The House of Life: Chapter 11

Geographically, Haiti is very diverse. Here atthe clinic the view from the upper balcony is paradise. We are surrounded by beautiful tropical foliage, turquoise water and green mountains. If we walk or drive just a little way down the road we see tiny houses or tent like structures housing an entire family. We see muddy roads and garbage lined streets. We see unimaginable poverty. 

The Haitian patients we see are just as diverse. We have seen sick and starvinginfantsthat we try to helpby providingnutrition for them and education for their mothers so that the babies can become healthy and thrive. We try to offer them hope and pray that we will see them come back to us for well baby checks. We also see babies that are healthy and happy as a result of this care. Wesee elderly patients that we treat for hypertension and diabetes. Some of these patients have lived far beyond the expected life span here in Haiti. We see sick patients who require other care such as surgery, wound care, breathing treatments and much more. They come to the clinic—the sick, theyoung, and the old, from near and far to seek what we have to offer them: medical care, education and most of all, hope. 

It takes a lot to put these mission trips together. Preparation begins long before the team arrives in Haiti. Eachtrip requires donations from generous supporters, team leaders who dedicate time and energy to plan and facilitate each mission, individualswho order supplies andmedications, volunteers who dedicate their time and money to come to Haiti. The teammembers come from different places and walks of life all for the same purpose.

Once a year, for the past three years, I  have beenblessed, honored, and humbled to travel to Haiti to work with a team to provide care to the grateful and gracious Haitian people. 

-Paula, Non-Medical Volunteer  

May 2015

 

 

*

When Dick fell and hit his head, he was alone with Barb in the clinic. It was the summer of 2010, and they had both turned seventy-three years old. In the years to come, Dick and Barb would begin to understand how much tougher it would be to run the clinic when their health, and security, were at risk—like so many Haitians felt every day of their lives. Despite the new challenges ahead and the adversity they would face, they were not going to give up, no matter how much harder it would become to live and work in Haiti. When others might have walked away, Dick and Barb were determined to keep going back.

Dick was upstairs on his computer when he heard the phone ringing in the kitchen. When Barb didn’t answer, he got up from his chair and walked over to the railing of the staircase to look for her. When he leaned over, he passed out. He fell down the stairs, landing on the platform between the second and third floor.

Barb didn’t actually see Dick fall—the first sign that something was wrong was a moaning sound coming from the stairs. She had been standing in the kitchen, washing dishes and hadn’t heard the phone. When she shut off the sink and turned around to check for the source of the sound, she saw Dick lying limply on the platform. She ran up to him and rolled him over to check if he was breathing. He was, but he had lost consciousness.

Barb needed to get help right away. She knew she couldn’t move Dick herself. She ran down the stairs to the first floor and out of the clinic. As fast as she could move, she made her way towards a small house about one hundred meters from the clinic where Esperidon, the groundskeeper, lived with his family, just inside the clinic gate.

“Esperidon! Dick tonbe! Dick tonbe! Dick fell down!” Barb yelled in a panic as she reached the house.

Louinel, Esperidon’s son, heard Barb’s cry and shot out of the door of the house, running at full speed toward the clinic, followed rapidly by Esperidon. Barb turned and tried her hardest to keep up with them.

When they reached Dick, he was awake, but going in and out of consciousness. They got him up off the floor and carried him to bed. Louinel called Boyer. When he didn’t pick up the phone, Louinel began to panic. He left the clinic to search for Boyer himself.

Esperidon kept an eye on Dick, while Barb called Nelson. He answered and told Barb he would be at the clinic as soon as he could. When Nelson arrived twenty minutes later, Dick was awake and able to sit up in bed. Nelson could tell he was tired as he was talking, and he wasn’t communicating fluidly. Nelson was worried. Because of Dick’s age, falling down could mean a serious problem. Nelson called Garron in the United States and asked for his advice. Garron instructed Nelson to get Dick evacuated to Ft. Lauderdale immediately. He knew that no advanced diagnostic imaging facilities were available in Haiti, and neurosurgery capabilities were limited. Considering the type of head injury Dick had sustained, a subdural or epidural hematoma was a real possibility and would require urgent attention. Nelson hung up the phone and told Dick and Barb what Garron had said—Dick required a CAT scan and needed to leave Haiti as soon as possible.

Barb and Dick had evacuation insurance for situations like this, but they had never had to use it before. Barb ran to get the contact information for Medjet Assist from Dick’s desk. When she came back with the number, Nelson made the call. He explained to the Medjet representative that it was imperative that Dick be flown out of the country, because it was not possible for him to get a CAT scan in Haiti, not even in Port-au-Prince. It had only been about six months since the earthquake, and Haiti was still a mess—in many places, it still looked like the earthquake had just happened.

After some convincing of Nelson’s medical expertise, the Medjet representative agreed to have Dick evacuated, but a plane couldn’t pick him up in Jacmel—the runway at the airport was too short. Dick was going to have to get to Port-au-Prince first. Barb thought for a moment and decided to contact Missionary Aviation Fellowship, or MAF. MAF serves people in remote areas, sometimes in emergency situations. They mainly work in impoverished countries. When not providing flights to assist with aid relief, MAF was available for private chartered flights. Dick and Barb frequently hired them to fly the medical teams between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel.

Barb called the MAF office, and a young woman answered. After a confusing conversation about whether Barb had a reservation, Dick chimed in and told Barb to ask for Will. Will was one of MAF’s pilots. They had flown with Will many times, and Dick was comfortable asking for him by name, especially in a situation like this. Will got on the phone a few minutes later, and Barb explained what was happening. Will told her he would call her back in two minutes, and hung up the phone. By the time he returned Barb’s call a few minutes later, he had already made the arrangements—a plane would be at the Jacmel airport within hours.

Almost as soon as Barb hung up the phone, Boyer came running up the stairs of the clinic to the bedroom. While Boyer and Nelson helped Dick out of bed, Barb hurried to pack their bags. Barb, Dick, Nelson and Boyer drove to the Jacmel airport, where Dick and Barb said nervous goodbyes and boarded the MAF plane. Once they got to Port-au-Prince, a few hours went by before the Medjet Assist plane was ready to take them to Florida.

By the time Dick and Barb landed in Ft. Lauderdale that evening, and Dick was taken to the hospital, fourteen hours had passed since he had hit his head. Barb thought that was about as speedy as it would be. If Dick had had a heart attack in Haiti, they would have never gotten him somewhere in time. But even then, if it had not been for Nelson’s efforts in talking to Garron and Medjet Assist, they might not have gotten Dick out that day at all.

Dick’s doctor did find bleeding in his brain—a hematoma, just as Garron had thought. He had most likely passed out due to low blood pressure. He was in the hospital for a week and afterward was sent home to rest. His doctors asked him to take it easy for a few months while he was monitored and observed, which he tried to do the best he could, all the while wishing he could get back to Haiti and the clinic. He knew that everything would be fine without him. The volunteers and Haitian staff would make sure that everything was running as usual, but he still wanted to return as soon as he could. Nothing could keep him away, not even concerns for his health. It was a force that pulled him in.

Dick and Barb missed two clinics as Dick recovered at home.

 

 

*

 

When Barb fell down at the clinic, in early 2011, her situation was much less of an emergency than Dick’s had been—at least, at first. After returning from dinner at the Hotel Cyvadier one evening, Barb went into the bedroom and Dick went to the bathroom. Suddenly, Dick heard a splat sound.

 

“Barb? Barb!” he yelled.

 

Barb did not respond. Dick left the bathroom to look for her. He found her sprawled out on her back next to the dresser, looking straight up at the ceiling. She was conscious, but she looked stunned. She had no idea how she ended up on the floor.

 

Dick helped Barb up, and she went straight to bed. The following day, she felt a slight pain in her leg. Over the next few weeks, the pain got worse and worse, and eventually she was barely able to walk across the kitchen. She started using a cane so she could move around comfortably.

 

After returning to Ft. Lauderdale a few months later, Barb had her leg checked out. She had an MRI, but her doctor could not find anything out of the ordinary. They told her the pain was most likely a result of arthritis and suggested she continue to walk with the assistance of the cane.

 

In June of the same year, Dick and Barb went to Peoria to visit family and friends and to attend a FOTCOH board meeting. They were staying at their grandson’s house while in town. As they were leaving to go to the meeting, Barb fell down in the driveway. She tried to get up on her own, but she couldn’t move. Dick rushed her to the hospital. This time, it was clear that she had a broken leg, although they had thought all along that it was possible she had a small fracture or break from her previous fall in the clinic, nearly six months before.

 

Barb had a rod inserted into her leg and had to stay in the hospital for a few weeks before she could go home. She did not want to be in the hospital. It was terrible for her to be immobile and not able to do things for herself. She was miserable, and it made it worse knowing that she wouldn’t be able to go back to Haiti with Dick for a while. Because of her broken leg, she missed the July and September clinics while she recovered. It was the first time she and Dick had not been to Haiti together in ten years, since Barb had retired.

 

Although the team stepped up to take on her responsibilities, it was tough not having Barb at the clinic. Because she had always handled all the shopping, the volunteers didn’t know what was available at the markets. And no one knew how to do inventory for the kitchen, so when it came time to take stock of the food before leaving, the team wasn’t sure how to make a grocery list for the next team to replenish supplies. Barb had always been in charge of cooking, and she was the only one who knew which items were harder to find in Haiti, like refried beans, cheese, and pancake mix. Or items like peanut butter, lemonade mix, paper towels, and toilet paper that were much cheaper to purchase in the United States. She wasn’t there to organize the records either, which slowed down the team a bit, because Barb was just so fast at getting the records in order. It just wasn’t the same for the team, or Dick, without Barb at the clinic.

 

*

 

Dick and Barb weren’t dealing only with health issues in Haiti in the years immediately following the earthquake. They were also dealing with security issues, and it wasn’t just them that was worried—the whole town of Jacmel was concerned. In early 2012, a gang robbed a local orphanage and a hotel in town. To make matters worse, the police thought the thieves had inside information that was allowing them to pull off the robberies without getting caught. The thieves were targeting people who were taking large sums of money out of the bank. Every two or three months, someone who had just made a large withdrawal would get robbed. It became apparent that these people were being targeted before they had a chance to spend or distribute the cash.

The authorities had not been able to catch any of the gang members for over a year. The police grew suspicious that some of their own officers were the ones tipping off the thieves, so new policemen had been brought into Jacmel and some of the existing officers had been transferred to other areas. Still the robberies continued.

Dick and Barb were concerned about the safety of the clinic and the volunteers. They were also worried about the Haitian staff—it made them uneasy to think that someone might be watching Boyer when he went to the bank. They decided it was time to hire a full-time security guard. Boyer recommended a local man named Williams Toussaint, a large, quiet Haitian known for his kindness, but also his capacity to intimidate. As soon as he was hired, Williams began patrolling the clinic every night.

One night not long after Williams began working for Dick and Barb, the couple was asleep in their room when they awoke to the sound of a shotgun. They were alone in the clinic. Dick jumped out of bed, grabbed his pistol out of the dresser drawer, and looked out the window. He shouted to Barb to stay down away from the windows, behind the bed.

 “Williams! Are you out there?” Dick yelled.

No one yelled back.

            Dick left the bedroom and went out onto the balcony. He could see Williams lying quietly on top of the generator depot, roughly forty feet away from the clinic, gun raised. By the way Williams had his gun aimed, Dick could tell he had his eye on someone in the distance. Dick walked around to the other side of the balcony, attempting to remain quiet, all the while trying to see for himself if someone was down below. Williams sent out a shot to scare off whomever was on the property, and continued to shoot. He sent out eight or nine shots in about two minutes. To Dick and Barb, it felt like it went on forever. When he was sure that it was safe, Williams called Dick from his cell phone to let him know whoever was there had climbed over the wall and was gone.

The next day, Dick and Barb told Boyer about what had happened. They had been planning to go home a few days later, but after the incident, Boyer insisted that they leave Haiti much sooner. He had some inside information—people in Jacmel still believed that corruption in the police force was the reason for the robberies, despite the previous change in officers. The people of Jacmel were fed up. In protest, they were going to set up roadblocks all over town. Such road blocks, made by stacking rocks, tree limbs, and old tires into large piles to prevent vehicles from passing, are a common means for protest in Haiti. To make sure roadblocks aren’t taken down, Haitians will stand guard in the street, protecting the newly formed barriers or, sometimes, even set fire to the roadblocks. Boyer wanted Dick and Barb to leave Jacmel before things got out of control—before they couldn’t get out.

That afternoon, Dick and Barb packed up the truck and headed towards Port-au-Prince, accompanied by Boyer. They went through four roadblocks on their way out of town. Each time, they were only allowed to pass if either Boyer knew the people manning the roadblocks, or the Haitians knew Dick and Barb from the clinic. Once, they had to pay their way through.

Fortunately, although creating a great deal of chaos, the roadblocks worked for the people of Jacmel. The police force changed once again, and the robbers were caught not long after. The robberies stopped all together. There has not been another incident at the clinic since.

*

 

Dick and Barb returned to Haiti a few months later, in the summer of 2012. Toward the end of the year, they went home to Ft. Lauderdale to get ready for a trip to Washington state to visit family for Christmas. A few days before leaving, Dick went to his cardiologist for a scheduled endoscopy.

When Dick’s cardiologist examined him, he found that Dick’s pulse rate was in the low thirties, causing much alarm. The doctor believed Dick’s arteries were blocked. He canceled the endoscopy and instead ordered an angiogram. If the angiogram showed blockage, Dick would stay in the hospital to have surgery the next day.

Dick’s doctor was correct—he did need surgery, and right away. Their vacation plans were canceled—he would not be leaving the hospital. With little time to think about what was happening, Barb got busy calling family and friends, including some of the volunteers they were close to. She knew quite a few of them would be worried about Dick. Barb especially wanted to make sure she talked to Garron. They considered him to be a good friend, and since he was a surgeon, Barb knew he could shed some light on what Dick could expect from his surgery. After Barb got off the phone with him, Garron called Dick to talk to him directly.

Garron was forward with Dick. He told him that after the surgery, he was going to hurt like hell—he would be in pain like he had never been before. He told him the only way he was going to survive was to make up his mind ahead of time to survive. In the end, he would feel better, even though it would be a long recovery. Dick appreciated Garron’s call, and, although he was nervous, he felt better having heard from someone he trusted, who could offer him such important advice, which he took very seriously. Just as Garron had said, Dick made up his mind to survive.

Dick’s surgery was scheduled for December 12, 2012. He was seventy-four years old. As he was being prepped for the procedure, he talked to his nurse, a Haitian man. Their conversation took Dick’s mind off the surgery for a little while, and he enjoyed chatting with someone who he could relate to so well. Dick asked his nurse where he was from in Haiti and told him about the clinic. By the time he was ready for surgery, Dick was less anxious. He thought it felt like a sign—having a Haitian nurse meant he was in good hands.

Dick had an aortic valve replacement, a mitral valve repair, quadruple bypass surgery, and he received a pacemaker. The surgery went well, but the healing process was arduous, just as Garron said it would be. Dick never could have imagined how long he would feel the effects of his surgery. Today, he still doesn’t feel great all the time. He wishes he felt better. His body gets more tired, and it creaks more. His feet hurt, and his back. He feels that the surgery slowed him down. But he made it through the surgery, and for that he is incredibly grateful. He knows he wouldn’t have been around much longer if he hadn’t gone through with it.

Because of Dick’s surgery, he and Barb missed their trip to Washington, as well as the January clinic. Barb went back to Haiti in February and stayed through March. It was the first time that Barb had ever been to Haiti without Dick.

Dick would talk to Barb on the phone while she was in Haiti without him and try to offer his help, but he could tell he wasn’t being told everything that was going on at the clinic. He knew Barb didn’t want to cause him stress during his recovery. But she sounded tired every time they spoke, and Dick worried that it was too much for her to do on her own. She had a lot on her plate. Even with the help of Boyer, her added workload was immense—making sure the interpreters were available to work, making arrangements for transporting patients to other facilities when necessary, making plans for children from the local schools to be seen at the clinic, scheduling repairs, writing receipts, doing payroll. The list went on and on.

And Dick was right. Barb was exhausted. She was worn out, and she wasn’t sleeping. The team was doing just fine, but Barb had taken on too much. She was still cooking and filing dossiers, but now she was also managing the staff, and scheduling outings for the team. The tiles of the kitchen had started to come up off the concrete and break apart, creating mounds on the floor, causing her even more stress. Although she knew it was from natural wear and tear on the building, she was overwhelmed without Dick there.

 

By the time Barb got back to Ft. Lauderdale, Dick practically had to scrape her up off the curb at the airport. When he pulled up to the arrival lane to pick her up, Barb plopped down in the passenger seat and closed the door, so tired she looked like she was about to cry. Dick looked at her, and then looked out the passenger-side window. Barb, completely drained, had gotten in the car, not even realizing she had left all her bags on the curb.

 

*

 

After Dick’s surgery, both Dick and Barb’s doctors weren’t excited about them continuing to travel to Haiti. They wanted them to slow down, and recommended that they stop going to the clinic altogether. It was not something they insisted on, but they said it would be better for the pair’s health. The doctors made their point, and Dick and Barb politely made theirs as well. They promised to cut down on traveling, but they would not stop going to Haiti. Neither of them wanted to be done. As they were getting older, it was becoming harder for them, but they were more determined than ever to continue their work. The Haitians and the volunteers still depended on them, and they just couldn’t stay away. It just wasn’t time.

            Dick returned to the clinic with Barb in May 2012, less than six months after his open-heart surgery.