I write to you on a plane to Houston to start my first PhD rotation at MD Anderson. I don’t know if I mentioned this before but I got admitted into an MD/PhD Program between the University of Texas and the University of Puerto Rico. This summer is the start of a long journey, but I’m really excited about it.
I’m sorry I hadn’t written before, but this week has been hectic, in between getting back from Haiti and leaving for the summer. I also had some pretty nasty bites all over my body (I looked like I had chicken pox!), so I’ve been taking a bunch of meds just in case. Haitian mosquitoes are something else, man! Also, I wanted to make sure I wrote with enough time to really gather my thoughts and share with you what was a life-changing week for me.
Before this trip, I had been on mission trips with people from church to other Caribbean nations, but never to Haiti and never with a medical brigade. Growing up, there was always this talk about Haiti being “full of Voodoo”, and you had to be “spiritually ready” for what was out there, etc. When I was around 16, I met a wonderful Haitian woman in Humacao, who helped a group of girls from church making some costumes for an event we were having. She confessed getting enraged every time she heard people talking all that crap about Haiti, because she said Haiti was so much more than that… During the week, I couldn’t help thinking about that conversation, about her words, about you, and about another Haitian friend I met on an internship. You truly live in a country that is beautiful, even in the midst of incredible odds. I now share feel as though I share a little of that feeling of frustration when (through this first week back) I hear people speaking solely negative things about Haiti.
Arriving in Haiti, we were quickly picked up by the doctors from the organization I went with (Iniciativa Comunitaria), and went through some pretty nasty traffic on the way to the house we’d be staying in. I had a chance to quickly see some of Port-Au-Prince on the trip: all the people walking on the street, the ladies with humongous baskets on their head (It must be some special gene that makes them have that balance! I could never do it!), the colorful tap-tap wagons with messages and paintings on them, and of course, the tents. There were tents basically everywhere. The doctors mentioned at first that you could see people from literally all over the world throughout the country. Nowadays, it seems that a lot of the relief groups are starting to leave, so you would only see a UN truck here and there.
We finally got to our house in a place called Blanchard. The streets are pretty rough, so driving through the community was quite an experience. However, everyone on the street would wave to our bus and smile, and we would of course wave and smile back. It was my first glance to the wonderful sense of human warmth that I experienced throughout the week with basically everyone I met.
The house was beautiful. It had been abandoned for 17 years, so it needed some work, but it was completely surrounded by plantain palm trees, and just a whole bunch of plants and trees. A Haitian family that lives out on the back of the house welcomed us. They lost everything in the earthquake so the organization gives them housing in exchange for their help around the house. The dad’s name is Pierre, but we call him Turbo, because he is always incredibly prompt in everything we ask his help with. Seriously, Josee, that man is incredible! Everyone loves the family a whole lot. The wife is Madame Pierre, but we also call her Turba. They have 4 young girls with whom I became friends and Creole semi-tutors: Ifta, Gaillen, Mayushka and Princess. These beautiful girls have stayed close to my heart, and I can’t help mention them in this letter, because through our huge language barrier, they shared some of their love and laughter with me. Through signs, they taught me the Creole terms for certain colors and other stuff like the word ‘butterfly’ (papillon!).
Josee, this letter is becoming a really long essay! Sorry! I just really feel like sharing all this with you!! Anyway, we had the first clinic on the second day. There, I met Dean, a third year Haitian medical student whose medical school was destroyed in the earthquake. At first, it would seem as though his medical future was also destroyed, but he was given the chance to work in the team, and has been practicing medicine with them for the last few months. He is incredibly talented, and the organization is looking for ways in which the UPR’s Med School can somehow make arrangements for him to finish his studies and be granted his title.
We saw a lot of patients (I was working basically doing nurse tasks, like putting injections, getting pills, taking BP, etc.), most of whom had skin infections, scabies, stomach aches, etc. The next days were way more intense. We traveled to a place near the frontier with the DR, and to another place in the mountains. I’m sorry I don’t know the names of these places, but I didn’t write them down and they are hard for me to remember. I’ll look them up, though, if you want to know.
In these two places, things were much more intense. The people there still didn’t have houses (I’m not sure they had houses in the first place) and had more urgent medical and material needs. So many people arrived, that unfortunately we had little time for each patient if we were to see them all. I wish I would have had time to sit quietly and listen to their individual life stories…
However, the doctors were amazing and so were the translators, all of them Haitians who work voluntarily (although they are given a small compensation at the end of the week). In these places, we saw much more malnutrition, dehydration, chronic diarrhea, respiratory problems, people with severely high blood pressure, a lot of parasitic infections, etc. It was interesting that there is apparently a general sense of fear towards needles, IVs, etc. Somebody mentioned to the group that it’s a cultural thing, maybe you can explain it better to me. However, in the four clinics (I mention the fourth below), a total of 1300 patients were seen! Also, the team had been to the places before, and it was really awesome for them to see that a lot of the patients came back for follow-ups. In a way, to us this means that we are slowly gaining the trust of these people, who have been probably promised a lot of things that have never come. Just so you know, Iniciativa Comunitaria has decided to stay indefinitely in Haiti, and has started building a hospital in Blanchard. On the translators, a 12-year old named Wilkins, is also receiving help from the organization in pursuing his dream of become a medical doctor. He started school last week, so keep him in your prayers.
Going back to Blanchard, we also did a clinic there, since this is one of the places they visit every single week. In this way, the doctors get to see patients again and adjust treatments, etc. This clinic was especially meaningful to me because I had the chance to sit on the doctor’s chair and talk to patients through the translator, of course supervised at each step by one of the doctors. Interacting one on one with our patients, being able to help and be helped, teach and also learn, was incredibly rewarding and really reaffirmed the decision to pursue medicine.
Another interesting thing I noticed in the clinics at Haiti (an idea that I hope the organization pursues in the future) is the need for health education. Consistent talks or classes in the communities could maybe mitigate a lot of the health issues we saw. For example, some mothers were not aware that up until six months, babies can successfully live on breast milk, and that they could focus on getting proper nutrition for themselves as a way of helping their babies grow, etc. I mention this, because although I had originally considered doing the PhD half of my studies in a more typical lab setting (pipettes, cells, cultures, etc.), I am going to seriously look into Public Health programs this summer at UT-MD Anderson. This is something I had considered but not gotten proper orientation. Thankfully, I am still early in the process of choosing an area of study for the PhD.
One of the days in Haiti, we were able to hang out at the local Catholic Church in Blanchard. The priest is an amazing Haitian man who is committed to this community, and his work really reflects on the community. The kids were awesome, the mass was very moving, and the people made us feel at home. It was amazing for me to see that people literally wore their best clothing to church. This small detail touched me deeply, and for me has a much more deep spiritual meaning.
Going to Haiti, I was already aware of the fact that in these trips, the roles of giver and receiver, of teacher and student are constantly exchanged, and that you don’t really go solely to ‘help’ in that ‘superhero’ sense. It had happened to me on previous trips. However, Haiti was something different… Before the trip, I was (and still am) constantly struggling with my faith. The church is sometimes frustrating, and that frustration reflects on my own relationship with God, and in the way my faith translates into actions and decisions. In that sense, Haiti was a special form of retreat: no family, no boyfriend, no friends (at first!), no cellphone, no Internet—you get the picture. However, being there Josee, I could not conceive the whole experience without thinking that God was involved and wonderfully present in Haiti.
I can’t lie to you. I saw more poverty than I had seen before in my life. The center of Port-Au-Prince is still pretty much torn, and of course we all know about other issues present, a lot of which were present before the earthquake (from what I’ve read). However, if you look with sensibility, beneath that surface, I can honestly say that you can feel a new Haiti peering through. The country has tremendous challenges to face, but it also has people that work incredibly hard and that with the right tools, could really overcome the issues. A last quick story: there was a boy with whom we performed a skit on the church. Josee, he was such a good and talented actor! It made me wonder what a kid like that could end up like given training, a chance at an acting school, etc. Hopefully, more people will see this promise in the people of Haiti and will act upon what they see.
From my perspective, Haiti can not only count with my prayers, but also with more visits and hopefully a more active involvement. Haiti and Puerto Rico share not only geography, but history and a lot of cultural similarities. Like that banner in front of the house we stayed in says (“Que Puerto Rico se sienta en Haití”, Let Puerto Rico be felt in Haiti), I hope that as Haiti has left such a deep mark in my heart and mind, I will also have a chance of leaving a small mark on its people. I bought a prayer book at the airport written by a missionary, whose title is “God is No Stranger”. Definitely, being in Haiti reminded me that God is so present in my life, even when all the noise makes me lose focus. Furthermore, Josee, God is no stranger in Haiti. Screw people’s misconceptions! I believe He is very much present and working there.
I hope you enjoyed my “brief” (lol!) letter. We’ll surely keep in touch.