Friday, July 20, 2012

Two years later... please help me help Ruth

Dear friends,
I need your help.
I spent the summer of 2010 in Haiti, helping out after the earthquake. I remember what I was doing this day two years ago – my team and I were frantically putting into place the last details before we opened our mobile clinic in Chabin two days later. We had assembled a staff of a Haitian doctor, assistant nurse, and pharmacist that worked alongside a visiting medical team.
Our Haitian assistant nurse was my dear friend, Ruth. This is her story.
Ruth and I both worked for Haiti Village Health and spent most of every day together. Ruth had been studying nursing, but her school was destroyed in the earthquake. But her story began before that horrible day. This is what she wrote me [my translation from her French]:
“My name is Ruth Pierre Louis and I was born in 1988.  In 2008, I was able to finish my secondary studies, with the 2nd highest grades of my class. My adoptive father was my financial aid and he was assassined by gunshots in the streets of Port-au-Prince. Following this extreme sadness and hardship, I started volunteering and working to ensure my survival. After the earthquake, I had to live with my older sister. She worked with an organization that provided houses. One recent night, heavily armed bandits came to the house at 3:00 in the morning, asking for money and threatening to kill my brother-in-law. My sisters and I hid under a bed in a room behind the house, calling different people to come help us. 45 minutes later, a police car arrived, all the bandits fled after shooting the doors of the house and my brother-in-law’s car.  We all escaped alive. Three weeks later, the same robbers showed up at my brother’s house and, as he was fleeing their gunshots, he fell into a hole 20 feet deep that I believe God created to save his life. We were advised to no longer stay in our hometown. My mother went to live in a city a to the west of Jacmel and I now live with my aunt in port-au-Prince. My whole family is separated.”
Friends, in the two years that I have known Ruth, I have known her to be a caring, generous, and determined young woman. She has applied several times in recent years to nursing schools (in the U.S., as many of the schools in Haiti were destroyed in the earthquake) and while she was always accepted, she was always denied a visa to enter the U.S. In that time, she has seen many of her close friends get opportunities to pursue higher studies (two of whom I know well and have – Fredo is now in China on full scholarship and Gaby is studying nursing in Moncton).
The good news is that Ruth recently got accepted to nursing school in Trinidad. Not only was she granted a student visa, but she also won a partial scholarship to cover 50% of her tuition. And best of all, one of her sister’s lives in Trinidad!
I firmly believe that higher education is one of the keys to Haiti’s future success. I desperately want to help send Ruth to school so that she can come back to Haiti and work in the north as a qualified nurse. I am sending her as much as I can and I am asking any of you that feel so inclined to help me in this endeavour. I am trying to raise $2000 – any amount would be a great help.

If you are interested in helping and would like a tax receipt, please go to the Bridges of Hope website and donate there. *Important: On the last page of the donation process, please click on the “Add special instructions to the seller” and specify that this donation is for “Haiti Village Health – Ruth.” Otherwise, please feel free to make any donations to me personally and I will send the money right away to Ruth. Whichever way you decide to donate, please do send me a note with your mailing address and the amount donated.
Thank you so much everyone!
With love,
Namita and Ruth

Monday, August 30, 2010

The end of my summer in Haiti

Well, this is it. My summer in Haiti is coming to an end. I am sitting in the departure area of the Louverture airport in PAP, waiting for the flight that will take me back home.

I am both excited to go home and sad to leave Haiti behind. It has been quite a summer, full of ups and downs, incredibly frustrating days, but always rewarding ones. I feel like I have accomplished a lot of my personal goals, but more importantly, I know that I have made a difference in so many lives.

This summer, I had the opportunity to distribute food to families who were returning to their homes after living in tents for six months. I helped move 173 families out of one of the worst IDP camps into a planned camp that offered them security and space and dignity. I helped to establish a primary care clinic, giving medical access to a community for the first time.

But some of my biggest successes are because of so many of you from home. To everyone who so generously sent me money, the following was accomplished because of you:

We bought food and baby essentials for a baby girl born under the worst of circumstances: in an IDP camp, at night, under the rain, the mother alone except for a volunteer man whom she did not know (who cut her umbilical cord with a razor).

We started a malnourished girl of 3 years old, who was delayed developmentally, on a course of vitamins after getting her admitted to the hospital. I went to visit her as I went on my round of goodbyes, and like the previous time, she made my heart burst with happiness. When I arrived, she was lying on her tummy and she lifted up her head completely and held it up while she reached for me. The sisters at the orphanage all commented on how well she was progressing. I am sure she will be one her feet one day soon.

Somebody hit our car, knocking off our side-view mirror. With no insurance here, what would be an irritation for us, was a grave matter for my driver. It would have cost him the equivalent of 6 days work to get the mirror fixed, at no fault of his own. I knew he didn’t live with the easiest of circumstances, but this became painfully clear to me when I visited his home yesterday: little more than a two-room shack in little more than a slum. I was so happy to have spared him this difficulty and we purchased the new mirror for him.

We were able to send Charlotte, our fiery unofficial leader of Pinchinat, to PAP to get necessary tests run, as she has been sick since January. These tests are not available in Jacmel and cost a lot in PAP. She was told to go immediately to have these tests done, but she could not because of lack of money. Again, I was so happy to spare her added stress.

Our cook and our cleaner lost their niece in July, leaving behind a 4-month old baby. Milk is very expensive here and many babies are started on liquids other than milk at an early age, leading quickly to malnutrition. We were able to buy the baby a supply of milk. Unfortunately, the story of their family does not end there. Back in November, they lost another cousin. In December, our cook lost her sister and in the earthquake, she lost her daughter, leaving behind a motherless 2-year-old. In May, our cook lost her older sister and then the cousin in July. Two weeks later, her mother died, and two weeks after that, her niece, leaving behind another baby (4 years old) for the family to care for. By this last death, they had run out of money for the burial, an incredibly important part of their mourning. We were able to give them money for a large part of the funeral. More importantly, we were able to set aside enough money to buy provisions for all 3 babies for a year. Every two weeks for the next 12 months, baby provisions will be bought and delivered to the family. It means so much to me to know that we were able to ease some of the burden for these ladies who have taken such good care of me.

With the support from everyone back home, we were able to buy food for young woman of 25 years, who already has 3 children (the oldest with an incurable form of anemia), and is pregnant with her fourth. She has no husband and no means of making money. So, along with an initial supply of food, we were able to start her with her own little business, selling cold drinks at the camp (yes, on top of it all, she lives in an IDP camp), along with bread and homemade peanut butter. When I pulled up to her tent yesterday, even before I told her that her supplies were on their way, she hopped out with her big belly and a huge grin, and kissed me on the cheek. That meant the world to me.

And finally, with the money, we were able to take 12 motivated and keen youth from Pinchinat, and arrange training sessions for them on: water treatment, family planning, and gender-based violence (all key issues for better health). They will, in turn, visit 5 IDP sites 3 times a week and have awareness-building sessions with camp inhabitants. This is a community centre on the go! Not only are we able to pay a salary for each of these youth, but, more importantly, we have given them work to do and have started them on their way to finding full time jobs. And we should be able to educate 1000 inhabitants by the end of one month!!

I cannot thank you, my donors, friends and family, enough for all the help, support and encouragement you have given to me. You made my work in Haiti so much easier and so much more substantial. You have made a difference.

As before, as much as I may have done for Haiti, Haiti did more for me. I learned a lot about myself this summer, and it feels incredible. But it’s time to go home now. It’s time to rest up...because who knows? Another adventure may be around the corner...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My little brother

Some of you may remember that as I left Haiti back in March, I had pledged to help sponsor my friend Fredo for medical school. While I was back home, I emailed a group of people that had already expressed interest in helping him and everyone seemed to be on board. As I was researching his possible schools and trying to put a budget together, I got the best phone call from Haiti. It was Fredo, calling me at work to tell me he had won a scholarship for medical school in Taiwan!!! Apparently the Chinese embassy offers these 5-year scholarships, with everything paid for, including airfare, tuition, room and board. The only condition is that the students must return to Haiti to practice medicine.

Fredo had heard about the opportunity from a friend of his who had won the scholarship a year ago. About 200 students wrote the scholarship exam with Fredo this year and guess who the first one to win the scholarship was?? Yes, my kid brother!!!! I was floored when he told me. I was so proud of him for winning and it gave me goosebumps to know that his whole future had just burst open.

I spent quite a bit of time with Fredo this summer. He introduced me to his family and friends as his sister and I introduced him to all my friends as my little brother. Whenever I needed him, he was there to help me out, pick me up or drop me off wherever I needed to go (I stopped taking motos here [after working in neurocognitive research, I was way to aware of the possible consequences], but he was the only person I trusted enough to take me on moto). I helped him with some translations as he put his papers together. He would message me from PAP every time the next step in his preparations would be completed and he came to the guesthouse to show me his brand new passport so that we could cheer together. He still needed help to get things for his trip, like suitcases and proper clothing, so his friend, D. Pelletier, and I (along with a couple of my friends) were able to get him enough money to buy most things.

Fredo left for China this past Friday. He asked me to come with him and his family to the PAP airport to drop him off, and though I wasn’t able to go, I was incredibly honoured. He had a going away party and his mother insisted I come just so she could be with me for a few minutes – I felt like a part of the family. Then Fredo dropped me home and we hugged and we cried. Fredo won’t be able to come back until his studies are finished. Five years sure is a long time when you’re saying goodbye.

But what promise is held in this goodbye! Way to go, Fredo!!!!!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Our new clinic!

One of the big project’s for Haiti Village Health this summer was to set up a clinic in the area of Chabin. Chabin is a small town just outside of Jacmel, in the mountains between Jacmel and Port-au-Prince. This clinic was to follow the model of the already-established clinic in the tiny village of Bod Me Limbe in the north. The idea is to hire Haitian staff (nurse, doctor and pharmacist) and then bring in rotating medical volunteers to assist in establishing the clinic. Once it’s running on its own two feet, the visiting teams would stop and the clinic would be entirely run by local staff – creating independence and sustainability. It worked in the north, so it was time to do it again here!

Throughout the summer, Mona and I were working piecemeal on this project. Every few days or weeks we would assemble some supplies, or hire local support staff, or arrange for the structure that would hold the clinic temporarily as we looked for more stable funding. A week before the clinic opened, 3 volunteer students arrived and with their help, we hunkered down and worked on getting the last details into place, while another local group, Calvary Chapel, was busy building our tables, beds and benches for the clinic. There were four types of patients we were preparing to see: Timoun (children), Grandmoun (elderly), Fanm ansent (pregnant women), which would all be seen for free, and the general public, which would pay 50 gourdes ($1.25 USD) for a full examination, a booklet to keep as medical history, and all the medication they would need for a month. Every night that week, I worked on preparing the booklets that would, for the first time, give them a record of their medical history and a place to record the medications they have been taken.

Though things were getting done bit by bit, I was a bit concerned about how it was going to come together the morning of opening day. There was still much to do and, of course, we were behind schedule. The first hour was spent arranging furniture and medication on shelves, while Calvary Chapel separated the giant surgical tent into consultation rooms. We had people ferrying supplies already stored in the school into the clinic, we installed a registration desk, we set our volunteers up S(all the while being watched by rows and rows of patients). It was a frenetic morning, with everything coming together at the last moment. But as we started registering our first patients and took them through triage, then consultation, then the pharmacy and lab for basic tests, my heart burst with happiness.

There are some days when it’s so hard to see that you are making a tangible difference. But here it was, evidence I had been looking for: people lined up by the rows, waiting to see a doctor that was finally in their neighbourhood; little babies howling with fear when they were told to stand on a scale because it was the first time they were getting weighed; teenagers getting medications to treat ailments they have had for so long.

Finally these residents were getting medical access. Finally we were accessing people who needed us.

Finally we created something new and needed.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Moving day

Moving day is one of the most dreaded days. In theory it is exciting, but the day itself is always more complicated, takes longer and is more tiring than planned. The final result, however, is what gets most of us through - a new place, with a new slate for a new life. Not here though.

In the last couple of weeks, I spent two days helping with the relocalization of one of the IDP camps. Families in Camp Wolf 2 were being asked to move to nearby Camp Wolf 3. Wolf 2 was located on the grounds outside of a school that was ruined in the quake, but thanks to a large grant that the government of Jacmel received, a new school was going to be built on these grounds. Everyone living here needed to be moved out, and quickly, before the grant was lost. In fact, this was why we had done the night assessments a few weeks ago – to count the number of families in Wolf 2 that actually lived there and would thus need a new home, and to assess how much true space was available for these new families in Wolf 3. Relocalizing families is hard work. Over several days, you have to explain to them why they need to be shifted. You have to provide materials to help them pack up. You have to provide transportation and help and security.

On each day of the actual move, there was one team at Wolf 2, helping them prepare their stuff and taking down their tent as soon as they left (before other families could move in). At the same time, my team and I were preparing tents for them in Wolf 3 (they could only go up as the move began so that, yup, other families wouldn’t move in) and as each family arrived, I found a new home for them. From our perspective, it went fairly smoothly. But as I looked at these families move their meagre possessions from essentially one tent to another, I could only imagine what they must be going through. At the behest of the mayor, they were moving from where they spent the last 6 months building a community, only to have to start all over at this one. And they didn’t even get a choice in the matter.

For the teams and me, it was tough work. Marching around the camp all day in the baking hot sun, putting up tents, making sure families were housed next to people they knew, I could feel myself wilting as the day went on, but it happened to be my birthday that day. The messages and wishes I kept receiving throughout the day kept me going strong. Having my birthday in the middle of the summer has always given me the chance to celebrate in interesting places and interesting ways, but this year was one of the most special celebrations yet. It was a difficult day for the families, to be sure, but we spent the day creating space for a brand new school for kids who have been out of school for far too long. That night was pretty special too. I got to celebrate over dinner and a cake with my new friends from around the world (who each sang to be in their language…..I got sung to 6 times!). I loved my birthday – Haitian style!

But the best part about this day? It was also a practice run for the upcoming BIG relocalization....families from Pinchinat are starting to move out on Monday! Finally!!!!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Health assessments

I had promised myself to see more of Haiti this summer, since I was going to be here for three months this time. Jacmel is pretty small and after six weeks of driving along the same main road every day, back and forth, I was ready for a change. So when I heard of a couple of health assessments that needed to be down in nearby towns, I jumped at the chance.

We went to Bainet a couple of weeks ago. This is the next town west of Jacmel, right along the southern coast. It’s only about 40 kms away, but I was told to prepare for a long journey. They weren’t kidding. It took us three hours to get there, driving on the bumpiest road I have ever been on, up into the mountains. It would have been a beautiful drive had my head not been bouncing around crazily. But as we crested the mountain, we could see Bainet below us, bright and colourful, with the ocean just beyond. Gorgeous!

Bainet itself is an old town, like Jacmel, with interesting architecture and old narrow roads (so narrow, in fact, that we had to do practically an 8-point turn to get into the street housing the town clinic), with a population of 70, 000 people. I had already heard that there was a hospital here, but that it was not fully functioning due to staffing issues. We found a few more problems than we bargained for. The clinic is named The Bainet 10 Bed Clinic. It is, in fact, Bainet’s only medical facility, and it only has 10 beds. This place has one operating room that is currently being used as a storage space. There is a dentist’s office, but no one knows if the equipment still works, since they haven’t had a dentist in 4 years. There is one labour and delivery room, but as a woman, I would never have used that room – a small cramped space, with two half beds with stirrups (so women have to sit up, there is no other half of the bed to lie down on) and a non-functioning bathroom. In fact, none of the bathrooms at the clinic are functioning. The facility has a small generator for electricity, but they don’t always have money to keep it running on gas - they have been known to deliver or suture people up in the dark. Pregnant woman tend to stay at home for deliveries and children rarely come here to receive care. If there are any urgent cases, or complicated deliveries, patients are referred to Jacmel’s St. Michel hospital. Bainet does not have an ambulance.This means that patients requiring surgery, women in labour that need a c-section, or patients that cannot be covered in Bainet, have to travel that bumpy road for 3 hours by moto to get to Jacmel. 3 HOURS. On a motorcycle. Unbelievable.

A few days after, we went to do an assessment at Anse-a-Pitres, a town right at the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. It is a smaller town, only 27, 000 people, but, as a bordering town, there is quite a bit of human trafficking, mostly in the form of prostitution. There is quite a bit of gender-based violence here. While we were there, we were told of several cases of rape involving young girls, including one girl who who was pregnant at 14 years old with her second child. She had her first child when she was 11. Anse-a-Pitres is about 80 kms or so from Jacmel, but it takes anywhere from 7-9 hours to get there because of the roads. In fact, if one decided to do this journey by car, it is preferable to go up to PAP and back down east, rather than head directly east along the southern coast from Jacmel. This clinic does not have an operating room and again, most women deliver at their homes. They have one vehicle to offer their urgent cases – a moto, of course. And it takes so long to get to the nearest Haitian hospital, that urgent or complicated cases are always sent across the border to the DR. This is not good.

The worst thing about these two towns is that neither was really damaged by the earthquake. This is the standard of care that has always been offered here. No standard at all. Happily, however, we should be able to help with the staffing.

Oh, by the way, I did not drive the 7 hours to and from Anse-a-Pitres. This was my ride!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

An emotional week

It has been a tough few days here. There is a tropical storm sitting over Haiti right now. For awhile, it looked like it was going to turn into a hurricane, but thankfully it stayed nice and calm. I say calm, but it has rained heavily here the last few days, flooding roads so badly. In fact, my trip to Port-au-Prince the other day was delayed for several hours due to road blockage from rains and landslides. Last night, the wind from tropical storm Bonnie kicked up several notches… was pretty fierce. I lay awake most of the night, thinking of the camps and praying everyone was ok. We spoke to Charlotte this morning, and she said several tents fell during the night, right on top of people. Sigh.

Weather aside, it’s been emotional here lately. I work closely with my Haitian colleague, Mona. She and I became very close during my last trip here, and have only gotten closer since my return. We spend all day, everyday together, going from meeting to meeting, planning the community centre (updates in a later entry) and medical clinic (also another update!), and giggling and talking. She is like a sister to me. She is amazing. She was born and brought up in PAP, the middle child in a family of 7 children. Her mother died when she was 15, and her father died when she was 17. With her siblings’ help, she got through medical school and after graduating, she starting working in the north of Haiti, raising her son at the same time while her husband completed medical school. To reach this clinic, she used to ride a moto for two hours each way. All her siblings have moved to north America, but, despite their insistence that she join them, she wants to stay in Haiti. When she came to Jacmel with Haiti Village Health after the earthquake, it represented a new phase of life for her – she and her husband are finally together (well, on weekends….he travels in the countryside during the week with a mobile clinic), her son is in school and she is sharing her house with her two best friends. Last Saturday, she called me in the morning asking for the day off to spend with one of her housemates (Daphnee) and this housemate’s husband, since he was visiting (he also works in another town). Apparently they all had an amazing day together. As Daphnee, Daphnee’s husband and sister were driving towards Leogane, they got in a car accident. Daphnee’s sister fractured her arm badly and after a day in the local hospital, she was flown back to her home in the States for surgery. Daphnee and her husband both died. They are survived their 6 month old baby girl.

Mona is devastated. She manages to keep distracted during the days while we work, and I am happy I can be there with her and for her, distracting her and making her laugh. But that first day back to work was hard. We were in the car, quiet as I held her hand, and then she started to talk. As we drove through the streets, she talked about her friend, who was like a sister to her. She talked about her parents, she talked about the tough times she had in her life. As she spoke, we both cried. We went to Pinchinat and I felt so discouraged and so so sad for everyone there. We kept crying and talking as we went to the orphanage to drop of our vitamins for our malnourished girl (see “Updates and more!” entry). As we neared the orphanage, I saw the lineup of people, waiting for food, as I had seen them in March. There were so many children, hands clasped with siblings that weren’t much older. I was feeling like everywhere I looked, there was suffering and my heart completely broke for everyone. For camp residents, for the kids waiting for a meal, for Mona who has lost so many important people. I went in search for our girl with a runny nose and puffy eyes.

I saw her sitting up, her tiny body being supported by the side of her crib. She looked the same and as I approached her, I was about to burst into loud sobs. But before I had the chance, the best thing happened…. She reached out her arm to me and she smiled! Oh, it was like the sun burst out and I started crying and laughing. I was so happy for my girl, who had strength enough to recognize me and lift her arm right out. I held her hand and tickled her and yes, she ended up flopping down, but that’s ok. Baby steps. She will be ok.

There are days here when it feels like for every two steps forward, you take four back. But that’s ok. There were still two steps forward.