One of the Peacework volunteers from Ranquitte this past summer, and I guess if you put a gun to my head, one of my good friends, has written an essay reflecting on his experiences in Haiti. He’s also in a metal band. I believe they mostly do Diana Ross cover songs. And he’s vegan and Jewish and in nursing school. Diversity abounds here at ropaderelief. In all sincerity, he was imperative to the success of the team in Haiti and his words will offer a broader perspective of the importance of the work. Hopefully he becomes a regular contributor to the site, as he has already contributed greatly to the mission.
So, what’s the point?
by Joshua Stark
It’s 5:45 AM two days after I have returned from a Peacework Medical relief trip to the town of Ranquitte in Haiti. Ranquitte is a small town of about 10,000 people, located 6 hours from Port Au Prince and 2 hours from Cap Haiten (the second largest city in Haiti). As the sun is rising, my body still wants to wake up and head to the school we used as a clinic. So, I am wide awake and feeling antsy to do something meaningful with the couple of extra hours I will now have with my day. After a 10-day trip that felt like it flew by, my mind is churning with memories that make me laugh as well as hang my head. This in an attempt to make sense of the collective experiences that made up the trip. Please pardon any grammatical insensibilities and compositional taboos.
Before I left for Haiti, I asked myself, “What’s the point?” I struggled to provide a convincing answer aside from “it sounds interesting” or “there has to be some good that comes from good intentions”. Unfortunately, both of these conclusions were just mental sidesteps to a tremendous question. After returning from the trip, I still ask myself “What’s the point?” but there is no inner dialogue, rather faces that come to mind. Some of the faces are from people who received medical care that would have otherwise gone unmanaged, resulting in severe harm or even death. I remember the face of a 7 year old girl with first and second degree burns on her feet and lower legs from a hot oil spill in the kitchen. Her mother, after initially covering the burns with Vaseline, brought the girl in seeking medication to relieve her daughter’s pain. For those who are unaware, Vaseline is a poor treatment for burns as it traps in heat and promotes bacterial growth. Thus, it was important that the burns were thoroughly cleansed before we redressed the wound. This 7 year old girl, the epitome of Haitian stoicism, did not shed a tear or even flinch during the painful process. She left after the first day with a smile on her face, a clean dressing, and with orders to return to the clinic the next few days. Over her next few visits, various people changed her dressings, and I was fortunate enough to work with her on the last day of clinic. Her burns looked tremendously better, she was reporting less pain, and was even singing and laughing to herself to pass the time. The mother communicated with us via a translator who told us that she no longer wanted the girl to wear a dressing because they were getting dirty. Although a valid concern, the silver sulfadiazine cream and dressings on the burn were doing the trick. I was able to explain the importance to the mother, and let her know that in a couple of days they could remove the dressings and the wounds would heal well as long as they stayed clean. The mother and daughter left with a genuine “Merci” and I have no doubt that the girl’s wounds will heal nicely. So, what’s the point? Is it that we were in the right place at the right time to correct a home remedy? Maybe, but that seems to give fate too much credit.
Another face comes to mind when I dwell on the reason our team was in Ranquitte. The face of Amilouise (pronounced Emmy Lou), a 15 year old girl with a swollen right knee that was 22 inches in circumference, twice the size of her left knee. The history of the knee is slightly unclear, but anywhere from a year to two years ago, Amilouise bumped her knee, causing it to swell up and never go away. Without getting into too much detail regarding the fact that a bumped knee could lead to such a dramatic outcome, it was surprising to say the least. I was taking vitals on patients at triage, when I looked up and saw a frail girl, being supported by her mother. As they made it past the gate, the girl collapsed onto a bench in front of us. My teammate and I rushed over to her, and before we could take vital signs, we knew she was in distress. Aside from her swollen knee, her breathing was extremely rapid, her teary eyes were darting wildly, and she was sweating profusely. Amilouise was telling her mother that it hurt and softly pleaded with her saying “No, no, no”, which by Haitian standards is indicative of tremendous pain and discomfort. What would be a normal response of an apprehensive child in America, was the behavior of a Haitian teenager who we would later realize was experiencing septic shock. Through a translator I told Amilouise that I was going to carry her to one of the providers, and after a brief moment of quiet reluctance, Amilouise quickly gave in. I bent my knees and took a deep breath as I prepared to bear the weight of another person. As I picked her up, I could not believe how light she was, no more than 80 pounds, and I immediately felt the warmth from her swollen knee as it rested against my arm. As we entered the room, she maintained a fixed gaze ahead, all the while refusing to relax in my arms. She stared at the bench as we approached it, and she braced herself for the shift in position as I set her down. I left the room and we soon learned that Amilouise had septic arthritis in her right knee as well as pneumonia from the systemic sepsis. She received an injection of antibiotics as well as an oral dose for double coverage, and we gave her explicit instructions to come back tomorrow. The next day she returned with similar vitals, but she appeared to be in less distress, so things were looking slightly better. Again, Amilouise was given her antibiotics and was told to return the next day. The next morning, we did not see Amilouise, and we feared that something had gone wrong. One of our translators knew where her family lived, so he, a provider, and a paramedic grabbed some supplies and walked over to her house. It turns out that Amilouise was in so much distress (nausea, vomiting, pain, etc.) that she was unable to get out of bed. She was given her dose of antibiotics and the team returned to discuss the plan of care with Pam, the leader of our team. The next morning, Amilouise, her mother, and one of our translators, were going to travel four hours to the nearest hospital with an ICU. Peacework would foot the bill, as this was a matter of life and death, and Amilouise would be sent with her drugs to reduce the likelihood she would be turned away (a very real possibility as she was from a poor family). The four-hour motorbike ride across nearly impassable roads was going to be difficult, but Amilouise’s only hope. That night, Pam explained to the entire team what the plan was and what Amilouise was dealing with. We were all hopeful though starkly aware of the difficulty and importance of this last ditch effort.
The next morning, I woke up and left the room to get ready for the day. Pam and another member of the team had already returned from Amilouise’s home and they broke the news to the group of us sitting at the breakfast table: Amilouise had passed away last night. The widespread infection had been too much for the young girl to handle, and she was no longer suffering. Pam explained that the money we were going to use to transport her to the hospital would now be put towards her funeral. Pam said that she knew we would have all done the same thing, and that is absolutely true. So, what’s the point? My first response is to say, “That’s a stupid question. A 15 year old girl is dead because of a seemingly trivial injury and the fact that she was born in a place without adequate healthcare. There is no point to be made.” However, there is a point here, and it stems from the basic sense of sadness and unfairness that we feel about Amilouise’s untimely death. Regardless of where she was from, how much money her family had, how educated she was, or even her aspirations, she was a person that lived a life full of happiness, tragedy, love, and loss like every other individual on this planet. Amilouise was not the only person in the world to die that night, but we had the chance to care for her and demonstrate that for the brief time we interacted with her, she was the only one that mattered. To us, Amilouise was not just the septic arthritis or a justified expenditure of funds. She was the center of our care, our focus, and our concern. Amilouise was a 15 year old girl whose life was cut short. So the point is, Amilouise will be deeply missed by her family, but I believe they took comfort in the fact that we did everything we could to help her.
By now it may seem that the only experiences that matter are the ones that happened at the clinic. This is hardly the case, as the majority of faces that come to mind are of the young adults, teenagers, and kids we spent our evenings with. Sitting on the porch at the home of our host, Edelin, a few of the local teenagers would give us hasty lessons in Creole. Our subsequent butchering of Haitian Creole resulted in ebullient laughter from both parties, and eventually the ability to exchange greetings in slang. As the trip progressed, the same teenagers would stop by, and despite our language barrier we would discuss their education, hobbies, and plans for the future. To say these teenagers have charisma is an understatement. They were a blast to be around and were eager to show us their town. We were invited to watch the local youth soccer tournament going on in the middle of the main paved street. We were also given a personal tour of the coffee roasting facility of our translator, Frantz. Significant time was spent with a pick-up game of Frisbee that quickly doubled in size as neighbors joined in, as well as another game at a local orphanage. These moments were filled with broad smiles, surprised looks, and bouts of uncontrollable laughter. Language, nationality, and familiarity were all irrelevant because it was simply about people finding happiness with other people.
Additionally, There was a team of 5 women that cooked for us while managing to take care of two boys. These women made our food, cleaned the home we stayed in, and did our laundry without ever seeking thanks. The many thanks we gave them could not truly communicate how important and meaningful they were to our team. One of my favorite memories of these ladies was when two of them of them were sitting with the kids on the stoop during some down time. I sat down beside them, and was playing with the younger of the two children, 3 year old Dawess. He was originally terrified of us Americans, but after a recent breakthrough he was enthusiastic about high fives and fist bumps. He was getting wound up as only a toddler can, and frantically high fiving the air. I started to laugh and noticed that several of the women had stopped cooking to come out and watch Dawess. Initially the women struggled to suppress their giggles, but after a few seconds of Dawess flailing wildly, we were all howling with laughter. During the beginning of our trip the women were embarrassed by the behavior, but when they realized that we too thought it was hilarious, they laughed alongside us. Needless to say, Dawess calmed down and I am sure he slept soundly that night.
Lastly, there is the face of a young man striving to become a doctor. His name is Chachou (pronounced shah-shoo) and he possesses a gentleness that is startling for a 20 year old. Chachou came to work with the team in order to make enough money to take exams and go to University. During a walk around town Chachou asked questions about my life, and when I asked him similar questions about himself, he would speak confidently about his plans to finish university and become a doctor. He said all of this while maintaining a sense of modesty that belied his limitless potential. His brightness and warmth towards the Peacework team as well as the patients was heartwarming, and his attitude was fortunately shared by many of the other Haitians on our team. So when I come to ask myself again about the point of this trip, I can see smiles that come easily to a people with far less than I have, and an unwillingness to surrender their happiness.
So, what’s the point? It is difficult to put into words, so I prefer to remember the experience. We gave something of ourselves, and demonstrated that we value people not because of our similarities, but because of their inherent worth. We did not go to Ranquitte to solve the community’s problems. We went to do what we could with the skills that we have, and to impart a sense of positivity and hope in a place that could use some of both. The point is, that we improved the lives of the people we met, although briefly, and that alone makes it worth doing.