January 12, 2011, the first anniversary of the horrendous earthquake in Port au Prince, was only a week ago, but as usual in Haiti, the events of the day cloud the recollections of even the recent past.
Last Wednesday, our day at HAS started with a ceremony in the central garden of the hospital, organized by the employees. Dr. Maurice Toussaint served as Maitre de Ceremonie in light of the role he had as acting Medical Director on the day of the earthquake. Dr. Toussaint reflected on the way in which all of the staff had banded together last year to meet the tremendous challenge of the flood of injured patients, without asking what shift they were on, or when they might get a break.
Pastor Ruben, the beloved physician extender who serves as counselor to the HAS AIDS patients, then led the group in prayer. He recalled the tragedy of the tremblers, their aftermath, the strength and endurance of the patients who arrived at HAS last year, and the hope brought to us all when they started to return home.
Jeanne Florestant, a community services nurse who came in from the mountains to serve the victims last January, remembered the nurses who fell in the ruined hospitals and schools, and then remembered the courage and strength of the nurses who brought support and concern to the patients. On the day after the earthquake, when Jeanne had arrived at the hospital to volunteer, I thanked her for coming. She looked surprised. “Of course I would come,” she said. “These are my brothers and sisters,” she continued, speaking for all of the staff.
Jn-Marie, a housekeeper, spoke on behalf of the many non-clinical employees who worked tirelessly after the quake to help to make the hospital habitable, clean and functional. He said that on this day in 2011, “We give thanks to God that we are here; we don’t deserve to be, and we are here only through God’s grace.” He said that the challenges of the days following the earthquake forced each of us to find out who we were, and who we could be. “And now,” he asked, “who are we today?”
Several in the audience volunteered to offer their reflections. Dr. Prophete Belizaire, who has returned home to his birthplace, Deschapelles, to serve at HAS, said that the events of the last weeks of January 2010 taught him, as clearly as any book might, what the true meaning of Reverence for Life is. Marco Normil, artist, community leader and HAS outreach worker, remembered a spirit of solidarity which he had never before experienced, and he reminded us that “Any day could be the 12th of January.”
Slowly, the attendees, who were ringing the courtyard and sitting on the low walls, dispersed and returned to their posts. The hospital was full, and there was a lot to do, but it was done through the day quietly, pensively and reflectively.
Last Wednesday in the middle of the day, our attention shifted to the Hanger Klinik, where a large number of patients had come to celebrate the new freedom and self-confidence they had acquired by being fitted with a prosthetic leg (or legs) during the past 11 months. A youth group, composed of handicapped persons, amputees, and others, enthusiastically sang a song about cholera and how it can be prevented. Jay Tew, the Hanger prosthetist who started the lab, and who has returned to spend several weeks with the prosthetics team, welcomed the participants, which included a large number of journalists, and senior officials from Partners in Health and the Ministry of Health, as well as from partner organizations in Port au Prince such as the Catholic Medical Mission Board.
Several patients who were at the Klinik last week for adjustments to their new limbs spoke with great emotion about what it means to them to have the ability to walk to go to work, and to the market; and also to be able to play with their children, or, on occasion, to dance or even to play soccer in the street.
One of four local tradesman employed at the Hanger Klinik who over the past year has learned many news skills, Tcho, told with great pride how rewarding it has been to be able to actively participate in the creation of the legs, and to help the patients to learn how to use them.
In between other songs from the youth group, several teams presented theater pieces, sang, spoke. In one powerful demonstration, a man raced out of the clinic courtyard and back at top speed, stopped on the stage and lifted his pants legs to reveal two metal pylons extending to his new Nikes. The joy of new legs.
It’s hard to share the meaning of that day – the one year anniversary of the earthquake – to those who were not here. Every emotion was shared, from belly laughs to silent tears, from singing the chorus of songs to quiet individual reflection, and from the remembrance of tragedy and loss to recognition that the universality of hope and the resilience of the people of Haiti provide a unique and inspiring combination that guides our work here.