Haunted by Haiti

By Dr. Seema Tiku, pediatrician

Ever since I got back, every little thing reminds me of my time in Haiti. From the smoothly paved roads I drive down, to the garbage chute I can easily rid my waste in, to the air-conditioned stores that I comfortably enter. But one thing that haunts me more than anything else since I’ve arrived back to the States is the site of a healthy infant. This poses a significant problem since I’m a practicing pediatrician.

There was a patient in particular that I cared for at L’Hopital Adventiste that turned me. His name was Kenny; he was three days old and born eight weeks early. But according to the hospital he was born at in Port-au-Prince, he was no better than an infant born nine months too early. He wasn’t considered a viable patient at 28 weeks to the birth hospital, so his parents asked his aunt to take him by whatever means possible to us because maybe we would consider caring for him. Without medical care, Kenny would hardly survive another day.

That was my first day in Haiti. I was panic-stricken. In front of me was a 1.6-pound baby wrapped in a white towel on an exam table, while his adolescent aunt sat nervously in a chair across the room. The panic was rooted in two facts: One was that Kenny was actually a very viable patient with a high chance of survival, and second was that his viability was based on my ability to care for him at a highly equipped and staffed hospital, which he did not have access to.

And so it began. I spent most of that week calling colleagues in the states and trying to be creative with what we supplies we had, trying to supply Kenny with the best care that he needed. There was a lot of guesswork involved because we were unable to test Kenny for any neonatal complications. I tried to make the best choices I could, but I felt blindfolded the whole time I was caring for him. It was enough to make me want to pull my hair out.

Kenny was tough -- with what little we were doing for him, with what little equipment, volunteers and staff we had, he was alert and breathing comfortable. Every night I would go to bed and my dreams were about him, every morning I would wake up and worry that he didn’t make it through the night. And every day that I was there, I would go into to see him in our makeshift NICU and he would give me a wide stare. He wanted to live. It was almost like I could read his mind and he was saying, “Just give me a little help, I can make it.”

So, the day that we found out that Project Medishare, a US-based satellite hospital, was able to accept him to their NICU, I literally jumped for joy. We packed him up in a cardboard box with whatever resuscitation equipment we could bring and tried to maneuver the unpaved roads of Port-au-Prince in our ambulance. We were too scared to use the siren thinking it would cause stress in his frail body. We were too scared to use the air-conditioning even though it was July in Haiti, worried that his frail body couldn’t withstand it. We held onto that box for dear life for that 60-minute ride, worried that his frail body couldn’t withstand all the potholes.

But then we finally arrived at freedom. We brought Kenny into his new home to meet his new caregivers. Even though I was going to miss seeing his wide eyes every morning, I was so happy that he was going to get the care that he deserved, the care that he asked for. The minute I got back into that ambulance was the first deep breath I had in about five days. I would sleep tonight. Sometimes there is a happy ending…

Sometimes there is not…

I learned about a week later, the night before I was to head back to the states that Kenny had passed. For what reason I do not know, nor do I think I care. It is his wide stare that haunts me when I look at the glowing face of a healthy newborn.

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