My trip to Leogane, Haiti is an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I was exposed to a culture that I thought I knew, but truly did not know anything about. As a person of Haitian descent, this experience was a personal one. I felt as if I learned more about the place my parents left behind, the strength within these people and a lot about myself as a person.
We flew into Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Saturday, March 10th. The first thing that struck me was the heat. On the way to the FSIL campus, we had a chance to take a windshield survey of the community. There was devastation everywhere. Houses were half-constructed and garbage littered the streets. There were tent cities with people living on top of one another. People raced past one another on motorbikes and in “tap-tap” cabs. It was clear that we weren’t in New York anymore. From the first day we arrived, we put our bags down and began to work. We immediately unpacked our medical supplies and began constructing nurse blessing kits and CPR/First Aid kits for the community. This also provided us with a great opportunity to meet the diverse group of people working with us. Everyone was so friendly and inviting, ready to share ideas and make a difference.
The second day of the trip was when we attended church services. Being a Jehovah’s Witness, Dr. Tim made the generous concession to make arrangements for me to attend my meeting services in Haiti. In New York, I attend religious services in Haitian Creole. However, this was a completely different and eye-opening experience. The Haitian people placed so much of themselves and their hearts into their praise and worship. During their worship, it was as if they felt God. This was evident through their singing and their heartfelt joy to come together in worship. After church services, we were offered an opportunity to take a tour of L’Hopital Saint Croix, the local hospital where we would be working. The hospital was not large, but there were people lining up at the door with a guard posted to maintain security. The first thing that struck me were the hospital rooms. There were no sheets on the bed and the mattresses were almost ripped apart. The walls had smudges of dirt and there were no privacy curtains to note. Looking at the conditions of the hospital made me wonder about what experiences awaited us the next day. After the hospital trip, about five of us were given the opportunity to go into the community and purchase supplies for our community visits. Going into the community market was interesting. There were so many sounds, smells, and people. At first, the only thing I saw was dust. Then, going into the market, we found many people that used the marketplace as their livelihood. People were offering what they had, hoping for someone to stop and make a purchase. An interesting moment was when Sheila (another volunteer) and I were standing in the marketplace near two instructors. The merchants started to talk about us in Creole, completely unaware that we were of Haitian descent. They began to say that we were the adopted Haitian children of the two instructors and that we probably don’t remember anything about our past life in Haiti. When we began to laugh, that’s when they realized that we understood them. I loved how unabashedly they spoke about anything and everything. They weren’t afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings.
I had some wonderful experiences working in the hospital setting. On my first day working in the hospital, I was assigned to the maternity ward with Nick. The nurses were initially curt, but once they realized I understood Creole, they became so open and friendly. They were some of the funniest women I ever had the pleasure of meeting. My patient for the day came in with a suspected abortion awaiting dilation and curettage. The nurses were unsure whether the abortion was spontaneous or induced. While doing my assessment, I observed what was greatly lacking in this hospital: privacy. Losing a child is a private and emotional experience. I hated having to question her in front of her family, two other patients and their families as well. Through my assessment, I discovered that she did have a spontaneous abortion. I offered her emotional support then went to the birthing room to witness a delivery. I was struck by the lack of sterility in this environment. People were charging their phones, starting IVs with no gloves, and no one washed their hands. However, I was amazed at the skill and teamwork of the Haitian nurses. They came to work and relied on one another, helping one another out along the way. While in the OR, the Haitian nurses and I had a frank discussion about the differences between the American healthcare system and the Haitian healthcare system. It was great to hear the perspectives and opinions about community health care. Witnessing the delivery of a baby is even better when you get to be an active participant in the process. We became a part of the team, clamping, cutting, and medicating the newborn infant. I even had the privilege to hold the baby for the first 15 minutes of his life while we got and sanitized a crib for him to stay in.
The second day in the hospital involved interaction with the nursing students where I was able to teach her about sound clinical judgment and how to develop assessment skills. The patient we worked with struck me emotionally because we were the same age, but she was experiencing an extremely life-threatening case of leptospirosis and I felt that the care she was receiving meant that she would inevitably die. All day, we monitored her oxygen saturation and temperature as her vital signs fluctuated constantly. During these interactions, I was able to implement critical thinking skills and also help the nursing student understand the connection between her symptoms and the impact it was having on her system-wide.
The home visits were eye-opening. Before, I only knew of homes that my family members owned in Haiti. I didn’t realize how people lived and I didn’t fully understand the struggles they were going through. But, the most enlightening thing was their perspective about their situation. I visited a home where there were 3 young children and an older grandmother living in a cloth and metal tent with two beds, no tables and one chair. There was no bathroom and the family had to travel over an hour to get clean water. The bathroom was off-site, family member slept on the floor, and the school-age child hadn’t eaten in two days. However, when I asked the grandmother “What life concerns do you have right now?”, she replied none. She spoke of how happy she was with her life and how happy she was that she and the kids were healthy. That was all she needed to be content. Her community surrounded her and supported her. Even though we, through Western eyes, saw poverty and despair, she saw hope and contentment. She taught me more in that one sentence that I could ever learn in a classroom.
The community education days were moments where I was able to display leadership skills and also adapt my communication skills. As the fluent Haitian Creole speaker in my group, I was able to take the lead in creating the teaching plan and coordinating the presentation. I translated the reference information and helped the group to filter out unnecessary information that would not be culturally relevant. When educating the school age children, our communication level was extremely simplified. Our group also has a great translator who worked with us to present the information we provided while adding relevant information that would be understandable to the students. Our translator also helped us to present the information in a way that would relate to school age Haitian students. We removed a lot of clinical information that would be above their scope of understanding. We also made use of visual presentations and a “right way/wrong way” skit to solidify the information. By quizzing the students after each section, we were able to see if they comprehended the information provided. However, our group’s communication level changed. However, we had to add a lot more clinical information in order to help modify health behaviors. While teaching about seizures, one monitrice stated that seizures were a result of evil spirits and demons. I tried to help her to understand the simple science behind seizures in order to change her perception. We also had to contend with a lot of dated information. When teaching about seizures, people spoke of holding family members down or placing things in their mouths. It was important to use clear language in order to help them understand that these were not safe practices. We had a different translator who, at times, added unnecessary information. At one instance, I had to intervene and correct him because he told a parent to not send her epileptic child to school because having epilepsy is the equivalent of being paralyzed.
I loved eveything about this trip. I met and worked with wonderful people, most notably the CUNY SPS group, and was able to learn from their experience and skills. Being in the community helped me to understand more about myself as a Haitian-American. Growing up in New York, being Haitian was something to be ashamed of. However, witnessing the strength, education, and community values present among the Haitian people filled me with pride. Every home we visited, every patient we saw made me feel like I was helping a family member or a friend. Caring in the community differs from the acute care setting because the interaction is what matters most. Sometimes, we may not be able to fix the problem or find the cure. But, our presence was a help to them and we helped by providing the most sustainable resource available: education. This trip has stirred the volunteer spirit within me. I can’t wait to return to Haiti and to benefit from more trips like this. Finally, working with Monique, Paola, Dorota, and Nicholas was an absolute pleasure. I honestly feel like the experience was better because of the great group I was blessed to work with.