Note: This is the second entry in a series of posts about my first visit to Haiti on Dec 30-Jan 2. You can read the first post here. The events in this post took place on December 31, 2010.
The day started super early at 5:30 am. We were served a somewhat peculiar (to me) breakfast. It was some sort of porridge-looking meal. I’m not gonna lie: all the meals looked suspect at first, but when I ate them, they were always super tasty and filling. I’m pretty sure I went back for seconds on every meal. Big, sloppy seconds.
While eating breakfast, I noticed a small group of my teammates were making sandwiches: peanut butter & jelly, and peanut butter & nutella. These sandwiches would be our lunch later on in the day. The lunch team prepped them the morning of every clinic day, and packed them back into bread bags for transport to our clinic site.
We gathered our team supplies for the day (a dozen or so suitcases filled with medical supplies) and lugged them down the road where our bus was waiting. Our bus was a big white bus with huge windows. I was told our bus wasn’t like the city buses in Port Au Prince, but more like the buses that travel longer distances in Haiti. Kind of like our Greyhound buses. Or driver, Maxy, worked for one of the churches we partnered with. I soon learned Maxy loved to honk his horn. Whatever it took to get us from point A to point B, Maxy had it covered.
We picked up our team of interpreters along the way, and drove about 20 minutes or so to a community called Darboune (Darbonne?). Darboune is very close to Léogâne, which was the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake. We had a hard time getting our very big bus into the driveway of our site. Maxy basically stopped all traffic for a while. People were mad, horns were beeping, people were yelling, but we finally got in there.
Our site for the day was at an Episcopal School campus. Once the gate was pulled back for us, I noticed it was a fairly well-organized campus. We set up shop in what I believe was their sanctuary and classrooms. The structure wasn’t a building in the American sense. I like to think of the structure as a highly sophisticated hut with a dozen rooms, organized on three aisles. There were walls, but the tops of the walls didn’t go all the way to the ceiling, nor did the bottom of the walls go to the floor. The sanctuary had concrete flooring, but the classrooms had dirt floors.
I was assigned to work in the triage station with two American physical therapist med students. At this point, I still wasn’t familiar with our system, so I was a bit shy about doing more than what was asked of me. Everyone seemed to be in a groove already, so I played it safe. Patients were funneled to us after they had seen our Haitian-American med students at registration. We would take their blood pressure, heart rate, and weight; if the patient was a child, I took his or her temperature. We wrote patient vitals down on their charts, and then a runner took them to the appropriate clinic: OB/GYN, Medical, Dental, Optometry or Pediatrics. I think it’s awesome we had so many different options available for our patients!
Working triage was interesting. I greeted everyone with Bonjou Madame or Bonjou Mesye, but I didn’t say much else. I so wished I’d spent more time learning Haitian Creole. Eventually I learned how to tell patients to step on the scale, and that it was okay if they left their shoes on. Later on in the day one of my teammates taught me how to take blood pressure, which was good to know.
I liked that I got to meet every patient that came in the clinic that day. We saw people of all ages. The children always stuck out to me the most, especially the girls. I noticed many of the girls tended to wear nice dresses made of velvet, ruffles and lace, some of them all white. They were dresses that one might wear on Easter Sunday…but here they were wearing them on some random Friday in December.
People tried to speak to me in Creole, and it was heartbreaking that I couldn’t speak back to them. We had an interpreter in our station, but he was often with the physical therapists, giving consults to those patients who had mobility issues. One of our patients was so immobile she could barely walk, requiring two people to hold her on both sides of her body while still moving at an extremely slow pace. One of our PTs made a makeshift cane for her by placing a tennis ball on a random table leg he found. She was so thankful for her new cane!
Lunchtime came quickly, but we didn’t have time to stop and eat in triage. We also didn’t have as many sandwiches as we thought we did, so the interpreters got two sandwiches while the American crew only got one, plus a granola bar. Someone took my bottled water (SmartWater we brought from America). I tried not to take it personal, but…I really wanted my bottled water! Luckily we brought a giant bottle of water to the site, so I refilled my Nalgene bottle and sucked it up. Hmph.
At some point I had to use the bathroom, and I was afraid it was not going to be pretty. I’d heard stories that the latrine from the previous day’s site was none too clean. It had people wanting to burn their shoes to ashes after going to the bathroom. I was instructed that the bathroom at this site was inside a big house on the property, so I walked over, praying it would be nice. Once I got inside the house, I greeted the people sitting at the kitchen table. I stood there in silence looking at them rather confused because I had no words to communicate with. Stupid language barrier. One of the ladies correctly assumed I needed to go to the bathroom and pointed me in the direction of the bathroom door.
Once inside the bathroom, I realized I’d hit the jackpot. Not only did this bathroom have toilet paper and a toilet that flushed, but there was running water with soap. By American standards, this bathroom would be rated pretty low on the scale of nice bathrooms: everything was old, and the toilet definitely needed to be replaced as it was old and stained. If I were in America, I would have held out for the next bathroom. But in Haiti, it was perfect. It was clean! And it flushed! I praised Jesus for that. I enjoyed the bathroom so much I used it twice that day, just for good measure.
Things slowed down in triage, and then we shut it down, as registration was no longer sending more patients through the system. We would spend the next few hours getting patients in various clinics finished up, and send them to the pharmacy. At the pharmacy, patient charts would be scanned into our electronic medical records system, prescriptions would be filled, and one of the Haitian medical students on our team would explain medication protocol to each patient.
With triage beginning to slow, I decided to wander the clinics to see how things were going. Pediatrics was being managed by one of our awesome attending physicians. I wanted to hang out in there but I still felt a bit out of place, like I was intruding. Dental looked like they were having fun pulling teeth. I joked that their room was the Pain Room, as I’d heard loud crying from their area, but one of our dentists said his room was in fact the Pain Relieving Room. Ha. Optometry was running like a well-oiled machine. Optometry seemed to be highly requested by our patients. I’d say of the 200 patients we saw that day, 140 of them visited optometry at some point during their time with us.
I eventually wandered over to the Medical clinic where one of our super awesome attending physicians, Dr. Daniels, took charge over what I was supposed to do next. Dr. Daniels asked me what was I doing, and I said, “um, nothing?” She’d asked me like she was my mother inquiring why I was wasting time. I didn’t know what else to say, so I decided to be honest.
“Okay, good. You are now the resident Pastor for this room.” She pointed at three patients who were ready to be shipped off to the pharmacy or their next clinic stop, but they needed prayer first. I was to pray for them and get them going to the next station.
I thought to myself, Pray for patients! What? Oh no, here we go. Confession: I’m super insecure when it comes to praying in public. I feel like my words during prayer are always…weird. Awkward. They definitely were going to be weird when translated to Haitian Creole! But, something told me I couldn’t say no to Dr. Daniels. Although I’d just met her the previous day, I knew there was no whining or back talk. I believe she works as an emergency/trauma room doctor, and she was originally from Guyana. This told me all I needed to know about her. She meant business, so there was no way I could lollygag about why I was afraid to pray. I told her I needed an interpreter and she found one standing in the hallway and made him interpret my prayers to the first patient.
So, I prayed for patients. We asked them if they wanted prayer, first (read: we aren’t going around forcing prayer on people). I asked to read their charts so I knew what they were here for, and I also wanted to make sure I read and pronounced their names correctly. I’d have the interpreter ask them if there was anything else in their life they wanted me to pray for (family, work, personal things), and then I prayed with them and had the interpreter translate me every few words.
As expected, praying felt a bit…strange. The clinic rooms had at least ten people in them, whether it be patients, attendings, Haitian or American med students, and interpreters. People were milling around trying to get their tasks done, while I’m over here trying to (insecurely!) pray for patients. It was a little distracting for me, but once I realized nobody was paying attention to my prayers besides the patient and the interpreter, I felt okay about it. I relaxed.
At some point I began shuttling patients from the waiting area outside to the medical clinic rooms. I also tried to organize them in number order, and then I went down the line of patients and prayed for them one by one. Once patients realized I was praying for them individually, they started lining up to see me for prayer. I noticed other patients would come sit on the bench nearby so they could listen to my prayers, and they’d interject an “amen” here and there. It was…awesome. I’d never seen so many people eager for prayer. I was told that Haitian Christians approached their Christianity differently than Americans; that Haitians held a very “present” hope that Jesus would be coming back tomorrow…whereas American Christians seem to struggle with their faith, assuming Jesus won’t be coming anytime soon, so life sucks until then. Or at least, that’s how I think we generally feel
Anyway. Prayer time was awesome!
I spent the rest of the afternoon getting to know some of our interpreters. The first one I spoke to was a very nice guy who had a beautiful smile and sunny disposition. He’d ask me questions about my life (do you have children, are you married?) and we’d talk (no, I’m a loser, I’m not married. I know, I know–I’m old!). We cracked a few jokes and I asked him lots of different things about his life. He was 31 years old. I asked him did he have a wife or girlfriend and he said no. He got quiet, and told me he’d had a girlfriend for two years, but she died in the earthquake. Therefore, he was taking his time getting into a new relationship. His words caught me off guard, and I could feel my heart sinking. We were silent. I didn’t know what to say. Even though we’d been joking and having a good time, the earthquake still touched peoples lives in a very real way. I told him I was sorry for his loss, and we continued to talk about other things until he was needed for some translation work.
I met another interpreter, Lionel, and we connected fairly easily. Why? Nerd Power, of course! After initial questions were asked of each other (again, I was asked, do you have children, are you married?–in that order), I discovered he was some sort of web nerd, as much as that’s possible in Haiti. Turns out he was a 20 year old university student who taught himself English. Like me, Lionel was a developer who taught himself HTML and PHP. I asked him if he was on Twitter, and he was–with over 7,000 followers. He used Twitter via text message on his mobile phone. He apologized for his mobile phone, as it had stickers on the back of it: hearts, stars and Hannah Montana. The phone was his little sister’s and he was borrowing it for the day. Hannah Montana goes hard in Haiti, I guess. His sister is 9 years old, so I asked him why she had a cell phone at such a young age; my little sisters are 12 and 13 and probably won’t get a phone until they’re 15 or 16. Lionel explained that there are various incidents of civil unrest in Haiti, and that she needs a phone in case their parents need to get in touch with her while she’s at school or something. A child’s cell phone was a safety precaution in Haiti, as they are here in the States, but their danger was a different type of danger.
As the day began to wind down, I noticed some patients hadn’t been to all of the clinics they were supposed to visit, so I escorted them to the right places. I could tell some of our teammates were exasperated by ‘new’ patients showing up just when they were ready to break down and pack up, but they had to see them
Our clinic was supposed to close at 3 pm every day so we had enough time to get home before dark (safety precaution), but I heard we hadn’t closed on time all week. We packed up, dragged our suitcases of supplies to the Maxy Mobile and a few of my teammates played a pickup game of soccer. We loaded up, Maxy took his requisite 15 minutes to get our huge bus out of the driveway and onto the street, and we were off to our headquarters for the night.
Back at the hospital, we had yet another yummy meal, did some reflection and prayer for the day, and sang Jesus songs in Haitian Creole (one of the nurses who works at the hospital taught us some worship songs in Creole). I charged up my iPhone and went off to battle taking a shower from a bucket (in the dark!). Once complete, I joined the rest of the team outside. They’d started a camp fire and were toasting slices of Spam over a fire. We sang more songs under the stars, for hours, and then it was finally midnight. Happy New Year! Bonne Annee!
What a great way to bring in 2011.