends from my last blog: our Thanksgiving dinner was wonderful! The two women who daily prepare our two meals, had purchased a turkey from the States, not a cheap or easy transaction, and prepared it as tenderly as my mother would have. The women brought mashed potatoes and gravy, ham, green salad, cranberry sauce, black olives, sweet potatoes and cookies. And the turkey was on a special platter with red ribbons on its legs. They brought a Christmas tablecloth and red plastic plates, napkins and plastic ware and were dressed in their Sunday best.

We were speechless and teary. These women prepared a feast for a holiday that they know very little about and do not celebrate, for a group of people that they barely know but smile at twice a day. All we could say was, "Oh my God, Thank You!" There were no leftovers!

A month later, Project Medishare was awarded a grant through the American Red Cross that will enable the hospital to remain open and functioning for another year. A collective 'Thanks God' could be heard throughout the hospital.

I have struggled to know how to articulate the end of this chapter of my Haiti life to you. And today, January 12th, is the second anniversary of the earthquake, a day that is now a 'holiday' of sorts, a day of reflection and prayer in Haiti.

In his book 'The Rum Diary' by Hunter S. Thompson, there is a quote about his time in Puerto Rico which struck me as describing present day Haiti and some of my conflicted feelings:
"But I knew that I was coming to a point where I would have to make up my mind
about Puerto Rico. I had been there three months and it had seemed like three weeks.
So far, there was nothing to get hold of, none of the real pros and cons I had found
in other places. All the while I had been in San Juan I'd condemned it without really disliking
it. I felt that sooner or later I would see that third dimension, that depth that makes a
city real and that you never see until you have been there a while. But the longer I stayed,
the more I came to suspect that for the first time in my life I had come to a
place where this vital dimension didn't exist, or was too nebulous to make any difference.
Maybe, God forbid, the place was what it appeared to be-a melange of Okies and
thieves and bewildered jibaros."

Haiti is a hard place. People who have spent time in Haiti, the Middle East and India say that Haiti is the worst. Life is cheap. People are loud and course, frequently dishonest, unwilling to be accountable and responsible for their actions. Critical thinking is not a cultural value; nothing works or is easy.

I know that I became loud and rude because that was the easiest way to communicate to accomplish anything. I frequently thought that the Haitian people were their own worst enemies and that I was working harder on their country then they were. I kiddingly said that my 'edit button' was disconnected because words came out of my mouth that appalled me!

I had to consciously work on NOT accepting complacency as the norm because it became very easy to think, "TIH-This Is Haiti: people suffer. They are hungry and thirsty and they live in a hellhole but until their government takes charge and causes a systemic change in the culture, nothing can be done." I did not like feeling this way.

Sometime in December, I walked into the ER and saw a sheet covering a dead body on one of the two gurneys. I casually asked, "Who's this? How long have they been here and when is the body being moved?" As I recall, I said all of this as I walked thru the ER out the back door.
Covered bodies on gurneys were the norm. Mothers brought babies to our gate that were already dead or were dying, asking us to help and there was nothing to be done. Children died all of the time from totally preventable infections that were not treated due to lack of access to medical care and came to us too late to save them.

A friend asked if I was depressed while I was there? No, not really. I was just resigned to it all, frequently throwing my hands up in despair My heart is not in Haiti like it is in Hawaii or Viet Nam or Nigeria or even Japan a place that I have yet to visit, but I seem to be called to be there, for whatever reason.

But just when I was convinced there was no hope for this place or these people, I would be touched by a patient or family that would simply say 'Merci.' I saw heart-warming strength and courage from people just to maintain their dignity.

Cator is a man in his 30's who has been a paraplegic in a wheelchair since 2004 due to gun shot wounds. When the earthquake occurred, he and his family escaped their home as it crumbled around them. He and his wife and their two school aged children moved into a tent but there was only one mattress so Cator slept on the concrete, giving the mattress to his wife and children. Unable to easily turn on the concrete, Cator developed 7 deep to the bone, pressure sores. Essentially at death's doorstep from malnutrition and infection, his wife somehow managed to get him to our hospital where he has lived and thrived for 16 months while his wounds have been surgically repaired and he has strengthened his body.
His wife visits every day and his children come after school. It was his children that Jo and I played Santa for on Christmas Day, surprising them with large red stockings packed with wrapped gifts. I gave his daughter a small pillow that someone had left me, thinking that it was a 'girlie' type of gift, something special. But she gave it to her dad so he would be more comfortable laying on his stomach after surgery. And we gave his son a harmonica which he promptly played, sitting next to a 20 yr old patient who is paralyzed from the neck down.
That was Christmas.
Was there any laughter or 'fun' times? Absolutely!
I worked as a staff nurse in the ICU Dec. 24-26 due to lack of staffing. When I agreed to work for 5 months at the hospital, it was assumed that I would return home before Christmas but I chose not to. It didn't feel right to go there to assist but leave when the staffing need would be the greatest. Besides, I wanted to see what Christmas was like in Haiti.
Christmas, specifically Christmas Eve, is the biggest holiday in Haiti. People go to church, visit each other or just walk the streets. We were told, "Be prepared, everybody is out all night, walking around, drinking and getting crazy." They were not wrong.
Christmas Eve, I sat in our Logistics Office with Toni and Jo, two of our physicians, Howard, one of our long term Paramedics, and Scott, a volunteer physical therapist, drinking coke and Barbancort Rum, which is 1st class Haitian hooch. We laughed and told stories as I watched Santa on NORAD, and we collectively laughed at the stone-cold sober ER doc who kept coming in, asking advice on how to handle all of the people who were at the hospital gate requesting to be seen in the ER.
I am told that the more I drank, the louder were my announcements about Santa's journey:
SANTA'S IN MOZAMBIQUE! SANTA'S IN SCOTLAND! Jo, who is from Oxford, England kept telling me that she did not believe in Santa Claus but she did change her tune once Santa landed in Oxford, which I loudly proclaimed to her!
Somewhere around 11pm, Howard the Paramedic asked if I wanted to take a walk outside the gate. Due to safety, none of us were ever allowed outside of the hospital gate unless we were in an authorized vehicle. BUT it was Christmas Eve, the streets were alive and I was with Howard.
Howard appeared at the hospital about a year ago, requesting to volunteer as a Paramedic. We don't pay Howard but he always has cash and I suspect that he has an outside job. I used to think that he was a mercenary but now I think that he is security for the mercenaries. He is vague about his life, refuses to have his picture taken but works hard and then disappears for a few days. So I felt very secure walking out with Howard. Besides, I didn't have to ask anyone's permission because I am the one who usually gives the permission!
We walked down all of the dirt 'streets' outside the hospital, wishing folks Joyeux Noel as they looked startled to see two blancs walking by their doors. People smiled and sang and danced up and down their streets. We followed some singing up some concrete stairs and found a group of people singing in Creole and swaying to the hymn “Crown Him with Many Thorns.” I know this more as an Easter song but it was pure and heartfelt.
What a wonderful experience!
We returned to the hospital laughing as the guards questioned how we managed to 'escape' out the gate. I went to bed in the call room on the roof as Santa was arriving in Argentina. The ER staff continued to see a steady stream of people with gun shot wounds, stabbings, asthma attacks and women delivering babies throughout the night.
And Santa must have come to Haiti because I woke up with new Christmas socks!
Another gift from my time there was to live in community with other longterm Medishare employees. Six of us shared four apartments about 15 minutes from the hospital. We shared food and drink and clean laundry, supporting and looking after each other. From our roof we could see the Caribbean in the distance and if we didn't look down onto the pancaked homes below us, the area looked like a tropical paradise island.
During my 5 months, I became the Godmother to Daniella and Gabriella, newborn twin daughters of Saentil, one of the ICU nurse's. And honorary Godmother to Christian, newborn son of Katia, another ICU nurse. I attended the wedding of Marie Sonia FanFan, another nurse at the hospital who assisted me in teaching and coordinating the 30-40 nursing students who rotated thru the hospital on a monthly basis. Another nurse, Medalie, and I share the same birthday of January 17th and we frequently laughed about sharing our day with Betty White and Michelle Obama. It pleased Medalie to know that she bore a passing resemblance to Mrs. Obama.
I was given a surprise going away party by the hospital staff a week before I left. I truly had no idea that anything was being planned much to the delight of the planners which gave credence to the fact that I frequently had no idea what was occurring, period.
The staff sang and danced and prayed and showered me with gifts. I was stunned and humbled. Pasteur, one of the Housekeeping men, showered and changed into dress clothes, prominently wearing a tie depicting a Twin Towers pre-Sept. 11th New York skyline as a way to say Thank You to me and America. The party ended with everyone singing 'How Great Thou Art" in French-Breathtaking!
I was honored to be invited into the lives of all of these people.
Do I think that my time was in vain? No, I do not but I am under no illusions that my presence and work will have a long lasting influence. I do know that lives were saved by our presence; and nursing care greatly improved thru the efforts of many people who patiently and consistently taught and mentored the nursing staff.
I started to use words and phrases like "dignity," "patient safety," "assessment," and was thrilled when the nurses actually gave a comprehensive shift report and signed their nursing notes! Priceless!
I do not pretend to know what will 'fix' this country so these above observations are from my little corner of hell or paradise, depending on the view. Much has been written about Haiti these past few days and I commend some of these writings to you:
1. HAITI: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois-reviewed by the NY Times January 1, 2012
2. Huff Post GLOBAL did an excellent article today, January 12th, on Haiti's history and current issues.
The author talked about the Toyota dealership in Port-au-Prince, that sells all of the white Land Cruisers to all of the NGO's. I rode in one of those vehicles twice a day.
3. The New York Times have had several recent on-line articles about Haiti which are truthful and comprehensive.
4. Project Medishare, the organization that I work with, has several YouTube videos about the hospital and earthquake relief. Last night I watched the 30 minute video which made me cry out of sadness for everything but pride of being involved in such an effort.
Lastly, I could not have done this and would not have done it, without Veronica's support and agreement for me taking of for 5 months to do whatever. 5 months is a long time.
Thank You to several people who returned to Haiti because I was there, bringing me money, protein bars and a touchstone of sanity and strength: Sharyne, Jane, Lorna, Emily, Erica, Myra, Jamie and her dad and Kirk in spirit.
And Thank You to all of you who prayed for my safety, sanity and health. You accomplished all three! Will I return to Haiti? Oh probably.

Thank you for traveling with me,


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