Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Work

The pace of our days has been changing a lot since the last time I wrote.  Last week there was a large team staying here from Mayo, many of them Don’s friends and colleagues from the ER.  Doctors, nurses, EMTs and two Physical Therapists all working at St. Luc’s and St. Damien’s.  In the early days of Mayo’s involvement with St. Damien’s most of the teams were doing exclusively clinical work.  When Don came down as a team leader this past March he and his team did a three shift rotation in the cholera ward, which was still being constructed.  Don touched down in Haiti and was working at the hospital that night, pushing all of the patient’s beds and all of the expensive newly donated equipment to the middle of the platform under the tin roof so that everything didn’t get soaked by the rain blowing in through the still unfinished walls.

The game has changed now, in many respects.  The cholera building, St. Philomena’s, and the adult ward, St. Luc’s, are finished.  The flow of cholera patients has ebbed during this dry season, and while it is expected to peak again when the rains start, it will hopefully never again be as bad as that first huge wave.  And the Mayo teams have transitioned from exclusively clinical work to mostly teaching, moving into a new phase of their partnership with St. Damien’s. 

However, Don is down here on an elective rotation, not as part of an official Mayo team, so his responsibilities have been varied.  The first week he was doing a lot of clinical work in the Emergency room at St. Luc’s.  He has a special set of skills that makes him very valuable, since he doesn’t usually need a translator to work with patients.  While the Mayo team was down here doing their own teaching, especially with Venk, the ultrasound expert, Don has been able to cover the ER so the Haitian doctors can attend lectures. 

He was also working with the Mayo docs and the hospital staff to get their new ICU ready to open, work which continued after the Mayo team left last weekend.  I have been able to help a small part in this venture, typing up different charts and forms for patient transfers, checklists for various carts (IV carts, medicine carts, etc) and other charting forms which are then translated into French or Kreyol for use in the ICU.  They are aspiring to a new level of record keeping and accountability with this new ward, and so all of the forms for documentation must be in place!  Of course, Mayo is an excellent resource for documentation!

This week he has been working in the ER and the ICU, helping the staff transfer patients, manage patients, and doing some teaching on documentation.  His work is heartbreaking, impossible, necessary, insufficient, life saving, miraculous, and almost indescribable.  Everyday that he comes home here, I am reminded of why I married him – Don is simply the best human, man or woman, I have ever known.

There are so many opportunities for disillusionment and despair here in Haiti.  Sometimes Haiti itself seems like an opportunity for despair, like a rent I the earth venting hopelessness and pain into the world.  It is easy for people to come down here, for any length of time, and feel as if they have had the hope and light sucked out of them.  Just used up.  I feel that way here sometimes, and, to be frank, I’m not even doing anything here!  I rarely leave the house expect to go to mass in the morning or walk three blocks to the Lotzs, and sometimes what I see in those short walks or drives in enough to drive me into my own dark.  And what Don works in every day is…well, it’s this.

To help manage the ICUs resources and make sure it is sustainable, they developed several exclusion criteria, very basic and used as guidelines.  Of the first four patients admitted to the ICU in their first days open, all of them ended up either meeting exclusion criteria or not meeting inclusion criteria.  Two of the patients had active TB – the ICU isn’t ventilated appropriately to manage TB patients, but the X-Ray developer is currently down so they couldn’t get a chest X-ray to confirm TB.  One of the patients was dying, her feet eaten away by a flesh eating bacteria from unmanaged diabetes.  A dangerous misuse of ICU resources in a patient that could not be saved.  The fourth patient was panicked and having a respiratory attack because she is smoking during her pregnancy to reduce the baby’s weight, even though she has asthma.  She left AMA later that night because her breathing had returned to normal.  She’ll probably be back in a week.

He comes home and hugs our chubby, healthy, wriggling little girl thinking of the emaciated four month old baby he just saw with the arm dripping infection from an IV line.  Happy to cater to her bossy, cranky whims and she tries to order us around the house and yells at him to get off the bed where he has crashed for a few minutes of rest.

He comes home and is sad, is upset, but he does not despair.

Yesterday morning Don went with Pere Frechette, Wynn, Bryn, David, Raphael, his brother Robert and several other people to the Port-au-Prince city morgue to bury the unclaimed dead.  This is a ministry that they provide every week, taking the bodies up to Titanyen where the mass graves are and burying every person in an individual grave.  The movie Sun City Picture House, Bryn and David’s project depicts this process with a sensitivity and exactness that I won’t be able to convey.  I have wanted to go, but there is no one to leave Lucy with during the day, and there is no way to drive her safely or keep her clean in this process.

It is the procedure of the city morgue to leave bodies for three weeks before releasing them to Pere Frechette for burial, to ensure that they are indeed unclaimed.  Three weeks, lying in an unrefrigerated room in Haiti.  The bodies come from everywhere – from the streets, from the General hospital, from the slums.  They are women, men and children of all ages.  A shelf of unclaimed babies for just one week.  And they have not been embalmed or treated in any way. 

They are in their third week of rotting, their bodies in such a state of decomposition and indignity that they literally fall apart as they are finally put into body bags.  Body bags, because it takes two to contain them in this state.  I find it impossible to imagine this scene as Don has described it to me, and not picture a parent coming to identify their child in this hell.  Not be thankful once again for the blessing of being able to say goodbye to our brother, Riley, in a space of dignity and peace.

These trips to the morgue, far from being the time of despair and incredible sadness that one might believe, are turned into times of celebration by the men and women who administer this last sacrament.  Cigars and cigarettes are passed to cover the unholy stench.  Bottles of rum are passed in celebration of the lives they were not privileged to know or share.  Hymns are raised up to sing the bodies of these forgotten men, women and children back into dignity and glory.

We met Don back at Relax that afternoon, after he had spent all morning at the hospital, the morgue, and burying the dead and I had spent the morning playing, writing and playing some more at the Lotz’s.  Instead of pleading exhaustion, being overwhelmed and just shutting down, which he had every cause to do, he jumped into our current crisis which involved Lucy wanting more cookies for a snack and me refusing her, thus leading to a howling tantrum.  Don takes Lucy in his arms, hugs her tightly while she tries to kick her way to the cookie cupboard, and distracts her back into calmness by taking her outside to swing on his crossfit rings.  Later on he tells me all about his day, apologizing to me because I missed the opportunity to go and trying to help me figure out how to get out of the house more.

My husband is the reason I try harder every day to be a good mother, a good writer, a good human being.  On a dark day, he is the reason I try at all.  His work is incredibly difficult, technically and psychologically.  He comes home sad, literally covered in the feces of the dead, but he does not despair.  He jumps into whatever awaits him, with the faith that we will have what it takes to carry us through.

Children's cholera ward on the left, adults cholera ward on the right.

Emergency Room on the left, front gate in the middle, triage and waiting area on the right.

The new ICU!

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Ti Visite

Met Don for lunch today at Francisville, a block in the St. Damien complex with a beautiful little restaurant made from shipping containers, a mechanics garage, pasta factory, clothing factory and bakery.

Had a wonderful lunch!


One of the organizations I have had the opportunity to learn about while down here in Port-au-Prince is Kado, a nonprofit that provides women with a living wage making gorgeous jewelry.  Most of these women are single mothers who lost their homes and some of their family in the earthquake.  They work on one of the balconies of Relax, rolling beads cut from cardboard boxes and stringing these incredible necklaces, bracelets and ornaments.  Combined with special beads from other Operation Blessing projects, such as Jerusalem stone or Kenyan glass, these items are an amazing and creative outlet for the ladies.

Naomi Darg started this project with the ladies a little while after the earthquake, and has been growing it with new products and new markets ever since.  She is in the process of applying for nonprofit status in the US, and I’ve been thankful to help guide her through the process while down here.  It is nice to put that degree to some use every now and then!

It has been a pleasure getting to know the ladies working with Kado and having them around.  Every cardboard box is saved for them, and it is fun to think about what kind of piece will come out of the box of cereal I just poured or the granola bars I stash in my bag for Lucy.  They love seeing Lucy around, and every time we are playing in the lounge or outside, they call hello to her and wait for her little “bonjou” or “bonswa” back.  I would love to spend more time with them out on the balcony, but whenever we go out Lu makes a grab for the beads or plays in the sticky varnish drops from the drying beads, and I feel we might be hindering more than helping!

Ladies working on the balcony.
Here are some pictures of the gorgeous products they have available.  I have already facilitated a couple of orders for friends, so if you are interested in ordering some jewelry or ornaments please let me know ASAP!  You can pay and order online through their website, and I can bring your items back with me when we return on January 30th and mail them to you myself!
Necklaces in every color!

You can see the quality of the cardboard and glass beads.

Some memory wire bracelets.

Check out their website, and order now!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tout Zanmi Se Mwen Ki Beni

The death rate from car crashes inspired us to lug our car seat down here.

Sunday was a short day at the hospital for Don, so we spent the afternoon visiting Zanmi Beni, an home for children who have physical and/or developmental disabilities.  The name, Zanmi Beni, which means “blessed friends” in Kreyol, is a joint project between Operation Blessing, the “Beni,” and Partners in Health, whose Haitian organization is called Zanmi Lasante.

The kids were living in the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince in pretty dismal conditions, and when the earthquake struck their current home was damanged.  They were already either orphans or had been abandoned because of their disabilities, and so there was literally no where for them to go and no one to take care of them.  Many of the kids have pretty severe disabilities, and require around the clock care or supervision.  There is a very significant cultural stigma against persons with disabilities here, especially mental disabilities.  Children who are mentally disabled are viewed as being possessed or cursed by a local lwa, or spirit, and bring bad luck to those around them.  As such they are usually either kept closeted (sometimes literally) within a families home or abandoned.

The two organizations purchased a home outside of Port-au-Prince, only 20 minutes from Relal in Tabarre, and built on the existing site to create an incredible environment for these kids.  They have around 90 staff members to take care of the almost 40 kids living there, ranging in ages from two year olds to twenty-two year olds.  I have visited other homes for children with disabilities outside of Leogane when Don lived here several years ago, and have worked with children and adults with disabilities in the US.  I have rarely seen a more beautiful, well operated and joyful place than Zanmi Beni.

Upon entering the gates you drive up a palm lined drive toward a sprawling one story stone house, and are struck by the sense that whoever owned this property before must have been very wealthy.  We learned that the former owners were Haitians living in the US and using this home as their vacation house, and were eager to offload the property after the earthquake.  To the right of the driveway is a little fenced in play area just the size of a small soccer field.

The main house is now a library, meeting room and administrative office area.  However before the new dorm spaces opened all of the children were sleeping in this one large room together.  On the back of the main building is a large screened in porch where physical therapy takes place.  To the left of the main building there is a gorgeous white washed building that houses the art therapy space.  Inside are tons of art supplies and a movie screen and projector for watching movies.  Every building is of course accessible by wheel chair.

Outside of the art therapy building.

Art supplies.

Back through the main building is the pool where the kids can benefit from water therapy.  The main building also has a large shady veranda area on the other side where those kids who are severely disabled can enjoy the shade and the breeze in the afternoon.

The shaded veranda in the distance with the pond area in the foreground.
Right now most of the staff live on the property, either in tents on in staff living areas above the children’s dorm areas.  They hope to build more staff housing in the future, but it is a safe place for everyone to live.  If your choice is living in a tent in a camp, or a tent on Zanmi Beni land, then the clear advantage is to Zanmi Beni.  There is ready access to clean water on site, and the land is of course walled off and gated.

Just past the gate leading into the new dorm area is a small grove of banana, plantain and coconut trees.  The staff maintains chickens, turkeys and some small cages of rabbits, guinea pigs and doves here as well.  At the back of this little grove there are several rows of holding ponds laid out for a new project that Operation Blessing will be launching soon.  They are importing several species of ornamental fish to raise in the tanks to sell.  There is a market for these gorgeous fish in Port-au-Prince, and the proceeds will go back to Zanmi Beni.  They have also been building smaller tank display cases in the courtyard at Relax, and the sound of welding has often lulled Lucy down for a nap during the day.

Lu and Don taking a stroll on the ornamental fish holding ponds.
Back through the grove there is a path that leads to the new dorm buildings, which are painted a very cheery orange and blue, and covered in metal artwork and pictures of the children.  We passed through the doors and both Lucy and Don were almost instantly pounced on by children playing and resting in the shade.  The dorms are located around a central courtyard that has a little nurses station and therapy area under a pavilion in the middle.  The whole structure makes very good use of airflow, and was very cool on a hot and sunny day.

With these new dorms each room only has two or three children in it.  At each corner of the square around the courtyard there is a staff room, so the children can be taken care of overnight and there is always a staff member close by.

One little girl in particular, Eveline, held quite close to Don and Lucy, touching her hair and pulling her around the play even as some of the staff ladies called to her to play gently!  The kids would come up to us asking to be picked up and held, calling us “papa” or “maman” and making Lucy a little jealous!  And of course all of the kids were cracking up over Don’s beard, running their fingers through it and tugging on it!

The back part of the square has a second story with staff quarters and in back of the entire building is another plot of land with the holding tanks for the new tilapia project that Operation Blessing is starting.  On January 26th 25,000 fingerling Talapia will arrive from the US and will be matured and bred in these tanks.  Their goal is to use some of the fish to provide Zanmi Beni with fresh fish, to sell a portion in live fish markets for Haitians, and to reserve some for breeding so that the facility will also become a hatchery.  This is big business in Haiti, and so the land is very well secured against the possibility of fish sabotage.

The two aquacells for the Talapia.
Back through another gate is the kitchen area for Zanmi Beni, which has a very large inside and outside food prep area.  The kitchen reminded me a lot of the kitchen and pantry area of Nativity House, and I felt a familiar itching in my palms when I saw a huge 10 gallon pot simmering on the huge gas burner.  The dining room was similarly large, with tables and chairs lined up as well as rows of high chairs and lots of hand washing stations.  The dining room exited to the pool area, and we were back at the front of the house.

It was such an uplifting place, and so wildly divergent from the other facilities I have seen in Haiti.  No children lingering on dirty mattresses in a hot, dusty courtyard plagued by flies.  These kids are truly loved and taken care of here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Day To Remember

12 January 2012

Two years ago today, at 4:53pm, an earthquake struck Haiti and killed over 150,000 people in one night.  What more is there to say about that has not already been said?  Repetitions of famous phrases and statistics, but ones that deserve remembrance, especially on today of all days.  The earthquake that decimated a nation already referred to as the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.  The earthquake that killed over a quarter of a million people overall, many instantly, but many more dying after hours trapped in agony under buildings and rubble.  Dying frightened, alone, in incredible pain and in the dark.

How must it have been?  Don and I have spent time here asking people their stories – stories of incredible survival and fortitude.  They speak of the winding down of the day, people starting to get off of work and head home.  They speak of the suddenness, the absolute shock and uncertainty of that terrible night and many to follow. 

What must it have been like to see the buildings crumbling all around you, as if the very earth was trying to shake your city off?  What must it have been like to see the sun set less than an hour later, the only light given by surviving generators and structural fires?  What must it have been like to tear yourself free of a building and spend days of madness searching for your husband, your parents, your children, your friends, anyone?  What must it have been like to know that your family is dead, and not be able to mourn them because you cannot find their bodies?  Either they are still buried, or they have already been taken away and thrown like so much trash into a mass grave with no consecration and no rites of any kind.

Last night Don, Lucy and I went with the rest of the Mayo team up to Titanyen, one of the sites of the mass graves that received many of the earthquakes victims.  There we met with Pere Frechette and many others to celebrate a memorial mass for the victims of the earthquake – to remember them, mourn them, and celebrate their new lives.

Titanyen is located about an hour north-west of Tabarre.  We threw the car seat into the big passenger van, strapped Lucy in, and packed everyone in like sardines for the drive over.  After meeting up with another van of hospital workers and volunteers as well as ten children from the Fr. Wasson Angels of Light program, we started winding our way through Port-au-Prince traffic toward the Rue Nationale.  The road finally clears the city and you can see the Baie de Port-au-Prince on your left through the floodplains.  The grave is located on an unmarked road just off the Rue Nationale, winding through several passes and down into a barren valley.

The valley is laid out in a geographical testament to Haiti’s many disasters, both natural and man-made.  The mass graves from the earthquake are nearest the valley entrance, then followed by the cholera graves, and most recently the individual graves that Pere Frechette and his group use to bury the dead from St. Damien’s and the city morgue.  Pere Frechette told us that this particular site was chosen for the earthquake graves because it had been used historically for anonymous burials.  The general hospital would bury their dead there in mass graves, and even before that Papa Doc and his Tonton Macouttes used to hold their massacres on that very site.  A valley full of bodies, and only recently afforded the dignity of individual burials and rites.
Mass graves from the earthquake
Individual graves from St. Damiens

We parked at the end of the valley near the recent graves.  Some of the mass graves were easy to spot – large mounds of rock and dirt like keloid scars on the earth.  But the ground was rocky and dirty and covered in smaller mounds.  I stayed on the road, not wanting to tread on graves unmindfully.  We waited for some time, Pere Frechette having had a few errands to run on the way, but the wait was not unwelcome.  The sun started to set, the shadows of the hills surrounding us lengthening to provide us with some much welcome respite from the sun.  Lucy was soon surrounded by the Haitian children, overcoming her initial shyness and soon offering everyone the sign of peace over and over.  Three Sisters of Charity accompanied by two French men soon pulled up in their Range Rover, and started setting up an alter for the mass.  Don and I agreed that almost nothing is more bad ass than the Sisters of Charity in their full habits and Chaco’s driving a Range Rover.

Soon a brass band that was parked halfway back down the valley started playing and marching down the road, stopping near where our cars were parked.  Don, Lucy and I walked over toward them, enjoying the wind off the ocean and the cooling night air.  The band told us Pere Frechette would be another few minutes, so we took a ti flanne and enjoyed the time together, stopping to crunch through the dry grass and catch grasshoppers.
Lucy "flying" on her Papa's shoulders.

After some time several large St. Luc’s trucks arrived, people packed into the backs, and we all followed them back to the head of the valley to hold our mass in a more appropriate spot.  After reaching the head of the valley, the altar was once again set up, this time on the slight rocky rise that bespoke the grave beneath.

Gathered for mass over the graves.
What followed was possibly the most memorable mass I have ever has the privilege to celebrate.  A wrenching combination of bitter mourning and joyous celebration perhaps only possible in Haiti.  Flowers were passed out to everyone in attendance, Pere Frechette explaining that after the communion we would each go out and lay our flowers somewhere on the surrounding ground in remembrance of the people buried, literally, everywhere beneath us.  He began the mass by walking around the area where the earthquake victims were buried, blessing all of the ground with incense and holy water.  People gathered around in a loose circle, sitting or standing where comfortable, the sense of communion perceptible as the sun sank further behind the hills, leaving us in a golden, windy half-light.

Don and I wept at the first reading, talking of Samuel and his acceptance of his place as one of God’s prophets at such an early age.  We were reminded of Riley, and the openness with which he loved people, and always the suddenness with which he was called back to God.

Lucy was a blessing, as always, scattering flower petals into the wind, and playing peek-a-boo from behind our legs with the Italian aid workers from Fondazione Francesca Rava when not snuggling up with Don or me.  The sign of peace was like being in college again – there was no hurry to move on with the mass, everyone taking the time to greet everyone else.  Lucy was an especial favorite at this time, each of the other children returning for another handshake, each Italian indulging in a chubby cheek kiss as we embraced each other and wished each other peace.  The rocky ground made the footing uncertain as the sun set, and the cheekbone on my kissing side is a little soar today from stumbling into an Italian peace be with you and knocking faces.

After we shared communion, Don, Lucy and I held hands and walked out into the growing darkness to lay our flowers down over someone’s final resting place.  It was impossibly not to think of Riley, throughout the entire night really, but especially at this moment.  The incredible gift we were given, being able to hold him and see him before he was buried, to say our necessary goodbyes.  The incredible gift we are given every day just knowing where his body lies in rest, even though he has moved on into God’s house.  The incredible gift we are given in having a place to visit, to consecrate with our tears and questions and prayers and memories of our beloved brother.

We lay our flowers down on a patch of rocky ground surrounded by scrub brush, praying that the souls of those beneath us had found their rest.  Praying that their loved ones, if any, who remain alive where able to mourn them somehow.  Praying that these flowers, this act of remembrance for those who were lost, brought some solace. 

As we gathered back together from our moments of prayer, the circle seemed to draw together even closer against the dark.  The mass seemed to end quickly after that, the wind still whipping around us even after the sun had fully set.  As Pere Frechette said the closing prayer the band started up once more, but there were no plaintive strains this time.  The brass and drums beat out the joyful tune of a hymn to Lazarus, a commemoration rather than a tune of mourning.

Gathered in a dance of celebration.

The clear, tangy notes of the trumpet and saxophone seemed almost surreal floating through the night, but the note of celebration was so incredibly right and true at that moment.  People began to dance their joy in God then, dance their thankfulness for these moments of clarity and thankfulness and joy in life and rebirth.  Don and I held Lucy between us, one of her little chubby hands in each of ours, as we danced around that hill in the dark.  It was a beautiful and perhaps unexpected celebration of the hundreds of thousands of people who left us two years ago on this day.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Every Day Is A Blessing...So Help Me God.

Some days, for one reason or another, just do not seem to get off to the right start.  Someone wakes up cranky from too little or poor sleep.  Miscommunications arise.  You aren’t feeling well.  People fail to connect.  Or sometimes you are just grumpy and are being a shit. 

Regardless of the reasons, these days can be difficult when you are spending them with a toddler, especially one who is also taking the opportunity to act like a grumpy shit for whatever reason.  (Note: please notice I did not say that my daughter is a grumpy shit…just that sometimes she acts like one.  Hey, news flash, it happens to everyone.)  These days are difficult when you have all your toys to distract with, a dog to play with, a park to visit, play dates where other parents can help you manage and support you, and a myriad of other supports.  These days are very difficult when many of those things are absent, or substituted with things that your toddler reminds you are still unfamiliar.

I knew when I looked at my phone this morning and the time read 7:56am that this was one of those mornings.  Don left with the Mayo team before 7am to catch mass, and though I had wanted to go with them to receive the spiritual strength from mass that I sensed I would need today, Lucy wasn’t finished with breakfast when they had to leave.  Also, I sensed that after yesterday’s very vocal and mostly whiney attendance by Lu we weren’t 100% welcome this morning.  Not a “yeah, please don’t come vibe” just a “hey, it’s ok why don’t you guys just have a leisurely breakfast here, don’t rush to come with us” vibe.

We then had the place mostly to ourselves, as the other guys were not up yet.  However, Lucy did not appear excited about any of the suggestions for play that I made, preferring instead to dramatically stalk about the kitchen yelling for “papa” and being shocked that once again she was not allowed to play with the water cooler and that she had to put shoes on to go outside.  Which resulted in a tantrum.  Which resulted in a time out.  In the next 45 minutes we tried playing play dough and animals which was boring after about 4 minutes.  I spilled half a huge cup of coffee in the lounge, and after cleaning that up with towels and Lysol Lucy obliged me by spilling the rest of it which I had stupidly left in the room instead of taking downstairs immediately.  Amateur move.  Then two more meltdowns over cereal bars.

My attempts to distract and engage her in something else only proved to further enrage her – the child has a tenaciously focused mind at the most inconvenient times!  How ironic when she can only be bothered to play with a toy for five minutes, but will recall that she was denied a treat for far longer when in the grips of toddler hysteria.

All this, coming on the heels of a night with little sleep (my own fault for staying up late watching movies with Naomi and then waiting for Don to come home at midnight) and an evening involving more Lucy hysterical tantrums, and by the time 8am rolled around I was feeling pretty empty.  Like, considering for the briefest of seconds whether it would be criminal to Benadryl my child so she would nap early empty.  Seriously though, I would never do that.  But it crossed my mind. 

Honestly, the worst part of the morning was not the comedy of errors that seemed to ensue, but the guilt for my lack of gratitude that ensued when I looked out the window and remembered where I was.  How was it that here I was in Haiti, in a gorgeous, safe, air conditioned house, full from a delicious and nutritious breakfast, with a healthy, wonderful (albeit hysterical at the time) baby in my arms and here I was thinking “God, please help me right now because the way this day is going one of us might not make to sunset alive”? 

It is at these times, when I am overcome not only with the insignificant disasters of a privileged daily life, but with my own guilt for complaining of such third world problems in the looming shadow of true daily struggle, that I remember that everyone has these days. 


An old story about St. Theresa of Avila tells of how, while riding in a carriage one rainy day, she was thrown from the carriage into a puddle of mud when the wheel hit a pothole.  Staring up at the sky she remarked “Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”

I thought of this as I was trying to logically explain to Lucy that she could have a snack later, but that we were going to play now.  It is difficult to logically explain something to someone who is wildly struggling to escape your arms and refusing to make eye contact.  Taking Lucy into our room, I was further struck with the thought that this must be what God feels like when he is trying to communicate with us sometimes.  Like he is trying to reason with a hysterical toddler who is intent on getting a cereal bar, and to hell with everything else.

I finally calmed Lucy down enough to get her to lie down and take a very early nap, without the use of a cereal bar or any medications, and went downstairs to make another cup of coffee and think about my own resemblance to a hysterical toddler.  Focused on my own goals and schedules for the day.  Upset and emotional when they are disrupted.  Unsure and sometimes insecure in a foreign environment.  And much of the time resistant to loved ones attempts to help and guide.

Hopefully when Lucy gets up from her nap today, I can begin again in a different direction.  I can be grateful for our silly problems with toys in a country where people don’t have clean water to drink or beds to sleep in.  I can give up a snack early while giving thanks that I have a bounty of snacks to give.  And I can listen more clearly for the direction and guidance that God is trying to give, knowing that sometimes, you just have to give things up to God.

Si Dye vle.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

An Introduction

As usual I have done things backwards. I threw you into this environment with a funeral, without first shaking your hand or buying you a steak dinner.  Well, for those of you still interested in the first date after we've been to a funeral together, here is your steak dinner.

The road up to our compound.
Don and I are living in Port-au-Prince (PaP), Haiti this month at the Operation Blessing compound.  Operation Blessing is one of the largest NGO's in the world, with operations in many countries.  Haiti is one of their biggest operations with a lot of programs going, most of which we hope to see before we leave!  Their compound, Relax, is outside of the city center in an area called Tabarre.  

Lucy playing with Krista.
Don is spending his days working at St. Luc's, the adult hospital that was built next to St. Damien's in the wake of the January 2010 earthquake to deal with the incredible influx of patients.  Lucy and I are spending our days playing with play dough, chasing roosters, having boat adventures, sliding on the wooden half pipe on the roof, and making new friends.

Eric Lutz is one of the Operation Blessing employees, and he and his wife Jen live here in Haiti with their six children.  Lucy has already declared her preference for their eldest, Krista, and will completely ignore me whenever we go over there to play!  They have a wonderful house just a few blocks from where we are staying, with a dog, cats, turkey, trampoline, swing, lots of toys and lots of fun kids!

The compound is set up as a guest house as well, and there are several people living here full time that we have come to know.  David Darg is OBI's Director of International Disaster Relief and Special Projects as well as the acting director in Haiti.  He and his wife, Naomi, live here full time when not traveling responding to other disasters.  Naomi, an artists, is from Australia originally, and works with the Kado project.  A group of Haitian women come to the house every day during the week and sit on the second floor balcony turning cardboard boxes (along with Jerusalem stone and Kenyan glass from other OBI projects) into incredibly gorgeous jewelry under her direction.  If you are looking for any special gifts for the ladies in your life, I will take orders - they really are exquisite!

Don, Lu and I are living in a room on the second floor of the main house, down the hall from Naomi and David and across the hall from the lounge room.  Every room here has an air conditioner, which is amazing and completely unexpected.  The bathrooms all have big sunken bathtub showers, and we have been enjoying sometimes twice daily showers, which are necessary when you do a lot of outside playing in the dust here!
Underwear drawer has been dumped on the floor due to invasion of huge roach.
Lu likes her little nook, complete with mosquito netting.
Our little bathroom nook is one step up from the main room next to the door.

We have started to develop a loose daily routine.  We wake up between 6 and 7am, get dressed, and head downstairs for some breakfast.  There are three house maids/cooks/all around helpers that work in the compound, and they have already made breakfast and a pot of strong coffee by this time.  Usually there is good bread out for toasting, cut up mango, pineapple, papaya and watermelon and some peanut butter and spreading cheese out.  Sometimes the ladies will make scrambled eggs, which are always incredible on some toast with cheese.  After a quick breakfast Don will usually leave for the hospital at 7am to catch mass before rounding with the doctors at St. Luc's.  The hospital complex is only about 5 minutes from Relax.

After Don leaves Lucy and I have some intensive playtime for a few hours.  We play with play-dough and stamps, take her animals outside and play farm or African veldt, have adventures in the zodiac boat in the back yard, chase the Rooster around the yard, play ball with Mishka the dog, or snuggle and read books.  Or sometimes all of the above.  Around 9:30am Lucy gets snackish, and we usually throw together some yogurt and granola for a mid-morning snack.  After our snack - which usually involves me sitting at the table feeding Lucy as she runs around the room, jumping up and down the step into the kitchen, moving water bottles in and out of the supply room, and generally being super active in between taking bites.

We stay very hydrated throughout the day with bottles and cups of water filled from the Culligan jar.  The local water is used in the taps, but its undrinkable because the cholera is so endemic around here that it has entered the water table.  Each day our tap water is treated with chlorine, which makes it relatively safe, but we don't drink it and we try not to open our mouths in the shower :)  We are incredibly lucky to have such a reliable safe water source here in the Culligan bottles.  People still get cholera daily here from drinking water infected with the cholera virus.  And people die from dehydration here daily from being too scared to drink the water for fear of catching the cholera.

I put Lu down for a nap around 10am, and try to do some sort of work.  I have been helping Don work on some presentations, writing, helping some folks around the house with tasks.  After Lu wakes up around noon we match up with some of the folks downstairs and make a little lunch.  The cooks make breakfast and dinner, and we are able to make our own lunches and have some semblance of normalcy.  

Down the street from our house.
After lunch Lucy and I have a continuation of the mornings play activities, or head over to the Lutz's house to play.  Today Lucy ran laps around the trampoline for an hour with Krista, Jet and Callie and had to be pried, screaming from their gate when we left.  This past week Don has been getting home from the hospital around 3pm, and has had a great share of family play time.

In the evenings we snuggle and watch videos, sneak snacks before dinner, read, and always go for a ti flane (little stroll) before dinner.  Usually the ti flane requires that we also have a ti bain before dinner, because a stroll here, even in the cloudy evenings is usually a dusty, hot, sweaty affair after a bloc or two!  

Sometimes after the walk we stop in the lot across the street and watch the baseball game that is usually going on.  The guys at Operation Blessing have organized some of the street boys in the neighborhood into several baseball teams that play in the abandoned lot across the street.  They are still learning some of the fundamentals, but are so incredibly animated about the game.  Don absolutely lights up every time he sees them playing, or hears them through the windows!

After dinner Don and I put Lucy down to bed, and then watch a movie, do some work or read in the lounge until we can sneak back into the room to go to bed!

The routine is different this week, as a large team from Mayo arrived on Sunday to work at St. Damien's and St. Luc's.  Nurses from the ER, several Gold Cross EMT's, two Physical Therapists, and several ER doctors.  They are working very hard to help St. Luc's bring a brand new ICU unit online, the only ICU available in a public hospital in Port-au-Prince.  They are not only seeing patients, but teaching the Haitian staff as well.  They are working full days at the hospital, and then returning at 8pm to teach the night staff until midnight, and back again at 7am the next day.

So that is how are days are going so far!  We are trying to experience everything we can, be as open as possible to what this month has to offer.  To whatever God might be leading us to do.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Funeral In Haiti

Don, Lucy and I were up early this morning. Our alarm went off at 6am, and we may have ignored it for a while, except a sudden creaking and a whispered "hi" issuing from the corner of the room indicated that our parental duties had begun. A quick toilet and ti dejeuner had us at St. Damien's hospital in time for their 7am daily mass, said by Pere Rick Frechette whenever he is in country.

There is both an indoor and outdoor chapel, situated to the right of the main hospital building up on a mortared grey stone platform about five feet  off of the ground and accessible by stairs and a ramp, with potted palms and other tropical trees nicely arranged.  The outdoor pavilion is covered in a tin roof and has only two rows of pews, which were already filled with Haitians dressed in their finest, all turned around staring at us as we walked up the stairs. We were greeted by a short, older white woman holding a clipboard and a bible, which combined with her bearing told me immediately that she was a nun.  She introduced herself as Sr Judy and indicated that we could sit on the stone ledge that backed up to the ramp, as the chairs they were just putting out would soon be filled by others and we might want to be in the back in case we needed to get out of the way. It wasn't until we sat down and arranged ourselves that I noticed the three coffins and two wrapped bodies laid out in front of the altar, and many ore things began to click into place.   We were attending mass at a hospital, in fact a mass that would serve three hospitals: St. Damien's the children's hospital, St. Luke's the adult hospital, and St. Philomenas the hospital built to deal exclusively with the cholera epidemic.

 Of course, it was a funeral mass.  It would be a funeral mass almost every day it was said here in this space.

I looked around again, Lucy sitting quietly in my arms and taking in the scene as well.  I noted that while the indoor chapel was empty of pews, perhaps drug out to offer more seating in e outdoor space, there were several bodies laid out inside as well.  Were they the more recently passed? Would their service be tomorrow morning?  I thought about these bodies laid out before us and wondered if they were anyone that Don had treated the day before.  He came home having seen several very ill people...were we paying our respects to them right now?

 Sr. Judy walked by talking animatedly into a cell phone.  "I just wanted to tell you we've got about a million people here and a hundred bodies so the sooner you get here and the sooner we get this started the better!" My mind was moving in slow motion, and while I got that she was talking to Pere Frechette I couldn't understand why she was so worried.  She walked back by, glanced at us and said "I just hope they respect the mass!!" Lu moved back and forth between Don and I, and we soon saw Pere Frechette in his vestments walking with another white man up the ramp, greeting all of the people, Haitian and otherwise whose paths he crossed.  The singing began as he entered under the chapel roof, a processional about Lazarus, which was all my rusty ear could glean from the lyrical Kreyol.

 As he stepped up to the altar and began the mass proper, three latecomers walked up the ramp and passed right in front of us as they made their way to the open chairs.  Before I could understand what was happening, the younger of the trio had dropped to the ground and was convulsing a foot from my toes, her arms alternating from rigidly pressed to her chest to waving over her head, her body flopping back and forth from back to front, her eyes tightly shut as she groaned and growled.  Her black pants and white shirt, surely the nicest that she owned, were covered in the light brown dust that pervades PaP outside the rainy season. 

All this I took in in a second, more significantly noting that Don, holding Lucy at my side, made no move whatsoever to pass her to me and move to help this fallen woman.  Ergo she was not ill.  Because when it comes to helping people having a sudden stroke or seizure or fit caused by an actual physical malady, that is his milieu.  But he stood by me, appearing to be slightly upset, but trying to follow the mass.  Another 30 seconds of processing and my foggy brain finally grasped that this was Haitian mourning.  Don and I had surely talked about this before, but it hadn't occurred to me that we would encounter these very common cultural practices.

Sr. Judy and one of the hospital employees came over, along with Wyn, to move her out of harms way to the back of the platform, where they laid her down.  The Haitian administrator stood with his feet partway under her thrashing body to keep her from rolling back into the chapel.  Minutes later, my eyes, unable to keep straying back to the mourning woman, were pulled back to the cheapen pews as another women cried out and fell across the pew, thrashing over her neighbors.  Several minutes later a third woman fell.   We moved back several feet to give people a path to the back of the platform, and watched as these two women were also carried back, thrashing and struggling, one woman in particular seemed almost to leap out of the arms of her helpers at every step.  A fourth woman, sobbing silently, walked herself to the back and sat on the ledge amidst the potted palms crying as the other three women continued to scream and writhe on the ground, friends kneeling by to make sure they did not harm themselves.

 This was what Sr. Judy had been worried about, given the apparently high number of funerals that were being celebrated at this morning's mass- that the Haitian mourning tradition would overpower the decorum of the mass celebration.  Most Haitians are Catholics, but Haitians are also an emotive and effusive people.  At a shallow glance their lives bring to mind the old Thomas Hobbes quote: nasty, brutish and short.  It is difficult sometimes to see the joys and happiness of everyday life here.  The cholera epidemic piled on top of the horrific earthquake of January 2010, in turn piled on top of the normal difficulties of life for the majority of the Haitian people.  Perhaps faced with such everyday stress, such profound insecurity, the final strain of the death of a(nother) loved one produced in these women an intense emotional and physical outburst.   I don't know their situations, I don't know their stories.  I only know the grief that I saw, and I know that I didn't find it inappropriate or out of place.

I was almost envious.

 Don and I both started to choke up as the mass continued, familiar songs now strange in Kreyol coming from the front while shrieks, cries and the sounds of bodies smacking against stone came from our backs.  It seemed to me there was comfort in both directions.  There was release in the total abandonment of oneself, body, soul and mind to grief, an abandonment that our culture eschews as taboo in public.  But it is a temporary comfort, and a cold one at that.  The death of Riley, and the abandonment to grief that came afterward was too fresh for us to ignore these women, too fresh for our eyes to stay dry when faced with the kinship of loss.  Yet it was too fresh for us to look at for long, lest we be drawn backward into the rawness of that grief.

 The greater comfort came as we looked forward, and as Pere Frechette began to lead the congregation in Marty Haugen's hymn We Remember, an old favorite at Notre Dame.  As we began to cry in earnest, I hugged Lucy close and prayed that these women and their families would someday soon know the blessing of once again looking forward.

The outdoor chapel ahead and the indoor chapel on the right.
 As I sit here now in our comfortable, air conditioned lounge typing this to share with you, I can hear the sounds of industry outside the window.  People clearing rocks and trash from abandoned lots, construction, car horns, Operation Blessing employees welding fish tanks in the courtyard below. Even the roosters are industriously noisy.  I pray that these are indeed the sounds of a whole country looking forward once again.