Steno Pad

The image for this post was taken by Hannah Brewer

Administrator’s Note: Ok I did it again. I was working on a post this week and time got the best of me. And by time I mean Ruzzle. Actually, it has been a pretty hectic week. So instead of posting a hastily written piece the night before I am going to post a section of something that I was working on as a book for a friend. It has become apparent that the book will never materialize so I will just hold on to the other stories for weeks when I procrastinate here on the blog.

The Summer and Fall of 2010 brought a deadly cholera outbreak to Haiti that continues to this day.  Thousands of people died from the water borne disease because of breakdowns in infrastructure after the devastating earthquake in January of that same year.  While it was the lack of infrastructure and clean water, along with tropical storms and hurricanes, that spread the disease, the cause was actually U.N. peacekeepers, who brought an Asian strand of cholera with them to their bases and thus infecting Haiti with a problem that it hadn’t seen in over a hundred years.

We began receiving email updates from our headquarters in St. Louis Du Nord in the Fall informing us that cholera had in fact reached the Northwest department of Haiti, and it soon became an extremely dangerous problem.  Danielle and I were asked to leave La Baie, where we lived, to help out at the clinic that our organization had set up, along with several other large NGOs. Once in St Louis du Nord, my main job was to help coordinate supplies, making sure that we had enough of everything that we needed, mainly ringers lactate to keep patients hydrated, and also to help locate further sources of those supplies.  We were also there to help out in any way possible with the day to day functioning of the clinic, such as helping with the volunteers, problem solving, disposing of dead bodies, and just generally providing moral support to the team of Haitian and American doctors, nurses, and volunteers.

I kept a steno pad with me wherever I went for those weeks when we were helping to manage the clinic.  It contained everything from phone numbers, to medicines that we needed, names of patients to a logbook of expenses.  One particular page was towards the back and was divided into dates.  Below each date were tally marks for the day ranging from one mark on a good day up to about eight on the worst day.  These marks were an admittedly crude way to keep a basic running total of the people who had died so that we could report those numbers to the proper people (official records with names and vital information were also kept and relayed to the proper authorities, but this was my way of keeping a real time total).

It was the most physically and emotionally draining period of my entire life.  The makeshift clinic (a large classroom) was full most of the time as were the recovery room (a large military tent) and the room for people with less severe cases (an unfinished bakery).  Cholera is not a pretty death as it extracts all the fluids from a person, killing them from dehydration through violent vomiting and diarrhea.  Patients laid on cots with holes cut out of them and buckets underneath because they were often too weak to even get up to defecate.

My daily routine consisted of waking up around five in the morning and walking down to the clinic to see if there had been any deaths overnight.  If there were I would arrange contact with the family and what was to be done with the body as well.  After that I would check on everyone to make sure that they had the supplies needed, something that we did throughout the day.  A good friend named Brandon, now working in Nicaragua, and I would spend a lot of time on our phones talking to various agencies and suppliers of medical materials, and we also spent a lot of time on the computer emailing resources and people we worked with back in the States.  At night we would make sure that there were enough staff to man the clinics overnight and then usually get to bed around midnight or so.  This was the normal pattern for the time we spent dealing with the cholera clinic.

There are many stories that I could tell you about what took place in and around the cholera clinic.  I could tell you about the little boy who was on the verge of death, next to his father who was suffering the same fate and how everyone in the clinic was pulling for the little boy like he was their favorite baseball team in the World Series (both the boy and his father lived).  I could tell you of having to carry dead children to the morgue only to return back to the clinic and find that two more people had died during my short walk.  I could tell you of people who drove hours from up in the mountainous regions of Haiti to bring their loved ones to the clinic, only to have them die on the stairs leading into the clinic door.  I could tell you of the two young Haitian men, interpreters by trade, with no medical training, who took charge of the morgue and prepared the bodies for burial, an undesirable task to say the least, according to the health standards, and did so for weeks while still keeping a positive attitude.  But one story in particular has stuck with me more than the others.

One morning I woke up early as usual and walked to the clinic, which was outside the main gate of the campus where we worked.  It was still dark and I was working by headlight, walking from one room to the other across the street, when I heard a noise coming up the road.  A large group of people was making their way towards the clinic.  Experience in Haiti (who am I kidding, in America as well) had taught me to be wary of large crowds as they can often lead to no good, but even from a distance it was obvious that this was different.  Almost to a member the crowd was clutching rosary beads, which immediately made them recognizable as members of the nearby Catholic Church.  The crowd stopped in front of the first building, which was home to the most serious patients.  There they sang songs that I recognized as songs from church.  After a few songs the woman at the front of the group led them in prayer aloud together, praying for the patients, their families, and those taking care of them.  They repeated this liturgy in front of the recovery room, the church, and the main gate to the campus itself.

At some point along the way I ducked behind a bus and had a long hard cry, something I had not done in a long time, something I think that we all wanted to do or did do at several points during the week.  You see it was not just the gesture of praying and singing but it was the fact that these people purposefully made themselves present in a place that many people in town were avoiding with fear of contracting the awful disease.  It was like a story from the New Testament in which the chorus of people collectively played the role of Jesus and the people in the clinic responded by playing that of the leper/blind man/bleeding woman etc.  I played the role of the audience to this divine drama, and stood in awe at the people in front of me and in disgust at the state of the world in which we live.  The crowd exited to the right almost as suddenly as they had appeared from the left, and I remained, pondering the previous days, and then continued with my routine.

The experience of working in a cholera clinic is one that has forever changed me in multiple ways.  I came back to America with a sort of numbness to death.  I do not know if this is a bad thing or not but it is reality for me that when people die, I do not take it nearly as badly as I used to.  I often find myself thinking that people in America are lucky enough to have lived as long as they have and so I often do not feel pity for them especially in contrast to the people I saw in the clinic.

This story is also a reminder to me that we sometimes lose focus.  I was running around carrying boxes, trying to locate supplies, and keeping stats to the point that I was taken aback by a group of people praying.  It would have been a moving experience one way or the other, but these ladies that had walked up the road, so peacefully and seriously reminded me of the simplicity of it all, singing and praying.

One last thing that this story helps me to remember is that we should not listen to stereotypes of people.  Many people and news stories would have you to think that Haitian people are child-sacrificing, violent, godless heathens, when this is not at all my experience, in fact I would say that Haitian people if anything, are more spiritual than most people that I have come in contact with.

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Categories: A First Faint Gleam

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2 Comments on “Steno Pad”

  1. February 3, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

    Powerful. Thanks for sharing. Feel free to procrastinate more. I would look forward to more of these Haiti stories…

    • curtisrrogers
      February 4, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

      Thanks man, and thanks for reading. I am sure some more of them will end up on the site. Stories are best told over a campfire, cigar and bourbon though so next time you are in town we should all get together.

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