HAITI: KEVINSON’S STORY (PART 4)
April 13th. All the way from my home in Washington, I’ve been worried about what I might find. The short flight from Miami is uneventful, and from the air I’m reminded of the dual nature of this tiny island nation, one the French call, La Perle des Antilles (The Pearl of the Antilles). From a distance, green mountains rise directly out of a turquoise sea. As we get closer, the rusted metal roofs of the shanti towns come into view, and the gray moonscape of heavy deforestation.
It has been 45 days since I was last here, and driving to the hospital light pours down from the sky, a yellow lamp illuminating everything with equal force: the bright smile of a little girl holding a hibiscus, Haiti’s unofficial national flower; the raggedy hides of Haiti’s cadaverous dogs searching the streets for offal; the omnipresent hope of the people; and the broken dreams of the same. In Haiti, beauty and horror reside side by side. You can’t bear to look, and neither can you look away.
On the best of days, a hospital in Haiti is a heartbreaking place. Walking to Kevinson’s room, children lie dying in every crib and I’m told in the time I’ve been away that Kevinson has shown little, if any, improvement. Steeling myself, I push open the door to his ward. Former Haitian leader, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier once famously said, “It is the destiny of the people of Haiti to suffer”. In the 20’ x 40’ room, 14 recently arrived souls would appear to prove his words true.
In a bright-blue wooden crib, Kevinson lies exactly as I left him, every rib visible and his gaze vacant. Bending over, I put my hand to his head and he responds weakly, and when I ask a nurse when he was last fed, she shrugs and looks away. In this land of recurring sorrow, the earthquake was not the only tragedy, and as difficult as it is to admit, it’s clear General Hospital is less a hospital where children come to get well, and more a place they go to die.
Kevinson’s mother is here and she lets me hold him. It’s like I’m holding a feather. He hasn’t gained a pound and as I pace the room, I coo into his ear, urging him to get better. At the same time, I greet each of the other mothers who sit next to their sick children. In Haiti, with such a shortage of nurses, hospitals require a family member must attend to their children 24 hours a day. Like wilted flowers, the women sit on their miserable metal chairs in their pretty, tattered dresses. They pray, and wait. But for what? As I tour the room, one little girl vomits every few minutes and her mother wipes her chin. Another little girl, completely bald, has feet swollen to twice their normal size and her skin horribly cracked. In agony she rolls her head side to side, crying from the pain. Her mother has died and instead it’s her father that looks after her. “What’s her name?” I ask him. “Medina” I’m told. I take this brave man’s hand in a show of solidarity. He smiles momentarily, just enough that I fear my heart might crack. Looking at me, he doesn’t know what to say, but the degree of suffering in his brown eyes is universal, and there’s no need for translation.
I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. This is at least my fifteenth trip to Haiti (at this point I’ve lost track) and I’m always amazed at the strength and resilience of the Haitian people. How they’re able to endure so much. As for me, it’s not even noon and already I feel my spirit slipping away, a sense of hopelessness creeping in. How self-centered this is, I tell myself. How ridiculous! Kevinson is seven months old and weights barely eight pounds. I am not going to give up! I cradle Kevinson in the crook of my arm and walk the length of the room. Unlike in the States, there’s no smell of cleaning chemicals, instead it’s the sour stink of human sweat, diapers that need to be changed, and other odors of which I don’t want to imagine the source. Out in the hallway, a gurney goes by with a squeaky wheel, and then the most miraculous sound of all, laughter from an adjacent room. Kevinson can only stare back at me and I want to be as strong as the nurses and mothers around me—as strong as Kevinson. I want all this pain and suffering to go away. I look down at Kevinson and I see everything good in the world, or could be, and I know what I have to do.
St Damien’s Hospital is an hour away and has a ward especially for malnourished children, as well as the F100 formula Kevinson needs. The problem is, if I take Kevinson out of General and St. Damien’s denies him, Kevinson will lose his bed here. I weigh the options and risks with Vito who has been by my side since he picked me up from the airport. It would be a huge gamble, we agree. Kevinson was denied a bed at General once already, and there’s no reason to think it might not happen again. But time is running out and as we debate, a spasm shakes Kevinson’s little body.
Vito looks at me and I look at the ceiling and walls. I’ve been a person of faith all my life, I tell him. I’ve relied on the power of prayer in countless situations. Vito nods and motions to the nurse and in this way the decision is made. We will drive with Kevinson to St. Damien’s today. As Vito and I make the arrangements, we can feel the eyes of the other mothers upon us. What cruel lottery were they born into? I want to know. Who loaded the dice? I look around the room. Vito is going crib to crib, bending down to touch and have a quick moment of play with each tiny occupant. He whispers a few, hopeful words to the mothers. In the short time we’ve been here, Vito has bought all the mothers’ lunch and distributed toys to the children. He’s a father of four himself, and when he comes back to me, I can see his heart is heavy.
All this is so different from nearly all other missions I’ve been on, to focus all my energies on a single child, and I’m reminded of a story I was told just recently, about a fisherman throwing starfish back into the sea. There were thousands, too many to save, but he labored on. “It mattered to that one,” he’d say when people pointed out the futility of his efforts. Vito and I agree. If we can save one baby, maybe we can save two. I place Kevinson in Vito’s arms and comb my fingers through my hair. In that hospital room, 3,000 miles from home, love and misery are part of the very air. “Medina,” I say to Vito. “I want to bring Medina too.”