Today after my hospital rounds, I found my way to a local Baptist church for Sunday service. The church, a humble building, past a small outside market by an unpaved road and near a small creek with meandering pigs and goats, was teaming with people. The well-groomed young and old with their best Sunday outfits crowded the entrance and easily filled the seats. High ceiling fans cooled the inside of the church. Straw hats and cloths in the bright colors of Haitian paintings covered the drab walls. An energetic church youth group led the service. Their prayers did not follow set formulas but were intensely personal and deeply felt. I was deeply touched by their fervor in mostly expressing their gratitude for their blessings when so much calamity had fallen in their midst. The loud music and prayers easily erased the harsh realities of the times. After the service, I followed a group of worshippers as they walked to the hospital in order to pray and bless the sick on the Ward. Head bowed, they sang prayers at the bedsides while the relatives and friends joined them in an almost magical moment when I felt all the pain and suffering of all, disappeared. It was a moment when the common bond of our humanity, patients, caregivers, physicians and nurses came through to transcend the overwhelming pleading and moaning we experience daily on the wards.
At first, coming to work at HAS, I felt shell shocked to see the sheer number of patients with extreme life threatening conditions. But now, reflecting on my experience at the hospital, the word Dignity stands out. Despite the utter poverty, patients would show up with their best clothes, washed up, and never asking for pity. Their endurance in the face of such suffering and dark future is something to behold. I still see the faces of Claudena and of Mislande among others. These young women, afflicted with TB, pneumonia and HIV, were so weak that they could hardly speak when I met them at the clinic. I suspected that they were also shy. Their almost lifeless stare and their barely audible voices made it difficult at first to take a proper history of their presenting illness, so common in the clinic, of coughing, fevers, diarrhea, and weight loss. Claudena, who had stopped school to care for her dying mother, became ill shortly afterwards, four months before her visit. She had become a ghost of her former self, according to her aunt who brought her to the hospital. By this time the left side of her chest had been ravaged by tuberculosis, a disease that prays on the weakened, anemic, and malnourished body. However, throughout her stay, her hair remained well braided and she would carefully cover her cough so as not to infect anyone. Mislande, a 17 year old, full of rebellious life, had “disappeared” for three months until she presented to her mother who promptly brought her, “skin and bones”, to HAS. We found her to be HIV positive and suffering from pneumonia, diarrhea, and a painful esophageal fungus infection so common in someone whose immunity is severely diminished by HIV. Despite her severely weakened state, she would make sure to properly cover herself with the bed sheet when I came to examine her during my morning rounds. How can I forget the dignity of Simon who, after I explained to him that the cause of his back and abdominal pain was a huge unstable dissecting abdominal aortic aneurysm, a fatal condition we could not fix, commented on life in general, thanked me for my caring, offered a handshake as farewell, all the while understanding the significance of the pending explosion in his body?
Finally, when I think of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Haiti, the word oasis comes to mind. An oasis is a place where we come to find not just shade, water and rest, but mostly regeneration. HAS offers succor. Destitute patients travel a long way to find hope and relief of their sufferings. They are brought in by their loved ones in the hope of being cured when no one else could do so. The hospital has been there for them for more than 55 years and hopefully will be there for much longer. To the volunteer corps of physicians, nurses, health professionals, engineers, and many others who find their way from far to come here and help, HAS also offers succor. To some, it assists in their quest to extend a meaningful hand to another: that meaningful connection we all long for, in one way or another. For others, it allows for various research endeavors while truly making a difference in the lives of the people here. Others, such as the well builder or the water engineer, get to see their skills saving lives in a very short time. All in all, it is a place where volunteers can, at some point, find a peace of mind and of heart. For all of us, by witnessing the attitude toward life of our Haitian patients in the face of continuing tribulations, we gain the comfort that comes from appreciating our life and being thankful.