Haiti: Jim Brown’s story – the first night and day

Somewhere around 1 or 2 AM we all finally went to “bed,” which, for most of us, consisted of sleeping in the open in tents on concrete out in front of the orphanage. We were all too tired to do anything else that night, or even get to know the orphanage and the orphans.

My tent was much too small to stretch out in, but it still became my “little home.” Haiti was a lot colder than I expected at night, and the first night I did not have the knack for sleeping in the open down yet. I remember that just as I was about to doze off, a rooster decided to start making noise, then a group of dogs began barking, and then Dave yelled from his tent next to me: “You have got to be kidding me. The rooster started it. I hate that rooster.” It was that kind of humor and light-heartedness that really kept me going the entire trip.

In the morning, at around 5, every animal in earshot woke me up. The sun wasn’t even close to up yet, and this was the first time I noticed just how many stars there are in the sky. I know it seems silly to write about this when I was in Haiti for a major disaster relief effort, but it was really impactful to me and I spent time everyday staring at them. I’ve never seen so many stars, and shooting stars. I spent every morning and every night from then on laying out behind the orphanage in front of the damaged school looking at the stars, either alone or with someone else, and decompressing and praying. Often when I was praying it seemed like a “shooting star” would go by just as I completed a prayer. Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive or cheesy, but it meant something to me, and it was something I won’t forget.

The first morning we ate a quick breakfast — I don’t remember what the orphanage offered us, but I do know they offered something every morning. I never ate breakfast though, I subsisted mainly off the MREs I took with me, which were nutritious and foul tasting. After breakfast, we all gathered in the orphanage and had our first ‘group meeting,’ and prayed together and sang together and talked about what we were going to do that day. After this we had 2 meetings a day, once when we woke up, and once in the evening after we got back. In the morning we would praise God and get each other ready, and in the evenings we would thank God and talk about how we could do better the next day, and build each other up with what we had done that day. They were great meetings.

After this first meeting, we got back into our trusty tap-tap and traveled 1.5 hours into Port au Prince (which was probably only a 10-15 mile trip), and I saw the road for the first time. I’ve already described it to you before, so I won’t go into detail again except to say that they are REALLY REALLY BAD, and the tap-tap trips are VERY painful. I simultaneously dreaded them because of the pain in my back and bottom, and looked forward to them because they were just that crazy, and because, again, the team had a way of keeping everyone cheery and up-beat about everything. Anna, Shaun, and Bogden in particular made these tap-tap trips a joy, despite the painful nature of them. Anna seemed to think it was some kind of rollercoaster ride, and even managed to sleep on them. Shaun was always perched front and center and would shout at the driver to shift gears or avoid potholes, and randomly yell “HALLO!” at people on the street, and Bogden constantly acted as a tour guide in a funny accent and kept us laughing.

There was also a little girl who took the trip with us everyday from the orphanage: Jemma. She was shy, and there was a bit of a language barrier, but she was always in the tap-tap with us and kept us company. She, too, could manage to fall asleep in the singularly most awkward and uncomfortable looking positions on this tap-tap. Once, on the trip back home, Jemma notified us that her tooth was loose and then wrenched it out on her own. I’ve never seen a little kid pull their own tooth out without a worry and then be so happy about it. Jemma is cool.

We arrived in downtown Port au Prince on the first day and set up our “medical” tent and then went to work. A very large crowd gathered, very quickly, and the place became almost over-run. It was our least organized day, and we were struggling to keep up. The system worked like this: Haitians would arrive and get in a “line” (I’m being overly generous by calling it a line), and several of the team would tape a piece of medical tape around their wrist and write: “BP, P, and T” on it (Blood Pressure, Pulse, Temperature). Then, these folks would move forward in their lines until they came to me and a few others who were on the “vitals” time. Each of us were decked out with a fancy 1-dollar wristwatch that had a second timer, a blood pressure cuff, and stethoscope, and a thermometer. We would try to talk to the patients through the language barrier as much as we could, as this was our particular time to connect with them. I knew no Haitian Creole, so my ability was limited, but I tried with every person to find a way to connect with them on some level, even if it was just saying “Bon” (Good) to them with a thumbs up after I took their readings and wrote it on their medical tape. I don’t know if they knew much about what a good blood pressure and temp was, or not, but I could tell that they were interested in what the numbers meant about them. I also knew that no possible good could come of me telling them that their numbers were anything but good. If they had a problem that could be corrected by us, the doctors would explain it to them through translators and comfort them. If they had a problem that could not be, there was no sense in further burdening them.

The crowds are -not- like what you see on TV. There are not massive piles of bodies in the street. They are NOT violent (in all of our medical clinics, in various places, only one person ever became even remotely violent). They are not rude, or ignorant, or “looting,” or anything like that. They are scared, and they are confused, and I believe that they need more than anything else someone to show they are not there just to hand them another donation, but to really find some human connection with them. The vast majority of Haiti’s GDP comes from foreign donations; these folks get donations all the time — and thats good, it’s a testament to the fact that the human race still has virtue. But I have come to believe, especially on this trip, that what helps the Haitians more than throwing food at them out of a helicopter is treating them as they are, a human person in a difficult situation. A lot of times I couldn’t do more than make eye contact with them, and I confess that after 100 or so patients it was easy to just get into the “groove” of taking blood pressure and pulses and moving on, but I tried constantly to refocus on each person and at least try to figure out their name and tell them “Bon.”

I don’t know how many patients we saw each day, but it was a lot. I’m told that we couldn’t give everybody what they needed, and near the end each day we were scrambling to “make” supplies for them out of what we had left. There were not as many open wounds as I expected, but there was a lot of infection and sickness, and a lot of malnutrition and ill children and babies. The ill babies were the most difficult for me. There were also several cases of what appeared to be leprosy, one of which was rubbed on me and caused me to vigorously scrub my arm with every kind of antiseptic and sanitizer (or ‘santizer’, as Bogden would say in his accent) that we had. It also made me the brunt of jokes for the rest of the trip, and Bogden asked me everyday how my leprous arm was doing.

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