Saturday, October 31, 2009

Croix de Bouquets

Thirty minutes outside Port-au-Prince is a little community that does metalwork. The village is part of the town called Croix de Bouquets and it has developed into a Haitian version of a mini-mall: you walk down dusty, dirt roads and stop by shop after shop full of iron pieces of all shapes and sizes.

The artisans handmake the articles from oil drums, prepared for them by other men in the community. They buy them from the junk yards, from the ship yards at the port in Port-au-Prince, from the factories, and from the Domincan Republic. The first step is to burn the inside of the barrels to get rid of the oil residue. The burning step also loosens the paint on the outsides of the barrels so that it can be scraped off easily. Then the bottom of the barrel is cut out and the sides of the barrel are flattened. Finally, the artisans cut it into the sizes they want and go to work with knives and awls. The worker who explained the process to me said that when he has a good commission from an artisan, he can prepare up to 40 oil drums in a day.

On your next visit to Haiti, ask to go to Croix de Bouquets. It's a great place to buy small souvenirs to give people in the States and it helps support the local Haitian economy. And even if you don't buy anything, you will enjoy seeing the stores and the artisans hard at work.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Memorable moments

Tod, the only non-medical member of the Maine team, is a computer geek. No one was sure whether his skills would be put to use, but he turned out to be an invaluable part of the clinics and, frankly, almost more popular than the doctors! He ran the pharmacy for us every day, with Bernard (who works for me at Angel Missions) or me translating. And on days when we didn't need a pharmacist, he did computer work for me, for Wings of Hope, and for Sherrie in the Ravine. Plus, he kept us connected to the technological world with Skype, personalized maps of Haiti, weather updates, and photosharing websites. I think I might make it a requirement: all medical teams must also bring a computer geek!

Our bravest surgical patient was this 4 year old boy. He laid still on the table, while his squeamish mother hid outside, crying occasionally, but not fighting us as we removed a cyst from behind his ear.

Two reasons why I would love to visit Wings of Hope again: 1)It's cold on top of that mountain and it feels great! 2)Little 5 year old Delmasse, paralyzed from the waist down, but completely normal in brain development, perched on the front of another child's wheelchair, driving her friend around the house.

We drove around town all week with Karen Bultje, a fellow missionary with a huge heart for kids with medical problems. We couldn't all fit inside, so 2 or 3 people rode in the bed of the pick-up. Jim looked quite dashing with the new Haiti-wind-blown hair style!

Performing finger surgery in the hotel room!

Maine medical team

All last week, I worked with a medical team from Maine General in Augusta, Maine. Dr Jim brought 3 residents, Laura, Gretchen, and Gina, as well as Gina's husband, Tod. Jim had been to Haiti before, but for the others, it was a first time experience.

On the first 2 days, we held clinic at Haiti Medicare, a little hospital run by Dr Joey (a Haitian-American doctor who partners with the medical visa organization that I work for). The doctors examined a number of medical visa candidates for me, performed 10 minor surgeries, and did general consultation for scores of patients. One of our most memorable patients was a man who had broken his arm badly 5 years ago and had finally been given corrective surgery last spring. It had come time to remove the hardware in his arm, but he didn't have the money to return to the orthopedic surgeon, so our docs removed it for him. The gaggle of nursing students working at the hospital that week was in awe!

Our next day was split – we spent the morning at Wings of Hope, a home for handicapped children up the mountain in Fermathe. The story behind Wings is beautiful. My next door neighbors are St Joseph’s Home for Boys, a home for street boys and rest-avecs (essentially child slaves), where the boys are not only given a traditional education but also the opportunity to learn painting, woodwork, and dance. Several years ago, a home for handicapped children was going to close, so 3 of the St Joseph’s boys went on behalf of the organization to choose one handicapped child to adopt the St Joe's family. But after meeting the children, the St Joseph’s boys came home and told Michael, the director, that they wanted to adopt ALL the children. Thus Wings of Hope was born, run by graduates from the St Joseph’s program.

I had to be at youth group at Quisqueya Chapel in the afternoon, so the group joined me. The highlight of the afternoon was pick-up basketball after the service. Pastor Bobby frequently plays with the boys, so they were not too shocked when Dr Jim asked to play, but when Gretchen also stepped onto the court, they were surprised. At first, they took it easy on her – c’mon, women never play basketball in Haiti, but we can humor this white lady – but all that changed when Gretchen swooshed the first basket of the day! She instantly had their respect.

The team had invited me to stay at their hotel with them for the week so I got to enjoy extra time getting to know the team, air conditioning, a pool, cable TV with ESPN (football games, baby!), and lots of food. At breakfast, we discovered another Haitian treasure: Let Agogo yogurt, the best yogurt I have ever tasted. Plus, it is produced in Haiti. Delicious yogurt and support for the local economy…how can you beat that?

Our next clinic was held in Cite Soleil, the worst slum in Port-au-Prince. When I first moved to Haiti in 2007, I was not allowed to even drive near Cite Soleil because it was explosively violent, rampant with gang warfare and kidnappings. However, thanks to UN intervention, Cite Soleil is now safe enough that we can not only drive through with several white people in the back of a pick-up truck, but we can also drive into the heart of the slum and administer care to people who desperately need it.

The clinic in Cite Soleil usually has only 1 doctor on staff so they limit the daily quota of patients to 50. At 8:30am, the clinic director, Mimi, walked up to me, “We’re done,” she smiled. “What? No way. These doctors came to work and work they shall." I insisted, "Get me some more patients!” Fortunately, there is never a shortage of available patients in Haiti, so we worked on, seeing 235 patients, the most that had ever been seen at the clinic. It was great seeing how the doctors had adjusted to Haiti by this time – they knew the routine, the questions to ask, the financial and material limitations of the patient population, and the omnipotence of The Vitamin.

Our last day of work was in my ravine off Delmas 31. I love taking people down there and giving them a chance to see the real Haiti up close. There is poverty and need in the Ravine, but there is also a beautiful sense of community and sacrifice. After days of clinic where I don’t generally know the patients personally, it feels wonderful to walk the streets, greeting people by name, and just being able to say, “See you next week.”

Every time a team visits Haiti, they leave me with donations. Each team has its particular excesses – for example, one team left me a giant box of sterile gloves; another left a suitcase full of plastic bags so the orphans could make kites; the military left me enough infant vitamins to nourish a whole village. This team left me…45 pounds of granola bars, Oreo cookies, beef jerky, and dried fruit!

The street children that I meet daily on Avenue Delmas are going to be very happy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Gonaives - One year later

This weekend, I had the opportunity to go to Gonaives again to do clinic. Mary DeKoter, who works in the ravine with me, drove the two of us and a whole carload of medications 150 miles north of Port-au-Prince to this city that has been the site of devastating flooding every time a hurricane hits Haiti. If you have a pick-up or an SUV built 3 feet off the ground, it is possible to make the trip in under 4 hours. In our little Hyundai 4x4, it took us nearly 6 hours.

I saw patients in a classroom beside Pastor Genada's church, while Mary checked blood pressures and bagged meds for me as I requested them. We saw over 100 patients in about 5 and a half hours.

Each patient had a small piece of paper with a number marked on it and they waited in the adjacent classroom until I called for them. Every time I would yell, "Nimero 12!", this little girl who was standing just behind me, would echo it. Eventually, I stopped yelling the numbers and would just nod at her when I was ready for another patient.

I thought this woman and her daughter were absolutely beautiful, but their story is even more beautiful than they are. The little boy in the next photo lost both his parents in the flooding last year. He literally watched them being carried away by the 14 foot flood waters. In a city and a time of nothing, this woman willing took the boy in and has been caring for him and raising him as if he were hers. Such is the spirit that reigns in Gonaives.

Last year, I made two trips to Gonaives to do clinic. On the first trip, I came less than 3 weeks after the 2 hurricanes that completely destroyed the city. Buildings were crushed, streets were impassable, and mud was everywhere. Four months later, I visited again and although some houses had been cleared, the city was still full of mud. I assumed that it would stay like that forever, but I was wrong! I was amazed on this trip so see streets emptied of mud, houses rebuilt, and canals freshly dug.

The river that was 18 feet wide and 2 feet deep in October 2008 has now become a pretty little stream. Where once, I crossed barefoot stepping on piles of clothing underwater, now I can cross with dry feet on a series of concrete blocks.

The sign on the wall outside Pastor Genada's church is visible again! The mountains of mud that filled his street have been removed and dumped in the mountains by UN and Haitian government trucks.

In anticipation of future flooding and in an effort to prevent the destruction that hit his church last year, Pastor Genada is slowing raising the funds to rebuild his church 5 feet off the ground. Hopefully, next time a hurricane hits, the building will fare better.

The mud flats that I crossed on foot in 2008 on my way to clinics in refugee camps are now a mini jungle. It's really quite pretty.

On the edge of the city, a small community of homes was under water when I initially visited Gonaives. In January 2009, the water had receded, but the mud still made the houses unlivable. Now, finally, the water is gone and the families have moved back in.

Just beyond that community, the lake of Gonaives is still there. Once upon a time, the lake was a valley and the city was constructing a small airport there. The water has dropped far enough for the road that crosses the lake to be reopened, but it seems doubtful that the lake will ever fully disappear.

Among my patients at clinic, I treated about 10 members of Pastor Genada's deaf community. Genada is one of the most amazing people I have met in Haiti: a Filipino pastor with a wife and a 5 year old daughter who have been serving in Gonaives for 14 years. For the majority of their time there, they have been the only long-term missionaries working in the city. They have an active church, a deaf school and community program, and a feeding program for 100 children in one of the poorest ghettos. I love hearing about what they are doing, and my favorite part is the bakery. The church owns a bakery and employs members of the deaf community - people who would otherwise be unable to find jobs - to make the most scrumptious bread I've ever had in Haiti. They sell the bread to stores and vendors and put the small profit towards the deaf school.

Those students are very proud of their bakery. When I popped my head in after I finished clinic, they jumped to show me everything and to give me two steaming hot rolls. Yum!

At Canadian Thanksgiving this month, Mary had met a young missionary girl who has recently moved to Gonaives to run a school. Trish Gauthier is staying in a large house by herself and wants visitors whenever possible, so we stayed with her for our 2 nights in Gonaives. She was my age and a blast to be around. Good friends are a rare find in Haiti, so it was great for both of us to connect. I think I may be going to Gonaives a little more often now.

On Saturday, after our day of clinic work, Trish invited us to join her at a going away party for the head of UNPol at the MINUSTAH base. So we spent our evening meeting, talking to, and dancing with UN soldiers. I met the Argentinian head of Intelligence - it was a nice connection, making for a tour of the unit's medical clinic and a gift of a satelite map of Gonaives with street names and landmarks! Decent maps of Haiti are impossible to come by so I was very grateful. It was another of those surreal Haiti moments: "I'm on a UN base, dancing with a rather handsome Argentinian, surrounded by high-ranking officers and some very big guns. Only in Haiti."

Mary and I also accompanied the Genada's to their feeding program to take care of the children's simple medical needs. The bandage I put on a little girl's infected wound was certainly the only clean thing in the entire neighborhood. But the children look healthy and traces of red hair from protein deficiency are fading from their heads. I left Bernadine, the woman in charge, with vitamins and deworming pills for all the children.