My First Lesson: What It Is Like to Be Ill and Seek Care in Haiti
And so this morning, I put everything on pause for an hour and went to the ocean for the saltwater cure…I needed it.
In all honesty, my first week in Haiti nearly brought me to my knees. When I was lying in bed with high fever, under a mosquito net, in high heat and humidity with no AC and in a place so far from the comforts of my home, my mantra was what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger… And working to care for 8 kids, including two very ill little girls while sick oneself, is not something I would wish on anyone. But I think we’ve made it through the worst and are on the mend… finally!
As soon as my driver exited the airport in Port-au-Prince and we drove through the streets, it became apparent right away that the words “extreme public health and environmental crisis” are nowhere near strong enough to describe what is going on here. Mounds of plastic bottles and bags, trash, and sewage flow through the canals and clog the streets, where massive piles of concrete rubble sit in the places buildings once stood. Many people are bathing and washing clothes in these canals. I saw dead bodies lying sprawled in the gutters. There are 10 million people in this small country…and they are all spending their day selling their daily goods in these crowded and dirty streets to survive. Where D2C is located a couple of hours away in Cayes Jacmel, the same problems exist on a smaller scale. And my trial by fire in healthcare here continued…
So I was almost immediately thrust into knowing what it is like to have sick kids and to be sick here. Two of the girls were coughing and running high fevers. We took them to the free Cuban clinic right around the corner from the house. The Cuban government offers aid through these free clinics and provides the doctors as well. I am so grateful to them for what they are doing here!! And though I don’t have photos of our experience, let me try to paint you a picture with words. These clinics are not what we are used to in the US. A dusty, trash-filled dirt road leads up to the clinic. There are outdoor patios with wooden benches where many very ill people wait for hours to be seen by a doctor. The floors and walls are a bit filthy and very aged. Flies buzz about as if something just died. The exam rooms are dank and dark with furniture decades old and falling apart. The girls had to have chest x-rays, and the machine looked like it might be from the 70s. People waiting look so hot, tired, and sick…sweat dripping, long faces, coughing, slow moving… So many very young pregnant girls sit waiting for care. I say “girls” because note that in Haiti, you do not become a woman until you have a child. In this place, I feel as if I should avoid touching anything at all, but then I must resign myself to the fact that I am in it…deep. And remember, I am coming at all of this from my American reality.
But I have to say, in all this darkness and despair, the Cuban doctors, nurses, and technicians were rays of bright light and hope. Yes, they seemed hardened by life and work here. They don’t wear gloves when giving injections, and don’t take all the precautions that we do in the US…because, quite frankly, there is no way it could be done here. They are using outdated equipment, but they make it work. They absolutely care, they know what they are doing, and again, they make it work. We waited, but we didn’t wait long. The order of things was very unclear to me, but did we receive faster service because of our skin color or nationality? I have my suspicions. In fact I recall waiting far longer for doctors in free clinics in Houston when I was a child, as there were times when my own parents could not afford health insurance. When we were finally seen by the Cuban doctors, they seemed almost as relieved to hear Amber and I speak Spanish as we were that we could communicate with them about the girl’s medical issues. I don’t know what I would do if they didn’t speak Spanish, since I speak little French and almost no Creole. They were amazing with the kids and had wonderful bedside manner. When we asked the seemingly young and stoic X-ray technician to explain this scary procedure to the girls, he seemed to warm up right away and did an amazing job of explaining it on their level in Creole and making it almost fun. Wow! Our poor sweet girls turned out to be quite ill and had to have injections at the clinic. They screamed and cried…one so much that she vomited all over me. Poor dear. They then went through several days of injections around the clock. But today, they are running and playing with all the other kids! I am grateful of that free clinic!
After the clinic, we had to take all of the prescriptions to the pharmacy. The pharmacies look like food trucks set up along the street, and of course they often don’t have what you are looking for. And so it is off to the next town in search. Finally, after a couple of days, we have everything we need.
So at first it was decided that I would give the injections, but thankfully, I didn’t have to. We have a visiting nurse who agreed to do it, coming over two times in the middle of each night and during the day to administer this medication. They would kick and scream, understandably, and none of us got much sleep. Through most of this, they were running high fevers, and felt so awful. Finally on the fourth day and near the last of the injections, the girls got tougher, egged on by the other kids to suck it up as we’d say in the US. Wow…going through that at age 3… Sigh.
During all this, I was so sick with high fever that I could hardly get out of bed and help sometimes. And so I am grateful for my Haitian staff who helped so much, including the older security guards who are like fathers to the kids. The staff members are simply amazing in the care and love they provide for these kids! We also had to institute new house rules to further improve hygiene and the children’s understanding of its importance. Each kid now has his or her own drinking cup and was taught to wash it in bleach water after each use. They were all lectured on why they do not share utensils when eating and about coughing into their elbows as well as washing their hands after using the bathroom.
With all the challenges of this week came great opportunity for all of us to learn, grow, and instill public health knowledge in these children, who are Haiti’s future. I have learned there are people working tirelessly to do what they can to improve health here, but they need help.
And so, it is just a week after my arrival, and I am not feeling 100 percent, but this morning, I summoned the energy to make my way to the ocean…to breathe for a minute and find healing in the saltwater. It is my hope that this weekend will find us all healthy and ready for a family beach day in the beautiful blue-green Caribe.