I nearly bought out the travel section of Target when I was preparing for the mission to Haiti. Tiny Neosporin, mini hand sanitizers, and tons and tons of travel-size baby wipes. News of the cholera epidemic had me determined not to allow a single drop of Haitian water anywhere near my mouth. I'd determined that I'd need about four to six wipes a day and bought an extra pack of sensitive wipes for the face, just to be on the safe side. Well, I hadn't even been in Haiti twenty-four hours and had already seen our driver nearly come to blows with who knows who for who knows why in the airport roundabout, I'd been in a humid, dust-blown, make-shift clinic where I'd seen more teeth extracted than I could count, and I'd watched hundreds of aching, vomiting, coughing people treated for illnesses that in the States would've set them back a week or two, but in Haiti could kill them.
"Just hold your breath," Dr. Jasmine advised. This was her sage advice before we left L.A. where hand sanitizer and Cold-Eeze and holding my breath seemed like viable methods to protect myself from disease in Haiti. "When they cough, just hold your breath. Really quick. Only a few seconds. We don't want to wear masks around them. They need to see our faces so we can connect...so they can know we care." She was such a gentle, caring soul. "But, you don't want to get tuberculosis. So. Hold your breath." She was also a realist.
That first day, after that first medical mission, I had held my breath until I was blue (and as a Black woman, it takes awhile to get to blue). I finally just breathed...prayed...and just breathed. I got back to the hotel and when half a pack of my Target baby wipes still left me feeling like the dirt and disease were digging into my skin, I turned on the hot water knob in the shower, and even when ice cold was all that came out, I got in. Cholera be damned. I kept my mouth shut tight, careful not to get my face wet, but I let the water wash over my aching, sticky body. Afterall, if I got sick, unlike the thousands that were becoming infected everyday in St. Marc and now even in Port-au-Prince, we had medication to put me on the mend. I was lucky. And I was dirty, and just like the people outside of the hotel's walls, I wanted to get clean even if it was with dirty water. It was easily one of the top three showers of my life. Maybe top two.
The body was all clean now, but the spirit was still a little dirty. I was conflicted by what I was experiencing, feeling both incredibly useful and inexplicably insignificant. The smallness of my problems back home were as glaringly obvious as the undeniable enormity of the problems of the millions of displaced Haitians I had seen living in bright blue tents in the mud and the muck now nearly ten months after the earthquake. Truth was, even before the earthquake Carries was already shaken by poverty, desperation, and illness that Sergio, Dr. Lewis, and the Dr.'s Eugenio could never hope to cure with a month long clinic, let alone the short week we would be in Carries.
The Eugenio's were a peculiar couple. Quiet and unassuming, both shied away from my camera and the spotlight. If you blinked, you could miss just how remarkable they truly were. If you spoke too loudly, or too quickly, or too much you could miss the tiny whispers of wisdom that fell from Dr. Jasmine's mouth like perfectly ripened fruit from the vine - given freely and ready to edify and nourish.
"The stick scares away the snakes." Jasmine would whisper from behind me in the days to come. Pastor Trimble would lead us on what was supposed to be an hour long hike through the mountains. Three hours later, Pastor T., Deborah, the adorably spicy nun turned married lady and marriage/family therapist, and Jasmine would come down the rocky mountain with six-foot tall sticks they had broken off from trees on the hike to help them walk the rough terrain. At least that's what I thought they were for. I think that's what Pastor T. and Deborah thought too, but Jasmine knew that the thump of the stick sent vibrations through the rock and mud warning the snakes to stay away. This lady knew stuff that could save your life. I quickly learned that the safest spot in the group was the spot closest to Dr. Jasmine Eugenio.
Dr. Arnel Eugenio was less quiet than his wife. He was the perfect blend of gregariousness and humility. He always had a joke. They weren't always funny, but he always had one, and he was the kind of man that just made your mouth curl into a comfortable smile whenever you saw him. Smiles were Arnel's business. He was a modestly successful dentist back in Los Angeles and he was our only dentist here in Haiti. It seemed the line to see him was even longer than the lines to see the three other doctors combined. "The people we're treating have probably never seen a toothbrush, let alone a dentist," Arnel commented. Well, they were about to get an eyeful with him.
A patient came to Arnel's chair - not the big, cozy, vinyl monstrosity with all the Edward Scissorhands-esque gadgets protruding from it that he probably had in his office back stateside, but a rusty, dirty stool that was the best thing they could find in the storage of the makeshift clinic that would later turn into an outdoor nightclub in four hours after we'd left. Arnel seemed the same here as he must have back in L.A. - calm, cool, collected. If I could've muted out the noise of the anxious, ever-growing line waiting to see him, and the quietly pained murmurs of his patients, through the lens of my camera I could practically see Arnel humming that sappy elevator music dentists love to play while they work. I don't know about you, but the theme form Love Story never calmed me when a dentist's drill was poised for my mouth. Now I was wondering if the music was really meant to calm the dentist more than the patient. It seemed to be working.
Dr. Arnel and Dr. Penn were the last men standing that first night. Dr. Jasmine, Dr. Lewis, Sergio, Nurse Judith and the rest of the team had all called it a night about forty-five minutes after the sun went down and the only thing lighting their work was a flickering fluorescent bulb and the stars. Dr. Penn had been assisting Dr. Arnel, but Dr. Penn was a doctor of letters, not of medicine. He was the kind of man that just looking at him long enough made you feel smarter. But, in Haiti, it was less a show of Dr. Penn's brain than his heart (though both were pretty big). As night grew darker and the stars shone brighter, the straggling patients were sent away unseen, back up into the mountain, to their homes of mud and stick and banana leaves. The people would be back tomorrow. And so would our doctors.