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By Dr. Juliet Hwang, Pediatrician
The rain is refreshing after the stifling heat that just sticks to your body and molds beads of sweat down your forehead. After hot and hazy Haitian mornings, I welcome the rain in the afternoons, especially because I miss the rain. Having lived in Los Angeles, I have learned to appreciate rain and how it cleanses the earth. I felt the rain fall on my head today, and I smiled. I was happy to receive the gifts of the sky, and cleanse the dust and sweat from the day at the hospital.
Our team, Unified for Global Healing, has been here in Carrefour for almost a week now. We are working at the Adventist Hospital, a mile and a half from the epicenter of the earthquake that devastated this country in January. I have the privilege to be a part of an amazing team of professionals. We are artists, journalists, social workers, nurses, paramedics and doctors. Most of us have experience working internationally. Most are trained in disaster situations and have stories for every part of the evening.
Here in Haiti, some things are exactly the way I had imagined, and some things are surprisingly sweet. The rubble and tents set up along the roadways are all images I had seen on TV. What was surprising was the life in between the rubble. The small pathways the people have carved to continue their daily routine. The markets continue with blue tarps overhead. The women squat on the curb with the fresh vegetables, the chickens run around, and dogs cross the street without missing a beat. The people have piled up the rubble and trash and are simply continuing to live and thrive, just like they always have despite hurricanes, embargos and military coups.
The hospital is not simply a building for healthcare, but its compound has transformed into a community of people living and healing there. The patients are inside the hospital, receiving physical therapy and medications, but the family members live in various tents around the main building, because they have nowhere else to go. Some patients have already received their amputation surgeries, and have healed, but they are waiting for the prosthetic lab that is still sealed in containers at the port. Apparently, the hospital has not been able to clear four huge containers of supplies through customs. Perhaps it’s the same disorganization that allowed military airplanes to land ahead of doctors and medical supplies, right after the earthquake.
After working at the hospital for a week, we have learned our way around the hospital, know a few phrases in Creole, and know everyone by name. We are more familiar with what we have and what we don’t have. We have become flexible to double as pharmacists and janitors when we need to get things done. Most of the volunteers have formed attachments and there is a favorite eight-year-old little girl. Somehow, she had made it to the hospital, and survived two amputation operations. But both her parents were killed in the earthquake. She gets around well in her wheelchair, and loves to get down on the ground and play, just like any other eight-year-old.
The community arts team has built a beautiful curriculum of fun games and projects. Slowly, their magic has penetrated the hospital as I see purple and green sequins in the hallways, and mobiles hanging at the bedside. The children are no longer bored but engaged and challenged. They said what they want most is to go back to school.
I have been rounding with our pediatrics team in the mornings and then working in the emergency room for the rest of the day. Many of the children I see in the ER are very similar to our outpatient clinic at Riverside County Regional Medical Center. They have rashes, runny noses and ear infections. But several children have walked in with rare and serious conditions and have not received the surgeries they need. I found myself craving for pediatric cardiologists, GI specialists and neurosurgeons. The mothers brought their children, hoping the new group of doctors would be able to fix them. I saw a little boy with an imperforate anus, who has been living with a colostomy for over a year, because he hasn’t had his final surgery. Today, there was a two-year-old boy living with severe hydrocephalus. I’m so used to calling specialists on the phone and being able to get my patients what they need to thrive and grow to their fullest potential. It’s frustrating not being able to give the same level of care to the children of Haiti.
There are a few children on the pediatric ward who are really sick and we can’t seem to figure out what they have. We have learned that malaria and typhoid have to be on our list of differential diagnoses. But diagnosing diseases has become more difficult because of the lack of lab tests and specialists. I found myself in the lab looking at a peripheral blood smear to see if one of our kids had leukemia, because there was no one else in the hospital who knew what to look for. It just so happened I had spent a year working in Pediatric Hematology/Oncology. I looked into the microscope, and found myself overwhelmed with gratitude, to all my doctors who have trained me to this moment in time. I was thankful for my education, my privilege, for everyone and everything that had supported me, for me to be able to travel to Haiti and serve. He didn’t have leukemia.
When the flurry of the emergency room calms down, I sometimes sneak into the outdoor tent space to watch the kids in the community arts programs. Seeing the kids in their wheelchairs and external fixators (mechanical contraptions to stabilize the bone from the outside) smile, create and laugh is worth everything in the world. Kids always make everything better and they know how to get better. I wish we could help create a world, where they can heal, where they can get the surgeries they need, where they can get three meals a day, and where they can go back to school to become doctors and nurses and social workers and artists. I hope for new beginnings in the ashes of this devastation.