Lessons for life from a single day in Haiti

I shone a flashlight into Peter’s mosquito tent to wake him up. It was nearly 6 a.m.; we needed to place an early phone call to finalize the details of a medication delivery to the Saint Paul-Saint Michel clinic, where we’d both be working in a matter of hours. The only person with good cell phone service in Chermaitre—the rural, mountainous Haitian village where we were—was the local Episcopal minister, Père Jonas. We sat outside in the dark, waiting for him to arrive so we could borrow his phone.

Gazing out at the shadowy trees and mountain silhouettes around us, Peter asked, “Are you nervous?”

I was. Soon we’d be at the base of the mountain, operating the freshly constructed medical clinic that the Vassar Haiti Project (VHP) worked for a year and a half to fund. It would be the inaugural clinic day in the new building, with two Haitian doctors, including Peter, on duty and a group of VHP members, including me, assisting and staffing the place. As VHP’s medical initiative director, this was the most important day of the trip to me.

Peter wasn’t nervous at all about our day at the clinic. He’d staffed more mobile clinic days in his country than he could count on two hands. As for me, overseeing the operations of a medical clinic in a rural Haitian village was totally outside of my realm of experience. I didn’t have any idea what to expect.

I nodded yes. I was nervous.

“Don’t be,” Peter said. “Just remember, with every pill you give out, you can save a life.”

This was something Peter had been saying all weekend leading up to the clinic day. I was skeptical; I had too many what-ifs swimming around in my head to take his mantra seriously: what if we didn’t have time to see all the patients? What if we didn’t have all the medications they needed? What if someone came in with a major problem we were unable to treat?

Peter was used to dealing with those kinds of situations. I wasn’t. We sat in silence for a while, watching the stars slowly start to disappear.

The rest of the morning blurred together: we intercepted Père Jonas and placed our call, packed our things, slurped down a goat and vegetable stew for breakfast, and set out down the mountain toward the clinic with a group of fellow VHP members.

As we approached the clinic, we started to hear the noise of people waiting outside, talking to each other in Creole. The area surrounding the squat, 3-room, freshly painted clinic building was already brimming with patients waiting to be seen. We slipped past them and into the building to set up the pharmacy, registration table, and check-up rooms.

The number of people outside was already daunting, and I knew patients would only continue to pour in as the day wore on. I started getting worked up about opening the clinic as soon as possible. I fretted to Peter, who had changed into his scrubs.

“Take your time,” he advised, tying a bandana over his head. “Better to start a little bit late than start when you’re not ready.”

I went to help the Haitian pharmacist organize anti-malarial, anti-worm, and hypertension medications, anti-fungal creams, antibiotics, and painkillers in the pharmacy; as I worked, I tried to channel some of Peter’s smooth, calm collectedness.

When we were all prepared, we opened the clinic and patients flooded in. Mothers came with three or four children in tow, each with a different ailment. Old women leaning on canes and walking sticks came, some of whom walked miles across steep terrain to make it. Teachers from the school in Chermaitre came, and residents of Chermaitre came, and residents of villages surrounding Chermaitre came too.

For the first 30 minutes, I felt a rush as we distributed and explained medications to patients in French and Creole. You could see relief wash over some faces. For the first time I understood the impact of supporting medical progress in a remote, rural area as more than a concept—I was experiencing it on a personal, intimate level.

I had a hard time staying optimistic all day, though. I was struck by the number of people at the clinic who had been suffering long-term from medical problems that could have been treated swiftly and easily in the U.S., from funguses to little infections that had spread fiercely.

There were also, inevitably, patients with problems that we weren’t equipped to treat in a small, rural clinic. We couldn’t give X-rays. We couldn’t perform operations. And there were patients whose diseases we couldn’t treat with the medications we had, whom we could only provide with painkillers. Coming to terms with that was difficult. In the excitement of fundraising for a project like this medical initiative, it’s easy to just let yourself believe that with enough money you can miraculously solve the problems of everyone who walks through your clinic doors. It’s wrenching to admit to yourself that that’s not how it works.

And yet, even with the intense frustration of not being able to solve the medical problems of everyone in the area all at once, being at the clinic was still a hopeful experience for me. I have some vivid, uplifting memories of the day. There was the look on one mother’s face as she gently tucked cough syrup and antibiotics for her children into her purse. There was a man who clasped my hands in his and sincerely thanked me when I gave him a topical cream to treat his foot fungus. There was a hunched over old woman in a kerchief who listened attentively as we demonstrated and explained how to use eye drops. Remembering these moments, knowing that this clinic will be operational 3-4 times a month for a full year, supported by money VHP has already raised (and will continue to raise) gave me hope. It completely refreshed my understanding of what each VHP event and art sale means, and has the power to accomplish.

By the time the clinic closed, I was exhausted; I was covered in sweat, my braid was coming undone, and my clothes were covered in sawdust from the brand new wooden pharmacy shelves. When I saw Peter, he looked as calm and cool as he had at the beginning of the day. He laughed when he saw me and pulled me into a hug.

In one breath I tried to explain all of the day’s frustrating and disappointing and promising and inspiring moments. He shushed me.

“Remember what I told you. What you’re doing is important. With every pill you give out, you can save a life.”

And this time when he said it, somehow, it meant more to me.

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