Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Money Shot

The storm has passed. The night's whirling wind, thrashing rain, and sliding mud has given way to spatters of blue sky and even the lightest dabble of the sun's rays. Like a dreary watercolor painting that elicits hope as forcefully as it does regret, Hurricane Tomas has left its stain on Carreis.

I'm on the plane now, taking off for Miami then back home to my TV, hot water, self-help meetings, and Trader Joe's - all the things I've grown to need to achieve serenity that I happily did without for the past six days. I don't know that I can articulate with words what I've seen. What I now know and can never unknow is equal parts trauma, tristesse, and triumph.  Everyday we were exposed to a deeper level of poverty and lack.  Every night, like the clockwork of an after dinner nightcap, trauma struck with a chaser of adrenaline never before tasted by anyone on the team. This last night, the trauma arrived in the six-foot, slender shell of D.J., the brother to Sami, one of our translators.

As the wind whipped the waves of the Baie de Gonar up and over the steps of the Oceanview Hotel's patio, the staff scurried about securing lawn chairs and moving vulnerable appliances. D.J. was just visiting Sami.  He only wanted to help. So he did, picking up debris from the beach and moving lounge chairs with his brother when suddenly a sting shot through his foot and up through his mouth with a bitter scream.

"Owwwww!" A sharp blade of glass that had washed up with the tide now found itself splitting D.J.'s underfoot and bathed in a steady flow of crimson.

We were having dinner when I heard the scream. Dr. Jasmine had made a killer rice with garlic and onions and pork.  I was barely half-way finished and already fantasizing about my second helping.  it was delicious for missions or any other work, and I was hungry having spent our final day in Carries packing up and doing final interviews with the team.  As had become our routine, at the first sound of distress, the medical personnel jumped into action while others either ran over to witness the emergency du jour or continued their conversations about iPhones and dodgy Internet connections or the recent Republican takeover of the House. I grabbed my camera from under the table, took one last bite of Dr. Jasmine's rice, and pressed record.

Sami looked worried, which worried me because I'd just interviewed him not thirty minutes before and he was calm, happy even.  His brother seemed deceptively calm, which also scared me since the prior night's emergency had also brought to our evening a calmly blood-gushing young man and he had nearly died.  Certainly lighting wouldn't strike twice, I thought. But this was, after all, Haiti.

Dr. Jasmine took a good look at her new patient, asked him calming questions, triaged the situation and sent the crew that had assembled into action. She went upstairs to fish sutures out of what was left of our medical supplies, while the staff went to fetch water to splash clean the debris of the storm from the patio surrounding the pool table that had become our hotel O.R. Within the blink of an eye, a staff member slogged back to the patio and passed a huge bucket of water off to Sergio, who threw it around and underneath the lounge chair upon which D.J. was writhing in quiet agony.

"I thought that was to wash his foot?" I whispered.

"No. They wouldn't wash it with that water. it could infect his wound." Ashley replied. Ashley was twenty-two, sweet, smart, and adorably naive, but just one week in Carreis had her witnessing a makeshift emergency medical team and spouting facts about the transmission of bacteria and infectious disease via contaminated water...a far cry from her old days on the UCLA volleyball team, and the mom and dad she had been missing so much on day one of the trip. Up until this point, Ashley had been a bit of a looker-on. She wanted to do so much more than she felt equipped to do and that drove her crazy.  She wanted to connect and relate to the people we'd met, but she couldn't speak the language. The communication gap sometimes felt as big to her as the Atlantic Ocean that surrounded the island and regularly brought her to tears. So, since she could not talk to the people, she talked to God in prayer and He spoke through her. She was angelic, but she was always in my shot, which drove me crazy! I wanted to tell her to do something dramatic or get outta the way, but I just politely asked her, over and over again, to step aside. Anything more would have meant the unleashing of certain character defects of mine that I had not seen in six days since we left L.A.  I shared a room with Ashley, and though I was ten years older than she, had already learned a great deal from her. Hours-long gab sessions about God and struggle and heartbreak had revealed to me that this tall, beautiful young lady with a heart for Christ unlike any twenty-two year old I'd ever met was indeed adding to every frame of my camera in which she appeared. Ashley brought the light of God, while in this moment Judith, our team nurse, brought the flashlight that allowed Dr. Jasmine to suture D.J.'s ripped open flesh.  'The face or the foot, Jess...choose your shot!' I thought.  The face is where I could capture this young man's soul - quiet and exposed, stoically trying to be a man while certainly wishing for his mommy.  But the foot is where the money shot was - obvious pain and medical skill, tugging and gushing blood.  I chose the foot.

"What do you like to do? Do you play sports? Who's your favorite soccer player?" Dr. Jasmine asked in her famously sweet and soothing lilt. Kassy, Haitian-American and our official team translator, repeated D.J.'s creole reply in English, "I can't really answer your questions while my foot is bleeding like this." Nurse Judith explained that Dr. Jasmine was trying to ease his pain by distracting him long enough for the local anesthesia to kick in. Neither Kassy or D.J. looked convinced of the efficacy of this approach. Suddenly, another prick of the syringe.

"Does he feel it?" Dr. Jasmine asked.

"Yesssss!!!" Kassy replied so frantically that I wasn't sure she'd even asked D.J. or if she was just responding out of her own rushing adrenaline and blood shock. Finally, D.J.'s foot went numb and Dr. Jasmine could finish the suture. She worked quickly and efficiently, but clean. Just like the floral arrangement she made every week back in L.A. for Sunday church service, trauma was an art for Jasmine and her stitch work was inspiring. Her calm helped Sami calm down, but must have had the opposite affect on the storm. Though Hurricane Tomas was ramping up to a feverish pitch, Kassy, Ryan, Felicia and Ashley were all joking and laughing. It was undeniably surreal. Had I really just forgotten what it was like to be in my twenties when decorum and respect for traumatic situations were never as important as a good laugh? Or had we become so accustomed to traumatic situations at the Oceanview Hotel that the laughter actually was a sign of respect - a way of subliminally telling the patient that everything was indeed going to be okay? And it was...for now.

Dr. Jasmine finished up and passed the patient off to Ryan, the EMT in training, to wrap the foot in bandages and plastic to keep it dry from infection. We returned to the quiet before the storm, and I finally got my shot of the patient's face - sweet, grateful, longing. As it turns out, it was the money shot after all.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Love Is...

Dr. Jasmine had gone from having her hands elbow deep in some sick child's mouth to being elbow deep in a rice cooker. She prepared dinner for our team of nearly twenty every night. Breakfast and lunch too. It was like she was a compulsive caretaker in desperate need of a 12-step program or something. But, honestly, her care wasn't compulsive so much as it was compassion.

"Honey, why don't you sit down? Eat something. Let me get you a drink." I don't know which Eugenio, Jasmine or Arnel, said it because they were both saying it all the time. One would be up and about and the other would be trying to sit them down. Then they'd switch. It was as if they had written into their marriage vows twenty-plus years ago the promise to love, honor, and cherish everybody, not just each other. Their giving seemed to know little bounds, and their biggest bickers seemed to be about how one should let the other give more. I'd never seen anything like them.

I'd come to Haiti with a big, but somewhat bruised heart. I'd been married before and it looked nothing like the Eugenio's. My ex-husband struggled with addiction and demons from his childhood that made him like to hit people, including me, more than help people. We'd divorced six years ago and I'd worked hard to let God heal those wounds. The bruises on my heart today were only two years old and left by a sweet and charmingly ordinary man whom I had loved extraordinarily. He had never hit me or even raised his voice at me, but had promised to love me forever as my husband and then broke me and our engagement less than a month after his proposal of marriage. Here I was, in Haiti, doing real work that really mattered and, I'm embarrassed to admit, I still missed the love of my life.

My ex-fiance came from a family of Jamaican nurses. Hardworking, committed, kind-hearted people. He had gotten into finance and mortgages, but had a heart and mind for science. His face used to light up like the aurora borealis when he would talk about the workings of the human body. I once got him a fancy anatomy book from Barnes and Noble; I think that was the beginning of his falling in love with me. But, now, it had been two years since he'd love me. We still emailed a bit. I had even spoken to him on the phone not too long before I left for Haiti. I knew he had gone back to school to be a nurse and, after having received a hefty raise and promotion in his finance job, was now trying to decide if he should continue on the path of medicine or finish business school. I had always encouraged him to pursue science. I had no idea whether he really knew what he was talking about when he talked about science, but I knew he loved it, and I loved him and wanted him to be happy more than I wanted him to be rich. After these brutal medical clinic days in the sweltering heat of Haiti, I was energized by the sheer volume of people the medical team had helped and I couldn't help but wonder if my ex would've been as excited about being here as I.

Between the clinic and dinner, things calmed down at Oceanview. People got cleaned up, played pool, swam in the Baie. It really was beautiful there, and those early evening hours were lovely. The first few days found me a little sad, a little lonely in that pre-dinner bewitching hour. I wished my ex-fiance were with me. I wished I could see him be of service the way Dr. Arnel was of service to the people of Carries. I wished I could feel as proud to be his woman as I imagined Jasmine felt to be Arnel's. I wished I could see the respect in his eyes for me that I saw in Arnel's every time he looked at Jasmine. Which he did. Often.

The Eugenio's were not big displayers of public affection. I don't think I saw them so much as give one another a peck on the cheek during six days with them, but the love they felt for each other and their family was clear for all to see. They worked together like a well-oiled, twenty year-old machine - a few creaks, but they knew how to get the job done. One night, Arnel was treating the hotel staff to dental exams in the gazebo by the beach and Jasmine strongly encouraged him and Dr. Penn to come in from the hurricane winds and rain that had whipped up the tide so furious and high that the waves were crashing up and over the rails of the gazebo where they were working. What a high quality problem, to have to beg your husband to stop helping people! I imagined what the argument might have been in Jasmine's mind, behind her stern eye and pursed lips. Please dear, if you help one more person you might get washed away with the tide out to sea. And Arnel would have the same silent argument with Jasmine later. Dear, if you feed one more person there won't be enough to feed you. Would you please stop being so selfless? Wow. When did I ever have to say anything like that to my ex? For that matter, when did he ever have to say anything like that to me?

I was a total Eugenio groupie. One day, I even sat behind the LCD screen of my camera for forty minutes watching them, waiting for the secret of their love affair to be revealed to me by osmosis or something. They were just sitting out on the patio, watching the sun over the Baie, and having their morning coffee. I was too far away to be able to hear their conversation, but I saw that Jasmine still spoke to her husband with excitement in her eyes. I saw that at the end or beginning of any given day it was still Arnel that she wanted to tell her stories. And I saw that he wanted to listen. Any husband can look at his wife with lust in his eyes, love even, but only few look at their wives with eyes of awe and admiration like Arnel looked at Jasmine. They were Corinthians 13 in living color...patient, kind, no trace of envy or boasting or pride...just love.

I learned a lot from the Eugenio's. Dr. Jasmine taught me how to keep the snakes away and Dr. Arnel taught me what to look for in a husband - a man who loves only God more than he loves you. I left them to their coffee, and gave them their privacy on the patio, no longer wishing my ex was with me, instead wondering what if he had not been the love of my life afterall, just the love of my life so far? What and who did God still have in store for me? I wonder. But what I know that I know is that God has ordained and blessed what the Eugenio's have and I thank them for showing me what love truly is.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


It's Tuesday in Haiti. Day two of the mission. It's night, though I have no idea what time - just that it's dark, the sky is clear with at least a million stars, and a little girl is probably going to die tonight.

The little baby girl and her mother came to the clinic today complaining of high fever for them both. The baby was only six days old, and Dr. Eugenio said that if they didn't get to the hospital right away the outcome could be fatal. Pastor T. had our group driver rush them to St. Marc where Linn, the proprietor of our hotel, knew someone who could get them admitted to the E.R. without too much we thought. There was another girl with them; I don't know if she was a cousin or just a neighbor from the community, but she looked to be about four years old (later I'd find out she was really eight years old and just severely malnourished). This little girl had a terrible abscess that needed to be surgically drained. So they all went to the hospital, an hour away, and in about three hours after that, they had all been sent back home - untreated.

The little girl got turned away first. They wouldn't even let her in to be examined. They said the hospital was full of cholera patients and that if they let her in, she would surely get infected. So they didn't. At least they actually admitted the little baby and her mother. Tests were run, and after it was clear the mother had no money to pay, the doctors determined nothing was wrong with her or her baby and told them to leave. This woman had just had a baby six days ago, and they wouldn't even let them sit down to wait for a ride. So, again, I have no idea what time it is, but it's late and it's no time for a new mother to be out with her near death newborn. Dr. Eugenio says, in the States, the baby would have been admitted without question of payment. But, in Haiti, the baby might die. We'll see.

The little eight year old who looked like a four year-old came back to the clinic, but we had already packed up. Linn called for her to be brought to the rec room out by the entrance of the hotel property. Her mother brought her and waited a bit, but I don't think Dr. Eugenio knew they were outside. I guess mama felt she had waited long enough and decided to take her daughter on home - a walk of several miles. When Dr. Eugenio realized they had gone, she asked if they would come back. They did.

The little girl was placed in the rec room where a trio of gentlemen did not see fit to pause their game of dominoes long enough to give the little girl enough privacy to pull down her underwear and be treated (Black men the world over love them some dominoes). Dr. Eugenio asked them to give her five minutes alone, so they ditched the dominoes and went to the club across the street that had been our medical clinic just a few hours earlier.

"It will hurt. Really bad." Dr. Eugenio had the translator, Sami, tell the mother. "Put her on the table."

The "table" was a simple slab of plywood and a few men laid the petite down on it. The light in the rec room was a flickering fluorescent green, like the wall behind that was painted like bright lime Skittles. It's difficult to white balance my camera in fluorescent light, so I just let everything stay green and wondered why God would let this little girl be here in front of this Skittle green wall instead of back where I grew up in Texas eating Skittles, playing with toy race cars, and never worrying about not being able to get adequate health care. Dr. Eugenio did not have time to wonder such things. Instead, she pulled down the girl's little white cotton panties and stuck a giant needle in the abscess on her bottom and upper thigh. She could only use local anesthesia, even though in the U.S. such a procedure would have been done in an operating room under complete sedation. Three men held her down while Dr. Eugenio drained the abscess as best she could. The little girl didn't even flinch. She had already walked miles that night in excruciating pain just to be seen by Dr. Eugenio. She was too tired to cry.

We gave her a juice box and some crackers and waited thirty minutes to make sure she didn't have an allergic reaction to the anesthesia. Ryan checked his watch and she was fine. It was time to send her home. Then about an hour after she'd left, the little baby girl and her mother showed up, and Dr. Eugenio went back to work. Maybe no little girls would die tonight after all.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Is There a Doctor in the House?

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 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.