Last week, I sat under a mango tree in Gonaives, Haiti.
Last week, I sat under a mango tree in Gonaives, Haiti, listening intensely to a patient, side-by-side with a Kreyol translator. In broken Kreyol, I would say, “Hello. My name is Heather. What is the problem you are having?” The patient would go on to tell me his or her medical problems, and the translator would translate. I would listen to the problem, make a medical judgment, and write out a treatment on a card for the patient to give to our pharmacy. I am a nurse, but the great doctors that I worked with let me see patients by myself on some of the days that we held clinic. Luckily, I had lots of good guidance and mentoring from skilled doctors and nurse practitioners during the whole experience. I was in Haiti with a group of medical professionals through the Haitian Christian Development Project led by Dr. Smith from Little Rock. The group numbered about 50, and among us were dentists, nurses, optometrists, doctors, farmers, and others. Haitian Christians from the Gonaives area hosted us in their churches and on their land where we set up clinic. We held four days of clinic: two half days and two full days. On a half day, we would see 200-300 people. On a full day, we would see up to 500 people. I didn’t take pictures, but instead, I drew what I experienced and saw in my journal throughout the time that I was in Haiti. I have included some of these sketches in this blog post.
This is how we often sat, in triads in plastic chairs under a mango tree or a shelter of woven palm fronds. Sometimes we were in church buildings. Every morning we would load about two dozen plastic crates of medical supplies and medicines into a truck and drive them to the clinic site. Then we would unpack and begin to see patients. I am so grateful for the translators that worked with us. They worked alongside us for long hours, and their job must have been tiring. At least two of the translators that I knew were from Port-au-Prince and had been in the earthquakes. Lerby was a medical student, and his school collapsed. He does not know when school will resume. Some of his fellow students were killed.
This is the view of the Haitian Christian Development Project’s (HCDP) farm from inside the wall that surrounds it. When the great flood came a few years ago, the wall to the farm was pushed over by water and mud. All of the crops were completely smothered under a few feet of silt. Everything was ruined. A body had been washed onto the property and was decomposing. The wall in this picture is very significant because of the horrible history of the flood. The Haitians have rebuilt the wall and engineered it so that a wall of water will not push it over. Also, while we were there, some from our group helped pile dirt against the wall (with a tractor) in order to create a berm to prevent another flooding catastrophe.
One of the elements of this trip that I didn’t expect was the character of the crowds. In the place where we went, many people make less than $2 a day, and the price of a doctor’s visit and medicine is very expensive. Many people don’t see a doctor, even when they are sick. So, when a doctor comes to town, many people want to be seen. In fact, many people, especially the elderly or mothers with babies, are desperate to see a doctor. We had to pass out cards which people would bring with them to the doctor in order to be seen. We could only see people who had these cards. Unfortunately, there were many people without cards who wanted to be seen, and the people with cards had to wait for hours. Often, hundreds of people would push in to be seen. From now on, when I read about Jesus and crowds, I will have a deeper appreciation for the reality that Jesus lived. Throughout the days in Haiti, I thought about Jesus having compassion on the crowds because they “were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Many of the Haitian children were a blessing to be around. They were very happy and wanted to interact. The picture above is of a boy who watched me as I drew the scenes around me.
Soccer is the world’s favorite sport. The sketch above is of a few boys playing soccer. Some of our group tried to play with them, but they really couldn’t keep up, and the boys got bored of passing them the ball.
One of the doctors I worked with was Dr. Lawrence from Alaska. He taught me some handy tips for assessment in rural situations. For example, he recommended that I check my hemoglobin a few times before I leave for Africa so that when I compare my nail beds to the nail beds of patients, I can estimate a hemoglobin value. In Haiti, I estimated that mine was 13, and I estimated all of my patient’s hemoglobin values based on that. You can also look inside the eyelids (conjunctiva), in the mouth, or on the palms to see if someone has low hemoglobin (or anemic). Anemia is a problem in many rural population in the global south for many reasons. Some reasons are because of malaria (destroys red blood cells), low iron intake (green veggies and red meats), etc. Dr. Lawrence suggested that I tell people to eat from iron pots because small quantities of iron leech into the food that is cooked in an iron pot. I wrote information like this in my journal so that I wouldn’t forget.
The picture above is of a group of Haitian women washing from a bucket of water after they made dinner for the whole group one night. I learned so much from the Haitians during my trip. At church we talked about the horrible devastation and suffering that they had endured during the flood and the recent earthquake, but many of the women were still praising God. They told us that they say this psalm when they are discouraged:
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way,
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
Gaston Pacius is hosting 60 refugees from the earthquake in his home. When we were visiting with one of these refugees, we told that we were so sorry for what he had gone through. He said, “Thank you, I am sad that it happened too, but I am so thankful to be alive.” There is a deep energy that I get from being with someone who has suffered but still has faith. By that person’s presence, I am freed from fear of death and the fear of unknown future suffering. I think, if they suffered and endured, the promises are real, and I might emerge victorious as well. The voice of the sufferers is a credible voice that I deem worthy of attention.
Although there was deep encouragement and refreshment as I mentioned above, there were heart-breaking sights and experiences too. When I encounter poverty, especially in the third world, I often am left wondering what to do. There are a few courses of action that one can take after experiencing injustice and suffering. One option is anger, but I have found that this option is not very productive. One option is “the quick fix,” to do anything that will get the guilt off your mind as soon as possible. This “fix” often is not a permanent solution; it often is not best for the person who is given to, and it is rooted in selfishness. Another option is to forget what you’ve seen and go back to life as normal, but this choice slowly dulls the conscience and hardens the heart. The only workable solution that I have come up with to deal with the injustices that I have witnessed is to not forget what I’ve seen, and to take action against those injustices. The action that does the best good is found in John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” This is the incarnation option, what God did in response to the suffering on earth. This is a long-term solution, and it requires giving of the whole self. In this option, one enters into the suffering to experience it as the sufferer does. From this place of sacrifice and solidarity, we then begin to collaborate with the suffering community to find a solution. Often, as in the Jesus narrative, the solution requires deep sacrifice of many kinds. May God make us capable of such love.
The Arkansas Democrat Gazette published an article about our trip, click here if you would like to read those articles.