Thursday, April 24, 2014

Healing and Rebuilding: A Visit to “The New Haiti”

Associate Editor Dr. Phyllis Dennery recently returned from a trip to Haiti. Here, she reflects on what it’s like to be both a physician and family member returning to a country still very much in the throes of a long, chaotic journey towards renewal.

Child bathing in the streets. Photo by Dr. Phyllis Dennery
It was meant to be a visit to Haiti to accompany my 82-year-old mother back to her home country after a 25-year absence.

Instead, it became a week of introspection where I asked myself what went wrong in
the island that used
to be referred to as
the “Pearl of the Antilles.” This beautiful country
with so many natural resources and pristine beaches had now become a post-apocalyptic shell of its former self.

Our first destination was Petit-Goâve. We spent 3 days at a friend’s home with no running water and sporadic, nearly absent and unpredictable electricity. I’m ashamed to admit that this felt like a major inconvenience to me, when this was a daily reality for even the middle-class residents of this small town. The challenge of transporting water for daily needs was unimaginable. I met Natasha, a 16 year old with a second grade education who worked in the day as a servant. She bore the scars of her mother’s wrath. My naïve assumption that I could help her learn her multiplication tables in a few days was quickly shattered.

Beach at Jacmel. Photo by Dr. Phyllis Dennery
At the next stop, Jacmel, my mother’s hometown, at least the power outages were predictable (from 2-4 pm), and we could take a real shower, but the population had exploded and her previously sleepy neighborhood had been overtaken by “bric-a-brac” stores and barber shops.  Her parent’s farm was littered with old trucks and was unkempt.  (Fortunately, the old gravesite was still there.) A once beautiful beach resort she had visited as a child was now a dirty rocky place with filthy shacks serving local food. Nothing was recognizable.

In Port-au-Prince, at least many of the blue tents that served as shelter after the earthquake were gone, but instead, a sprawling shantytown had been erected on the same mountain. It was impossible to tell where we my aunt’s Foundation Periodontique (dental clinic) once resided. The neighborhood seemed like one big anomaly—a big home could be next to a gas station, next to a barber shop, next to a church. Gone was any semblance of social order or zoning. The population had exploded and the squalor was visible everywhere.

In the new Haiti, sanitation is not a priority. Beaches are littered with bottles, wrappers and Styrofoam dishes, as are the streets. The lethal combination of lack of water, lack of sanitation and malnutrition clearly contributes to the ongoing cholera epidemic.

Physical therapist with sculpture. Photo by Dr. Phyllis Dennery.
She notes: This is special because the sculpture represents a child in
a wheelchair, which is rather unusual in Haitian Art and dates
from the earthquake when many people were maimed and became
amputees.  Before this, disabled people were mostly mocked.
Although I cry for my country, I do see glimmers of hope. The Bernard Mevs Hospital and GHESKIO Clinic that I visited two years ago, and again during this recent trip, had made significant inroads and were shining lights in the chaos. A rehabilitation center for amputees was staffed by a Haitian physical therapist. A sewing center (Project Stitch) allowed amputees to become independent earners. There were clean isolettes in the NICU and caring local nurses and doctors in the Spinal Cord Injury Unit. I commend my colleagues, the Bitar brothers and Dr. Vanessa Rouzier, and the many others who devote their lives to help their countrymen, women and children. I admire the ongoing efforts to promote sustainability in the health care system.

I will return soon to be a part of the solution, and I sincerely hope that my next visit will confirm there is a way forward for Haiti.

Thanks to all who still care.

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