HAITI: KEVINSON’S STORY (PART 5)
A curved driveway leads up to the main buildings of St. Damien’s Pediatric Hospital on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The grounds are well kept and a variety of palm trees and ornamental bushes line the gravel drive. I’ve been holding Kevinson in my lap the entire trip from General Hospital, his mother Enick in the back seat staring blindly out the window. Day to day scenes of city life flash by: brightly painted tap-tap buses packed to the bursting point with passengers, street vendors selling sugar cane, the ubiquitous small knots of men gathered in alleyways rolling dice. At one point we pass a gravel making operation, half-a-dozen women sitting under a cloth tarp cracking white rocks with blunt hammers. Five years after the earthquake reduced much of their city to rubble, it would appear they are attempting to finish the job, and I can’t decide if their efforts are sadly ironic, or deserve my applause.
We pull up to the main doors of the hospital and get out. We know prolonged malnutrition in children can lead to cognitive and physical delays and is the number one underlying cause of death in children under five in Haiti. Kevinson’s lethargy, his vacant gaze, and swollen belly are textbook symptoms of extreme malnutrition, and when the admitting nurse sees him, she recognizes the seriousness of his condition right away. Before I can get my hopes up, however, we’re told in no uncertain terms there’s no bedspace. Once again, Kevinson will have to wait.
It’s pointless to compare the standards of healthcare in the United States to those in Haiti, but I’m holding a starving infant in my arms (one who doesn’t even have the energy to cry), and basically being told to “take a number”. Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is a thing with feathers,” but in my experience Perspective poses an equal flight risk and with Kevinson growing weaker, I am in danger of losing both.
For the next two days, Enick, Vito, and I sit in the hallway with a dozen other mothers and their sick children. We offer quiet encouragement, and watch the clock. When Kevinson is finally admitted, he’s taken into the ER and stays there for six days until being moved upstairs to the malnutrition ward. He is diagnosed with severe malnutrition, a urinary track infection, fever, and worms. To our great relief, he is put on the life-saving F75 and F100 formulas, and slowly, slowly, begins to respond. After the first week, he has the energy to cry—how strange it is to be happy for this!—and for the first time since coming into our care he’s able to lift his hands and move his head around. He even smiles! He's still very skinny of course, and his little limbs look like they belong to a frog, but by the grace of God he’s getting better. Miracles come in all shapes, forms, and sizes, and little Kevinson, who hasn’t known a day outside of suffering, is proof that my prayers are being answered.
As can be imagined, getting Kevinson to this point has been an exhausting, and, to be quite honest, brutal experience. At one point it brings me to my breaking point. I think there comes a time like this for everyone, when their faith is tested, when frustration builds, when bureaucracy is escalated to its most absurd and can no longer be endured. In Kevinson’s case, I couldn’t bear to see the humanness of the situation being ignored. This was not some policy decision in the abstract, or an inanimate object we could cast aside. Here was a human life, a helpless child who needed so little to be saved. The stakes couldn’t have been higher.
Two days after Kevinson is admitted to St. Damien’s and in the ER, the head nurse approaches me. And before I go any further, let me give full credit to these courageous, warm, and kind-hearted women. On a day-to-day basis, year-in year-out, they witness scenes of unimaginable suffering, ones of such horror you do not want to know about and I prefer not to describe. These women are angels in their own right, doing God’s work, and at the same time human—as I am. In this instance, the head nurse, a skinny woman at least ten years younger than me, informs us that Vito and I have not gone through the proper channels or procedures to have Kevinson or the other little girl we brought with us, Medina, admitted. I insist we have, but she doesn’t want to hear it, saying the other nurse should not have let either of them have a bed.
At first I argue politely, thinking this is a small matter that can be easily resolved. Such roadblocks are common, expected in fact, and my training has taught me how to push through. But as our conversation drags on and begins to escalate, I begin to truly worry. This nurse is digging in her heels, unapologetically falling back upon hospital policy. She wants Kevinson to leave, insists on it in fact.
Really? Is she serious? How can this be? It goes against all reason that she wants to turn this sick, malnourished baby away. Vito and I have worked so hard to get Kevinson to a place where he can finally get the care he needs, and now they’re going to toss him out because of a bureaucratic snafu? It’s unconscionable. I try to explain this to the nurse, but her position becomes more and more intractable, and as the reality of the situation sinks in, I grow more and more heated.
Looking back, I can see I was tired. Over-tired. I was hot and hadn’t eaten properly that day. On top of that the stress and anxiety of the last few days, of the last few months really, had finally led to relief. But now, all of a sudden, I could see my hopes and dreams for Kevinson being snatched away. I could picture Kevinson on the first day we encountered him, listless and on death’s door, and I could recall every step of the way where we’d won small victories on the road to getting him healthy. Kevinson was the reason I’d returned to Haiti for this trip, a “mission” I believe I was sent on by powers higher than any which reside on Earth. So it was that in that moment, arguing with that nurse, all my frustrations, all my hopes and fears coalesced.
My voice began to rise. I began to wave my arms, point my finger. I grew angry, then furious. I began dropping names, anyone I could think of, higher-ups in the hospital I had no right to utter. In my mind I was reaching for anything, any tactic that could work to make this woman change her mind. At the same time, I was conscious of being a white woman throwing a tantrum, that this is not how things are done in Haiti. But I was past the point of caring. The acceptance of fate, the belief in the inevitability of death, was not something I was going to entertain, not for a child as beautiful as Kevinson. Every child is the handiwork of God, of course, I know that, all of them worthy of our love and our fight. One cannot be valued over another. One does not deserve a hospital bed and access to medicine while another is denied access and waits like a dog to die. But Kevinson had come so far. He had held up his end of the bargain—and then some. And I was responsible. Once again it was my turn to be there for him, and this nurse, this good soul, stood before me with her arms crossed and an iron look on her face.
Ever since I have been a little girl, I have had a stubborn streak. I don’t like to be told no. In my ten plus years of training with the Hotes Foundation I’ve learned how to dig deep. Facing that nurse, I was acutely aware of my surroundings. Where I was, why, and how I had ended up there. And I was proud of what I do. Of who I am, what I believe in. That said, I don’t think I’m in any way special, that I am better than anyone else, or deserve special treatment. But I do hold my head high, and am thankful I can be of service and do even the little bit of good that I do. Which is why I’m not ashamed, nor the least bit embarrassed to admit that in that moment, when fear got the best of me and I imagined all had been lost, that diplomacy, righteous anger, and intense love gave way to tears. In full view of the staff, the other mothers, in front of my friends and indeed God himself, I stood there and wept.
* * * * *
To this day, I don’t know what swayed the head nurse. Maybe she’s a mother too, recognized my tears, and saw my fear. Pride is a difficult thing to swallow. It’s bitter, and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But in the end the head nurse relented and told me she’d allow Kevinson to stay. I was grateful, thankful beyond belief, and told her so. And I could see in her way she was too, but that it had cost her something as well, her dignity in front of her staff perhaps, or her dedication to procedure, I’m not sure. But for both of us, I think there was renewed relief, and solace in the knowledge that we were on the same side, doing the right thing.
How strange, I have come to reflect. How wonderfully difficult and rewarding life is. How cruel. And what effervescent joy it can bring. That afternoon, spent from all the emotion, I walked outside into the fresh air. Birds murmured in the heat while trees cast giant puzzle piece shadows on the ground. Somewhere a dog barked, and a faint breeze brought the sweet odor of frangipane to my nose. The sun was still high and lifting my face to the sky the blood rushing through my veins turned my vision pink. Kevinson was not out of the woods, not yet, this I knew, but once more there was hope, that thing with feathers, that never dies, and, breathing deep, I offered my sincere thanks to the One that is always there, and helps me the most.
(Stay tuned for our 6th blog and final installment of Kevinson’s story, including what obstacles the team must overcome, how Carolyn’s prayers are answered, and how Kevinson finally finds his new home.)