The House of Life: Chapter 12

Hi, my name is Richard Hammond. My wife, Barbara, and I founded Friends of the Children of Haiti. With the help of many Haitians, we built a clinic in Haiti for our medical program and living quarters for our volunteers.

During the years since the completion of the building, I have missed four clinics. Barb has missed five. I missed both the January and March clinics recently because I had open-heart surgery in December.

I was very apprehensive about returning for the May clinic, being concerned about the condition of the building since my absence, and repairs that might be needed because of normal wear and tear, as well as damages that occurred during the earthquake a few years ago. We were here when the earthquake hit and we have survived several hurricanes. I was also concerned about how I was going to be physically. I was still weak from my surgery.

When I arrived my concerns were forgotten. Repairs still needed to be done, but my feeling of anxiety was replaced only with feelings of happiness. The Haitians greeted me with an overwhelming reception. Everyone I saw said they were happy to see me.

“Kouman ou ye, Papa? Nou ap kontan ke ou te retounen li ban nou”.
How are you, Papa?  We are happy that you have returned to us.”

We prayed together and we laughed together.

 When the medical team arrived we were greeted with the normal concerns of the new volunteers and excitement from the veterans who were returning to the clinic. The first day was spent unpacking, organizing, preparing for the clinic, having dinner, and finally sleeping.

 The next morning clinic began with a bang. The volunteers met the Haitian interpreters and other workers, and everyone went to work. Everything went well. There was no first day apprehension. If there was, it was forgotten rapidly.

The clinic functioned great. Garron, our surgeon, scheduled surgeries for the duration of the clinic. Beth, the team leader, kept the Haitian patients moving at a good pace. Steve, the oral surgeon, did the same. The entire clinic worked very well.

I was at peace.

Someday the Lord is going to call Barb and I home. I promise you this. The clinic will still be functioning, maybe even better than now, although I don’t know what that will be like. We will be watching and giving our support.

I am proud that the Lord chose Barb and I to organize FOTCOH. I am proud of all that has been accomplished over the years.

 I am proud of the people who have given up their time with their families. I am proud of the families who have given up their mothers, their fathers, sisters, and brothers so they can help people so far away from home.

I am proud of the relationship that has developed between the Haitians and our teams. The Haitians have learned a lot about health care from us. We have learned a lot about life.

-Dick, Cofounder, Friends of the Children of Haiti
May 2013

 

*

 

One afternoon in early 2005, Dick was driving through Jacmel on his way to pick up Garron from the Dr. Martinez Hospital. Garron had finished up his last day of surgery, which meant that in just a few short days, the team would be flying home, having wrapped up another two weeks of clinic.  

As he was making his way through town, Dick heard someone yell his name on the street. He stopped the truck and looked around. He didn’t see anyone at first. Again, a voice yelled, “Dick!” This time, he turned to see a young woman running toward the car. Dick knew her. She was one of Father LaBourne’s adopted children, Marie Claude, all grown up. Dick had known her for more than thirty years by then, for as long as he had been coming to Haiti.

She approached the window, saying “Bonswa,” and then asked Dick to wait there for a moment. She had something for him in her house. She hurried away and a few minutes later reappeared with a large, flat package wrapped in brown paper.

“What is this?” Dick asked.

She started to unwrap the package, carefully pulling away the paper piece by piece, until Dick could see that it was a canvas painting mounted on a wooden frame. The painting was a portrait of him.

            Marie Claude handed the painting to Dick through the window of the truck.

“From the people, for what you do for Haiti,” she said. “To thank you.”

 Dick was stunned.

Dick thanked her for the gift and said goodbye, continuing on to the hospital. After he picked up Garron, they returned to the clinic. The team was done working for the day and had gone to the beach. The clinic was empty, except for Barb. Dick parked the truck and took the painting out. As he walked toward the clinic, he realized he was embarrassed about having a portrait of himself. He appreciated that it had been a gift from the community, but he wasn’t sure if he was ready for anyone to see it, not even Barb. Before he went in, he wrapped the painting back in its paper. Once inside, he snuck the painting up the stairs and put it in the bedroom closet, then went to the kitchen to help Barb with dinner.

 That evening, when the team returned, everyone gathered in the kitchen to eat. The atmosphere during the meal was light and festive. The team loudly chatted about their day, the patients they had seen, and the funny stories their Haitian interpreters had told them. As Dick sat at one of the plastic tables with a few of the volunteers, he thought about how wonderful it was to be surrounded by such loving people, some dear friends, some longtime volunteers, and some who had been strangers to him only two weeks before. He was grateful for everyone in the room. As he looked around, he reminded himself that everyone was there for the same reason, whether for the first time or the tenth: because they all believed in the work that was being done at the clinic—because they believed in what Dick and Barb had started in Haiti. Because they believed in the Haitian people.

Dick was no longer embarrassed about the painting. Instead, he felt proud of the people who were thoughtful enough to give him such a remarkable present. He decided he wanted to show off his gift.

Dick stood up from his chair and announced to the team that he had something he wanted them to see. The volunteers sat silently, having stopped their lively conversations, as they watched Dick slowly walk up the stairs. When he came back down to the kitchen, he had the painting in his hands. As he began to unwrap it, he found that he was even more in awe of it than he had been when he saw it earlier in the day. The portrait was incredibly realistic. It was a bust of Dick wearing a white shirt. His head was slightly tilted, and he was smiling, his eyes facing forward. It wasn’t a large painting, but the details of his face were impressive. He turned the painting around to show the team, and Barb. They were astounded. It was a beautiful portrait—a true testament to the love the Haitian people had for Dick, and for the clinic.

After receiving such a tremendous reaction from the volunteers, Dick knew he wanted to display the painting. But one thing was missing. He wanted a portrait of Barb to go right beside his, because she deserved to have one too. If Barb had never gotten in touch with Harry so many years before, Dick never would have gone back to Haiti. And without all of Barb’s efforts in fundraising, the clinic would not be there either. Without each other, neither of them would have been able to accomplish what they did.

Dick asked Boyer to find out who the artist was that painted the portrait. It turned out to be a local painter who had a studio in Jacmel. They went to visit him. Dick asked the artist about the painting, and what he would need to paint one exactly the same way, but of Barb. The man said he had painted Dick’s portrait by looking at a photo. The next day, Dick returned to the studio with a picture of Barb.

Once Barb’s painting was finished, Dick hung them both side by side in the clinic. Now, he had the total gift.

 

*

 

In February 2014, I visited Dick and Barb in Haiti. It was the first time I had been to the clinic without a medical team. I flew to Port-au-Prince alone, and Boyer picked me up from the airport. We made the drive to Jacmel, stopping a few times so he could take care of some business—picking up a freezer, purchasing minutes for his cell phone, buying chicken and rice from a food stand on the side of the road.

We arrived at the clinic late, close to midnight. But despite the hour, Dick and Barb had waited up for us, like parents wait for their children to come home. Boyer left shortly after, and I stayed up chatting with Dick and Barb, helping myself to a Prestige out of the fridge.

We talked about how Dick got started working in Haiti so many years before, and all the people who led him and Barb to where they are today. Neither of them ever expected the path their lives would take. But despite the difficulties, they had enjoyed building their lives in Haiti. It hadn’t been a bed of roses for them, but they wouldn’t trade it for anything.

 

As Dick reflected, he admitted he’d been scared of doing a lot of what he had done, but never to a point where he wanted to run away. The whole experience had been one obstacle after the next, and neither he nor Barb had realized how stressful it would all be. So many people depended on them—the volunteers, and the Haitian staff, and the Haitian patients. In some ways, they felt they had their lives in their hands—making sure the volunteers were safe, and trying to make sure the patients were getting the medical care they so desperately needed. It was difficult knowing that some of the patients were going to leave the clinic and go home, and not get better. But they knew they had to deal with the stress just like the Haitian people had to deal with stress and pain in their lives every day. And Dick dealt with his stress by learning to become a little bit Haitian—take things as they come and keep fighting to stay strong.

Of all the painful things Dick had seen over the years, one particular woman who came to the clinic had stuck in his mind. She had severe burns on her back from falling into a fire. Dick had seen hundreds of patients with burn wounds, but this woman’s burns were particularly extensive—covering almost the full length of her back. Dick and the team were horrified by the severity of her injuries.

When it was time for the nurse to debride the woman’s wound, Dick was in the exam room. He braced himself for the excruciating pain he knew the woman was about to feel. The nurse grabbed the top of the bandage and ripped it from the woman’s back in a single, swift motion. Dick flinched, expecting to hear the young woman cry out in pain, but she never made a sound. Dick wasn’t sure if her silence was because the wound had caused nerve damage or whether the woman was so accustomed to pain that a wound of that nature would no longer affect her. From what he had experienced thus far in Haiti in his life, Dick would wager that it was probably the latter.

 Dick felt that the Haitians were tough in ways that was difficult for the American volunteers, including himself, to comprehend. Often, the medical team was the first to see a patient’s burn wounds, even when they had occurred weeks earlier. Dick imagined these men, women, and children waiting for the team to arrive while coping with the types of injuries that would send any American to the emergency room immediately. He thought long and hard about this young woman—about the pain and fear her burns surely caused her—and yet it had been him who was the most frightened in the examining room.

Of all the lessons Dick learned in his decades in Haiti, the one that was most profound was that the things that would kill most people don’t kill Haitians—they are just so strong they can survive. They are resilient in every part of their lives. Because of the conditions they live in, they have had to make the choice to survive. When it was either roll over and die, or survive, Haitians made up their minds to survive.

 

*

 

As Barb prepared for the arrival of each team to the clinic, one of her rituals was to write a quote on a small whiteboard in the kitchen for everyone to see. The quote was the same every time. Inevitably it would be erased between clinics and replaced with a grocery list, or something else, but she always made sure she wrote it up again for each newly arriving team. It came from the book Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. Mountains Beyond Mountains is a story about the life of Paul Farmer, the cofounder of the nonprofit organization Partners in Health. Paul Farmer has worked around the world providing health care to people in incredibly remote locations, including Haiti. The book gives detailed insight into the health care issues of not only Haitians, but many poor, neglected populations—those without access to doctors, or medicine, or resources, like clean water, to live healthy lives.

 

The quote is by Jim Yong Kim, Farmer’s cofounder in Partners in Health, and a physician, as well as the current president of the World Bank. Kim worked closely with Paul Farmer in the earlier days of Partners in Health to offer low-cost treatment to patients in rural areas of Haiti. When questioned about his desire to treat the poorest patients in the world, Kim had responded, “They think we’re unrealistic. They don’t know we’re crazy.”  

 

When Barb read the book, and Kim’s quote, she couldn’t help smiling. She thought it perfectly captured with simplicity and humor the reasons she and Dick had built a clinic in Haiti, and why they decided to dedicate their lives to helping Haiti’s poor and sick, even when it seemed foolish or impossible to do so. She proudly wrote it on the board, along with Kim’s name, and reference to the book it was quoted from.  

 

            In early 2011, a nurse named Diane was volunteering at the clinic. She was from New Hampshire, and she had worked at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center at the same time that Jim Yong Kim was the president of Dartmouth College. While in Haiti, Diane took a picture of the quote written on the whiteboard. When she got home, she sent a letter to Kim along with the photo, as well as other pictures of the clinic. Shortly after, Kim responded with a letter of his own.

 

 

Dear Diane,

 

Thank you so much for your generous service to those in need through the Friends of the Children of Haiti. I also appreciate the photos you sent. I’d much rather have my words written on a white board in the kitchen of a clinic in Cyvadier than on a bronze plaque anywhere else.

 

Warmly,

Jim Yong Kim

 

 

 

*

 

            The morning after my arrival, I woke up early, despite the fact that Dick, Barb, and I had stayed up late talking. Although we had been alone the night before, this morning was the first time I realized how different it was to be at the clinic without the team, or the Haitian staff or patients. By 8:00 a.m., the clinic normally would have been in full swing. Some patients, entering the gates before 7:00 a.m., would have already seen a doctor and been to the pharmacy. As I lay in bed, instead of hearing people milling about outside the clinic, everything was quiet, and calm.

I went downstairs to the kitchen. Dick and Barb were already up, sitting at one of the plastic tables, reading. I joined them. Barb mentioned that in a few days, right after I was scheduled to leave, Martin and his wife would be bringing their kids to the clinic to visit. It would be the grandchildren’s first time in Haiti, and Barb was excited that they would have a chance to see what their grandparents did and understand a little more about why she and Dick had missed birthdays and other family gatherings in years past.

Over a breakfast of fruit and toast, we continued our conversation from the night before. Dick explained how nothing happens quickly in Haiti, and sometimes it seems like nothing ever changes. Many times it didn’t seem like they were making a dent at all, no matter how hard they worked. But at some point, over the years, they honestly began to feel as though they saw a difference in the health of the people that came to the clinic, and that was so important for them both. They had spent a long time trying to make change, and now, as they both approached eighty years old, they felt confident that they had helped Haitians receive consistent medical care, as well as given them hope for their futures.  

 

            We continued to talk throughout the day, moving to the patio after breakfast, then back to the kitchen for lunch, and back once more to the patio in the early afternoon to take in the view. That was about as much as Dick and Barb did during the day—they weren’t moving fast anymore, but they still loved being in Haiti as much as they could be, both with the team, and with the Haitians, who were so dear to them. And it didn’t matter if they were moving slow. Whether Dick was running or not, he was still getting up the stairs of the clinic.

Boyer arrived just before dinner, knowing I was eager to get a chance to talk to him. After we ate, Dick suggested that Boyer take me somewhere, figuring it would give me a chance to see something new in Jacmel, as well as get out of the clinic for at least a small part of the day.

            Boyer and I got into the truck and headed down the road out of the clinic gates. The truck slowly bounced down the gravel path, as we passed Esperidon’s house and the small shelter where patients wait to get into the clinic. As we got to the end of the road, and turned onto the main highway, we passed Son Son’s on the corner. As I looked out the window, my eyes followed the path that Dick had walked many times with volunteers and friends—Paul, Jean Michel, Belony, Boyer, Nelson, and Garron. We passed houses, and hotels, and lottery huts. We passed by the entrance to the Hotel Cyvadier. We passed by the Sea of Love. We drove past Ti Mioullage Beach. The air was cool, and the breeze felt refreshing on my face.

 

When we arrived at our destination, the Cap Lamandou Hotel, we ordered scotch from the bar and walked down to the pool to find a table. Almost no one else was at the hotel, but Boyer still knew the only other couple on the patio and politely chatted in Creole with them for a moment as I sifted through my notes. When he sat down a few minutes later, we started talking, first about Boyer’s work at the clinic and then about what he thought the clinic meant to the Haitian people. About forty-five minutes into our conversation, I asked Boyer what the thought Haitian people wanted out of life. “What do the Haitian people want?” he repeated back to me, taking a second, and a sip off his drink, to consider his answer.

“Haitian people want electricity twenty-four hours a day. They want security, they want to see some progress in the country—they want to see something happening. They want paved roads, and industry. They want jobs. They want to see tourism come to the country.”

We talked at length about the issue of security. Boyer explained that although security in Haiti was better today than it was even two or three years ago, crime could still be a problem at times. He shared a story, from not too long before, about people in Jacmel setting up roadblocks because of a missing transformer. EDH had installed one in a particular zone of Jacmel. The Haitians there were ecstatic to have a consistent supply of electricity, and for some people it was the first time they had ever had power in their homes. But a few months later, it suddenly disappeared. No one could seem to get any answers from EDH or the police about the missing transformer, and the Haitians grew aggravated and once again created a roadblock and set it on fire. When the police showed up, a fight ensued as both sides argued and threw rocks at one another. It went on for several hours before a local politician intervened and promised to buy a new transformer to replace the missing one just to end the dispute.

“Can you blame the Haitians for getting upset? All they wanted was electricity so they could live better,” Boyer said to me.

Despite the tense story, Boyer didn’t feel that Haiti was an unsafe country to travel to. He passionately urged for a push in tourism, wanting foreigners to see for themselves the beauty of the country. From its arts and culture, to its beaches, to Carnival, he explained, Haiti is a paradise that has much to offer people around the world.

            He paused. He seemed satisfied with his answer, so I asked him my next question—Can Haiti sustain on its own?

            Boyer’s face lit up. He answered my question with a proverb, a common custom in Haiti. “The men around the power are not the men in power.”

            Boyer elaborated on the abuse of power in Haiti. He explained that it is difficult to change the system and how power is managed so that the country can sustain itself. Haiti is a country where the people that come into power don’t like the country as much as they like themselves, he continued. He believed that other countries that used to help Haiti for years and years weren’t seeing any changes in the power, or in Haiti, and he feared that they were growing tired of helping.

“But we still need help. We need a lot of help.”

 

*

 

Dick and Barb Hammond have attended every clinic that their lives have allowed. Through natural disasters, and security issues, and serious health concerns, nothing could keep them away, and no one could convince them that they shouldn’t go back. But there will be a time when they physically can’t travel to Haiti anymore. They know the volunteers and Haitian staff can, and will, continue without them, and the Haitian patients will still be able to rely on the clinic in their lives.

It is Dick and Barb’s dream to see the FOTCOH clinic open year-round. They would like the volunteer teams to continue to visit the clinic on a regular schedule, but they want to see the clinic run by Haitian medical staff for the remainder of the year. They don’t know whether this dream will ever be obtained, especially for Dick and Barb to see in their lifetimes. As always, funding is the main concern—having the money to buy medications, pay Haitian staff, and keep the clinic maintained. But Dick and Barb are hopeful. They know the clinic is too important not to go on, and they are confident that it will continue to grow long after they are gone.

Whenever there was a team in Haiti working at the clinic, Dick always took the time to stroll out to the front of the property at least once a day. In between writing receipts, and making phone calls, he made a point to step away from his desk and greet the Haitian patients, even when it started to become taxing for him to make the long walk outside. But he wouldn’t miss getting a chance to say “Bonswa” to the Haitians, whether he knew them personally or not. Although, every Haitian who came to clinic already knew who Dick and Barb were, even if they hadn’t met them—they had been told what they had done for Jacmel and for Haiti, and what they had done for the Haitian people.

One afternoon, Dick walked out to the clinic gates to see how big the crowd was on that particular day. After standing around for a few minutes and greeting the staff and the patients, he turned around to head back to the clinic. An older Haitian woman was walking down the path towards Dick on her way out of the clinic, her medication bag from the pharmacy hanging off her wrist. When she got within a few feet of him, she raised her arms and put her hands up in the air, and said, “Mèsi, Papa! Mèsi, Papa! Thank you, Father! Thank you, Father!” as she looked up to the sky. Dick could see that she was thanking God for her day, for allowing her to make it to the clinic to receive care. Dick responded to her motions, and words by repeating her praise as he looked up at the sky, raising his arms in the same manner, waving his hands in the air. “Wi, Mèsi, Papa! Wi, Mèsi, Papa! Yes, Thank you, Father! Yes, Thank you, Father!” he said just as grandly as the woman had. But then, the woman suddenly stopped walking, right in front of Dick, and sternly said, “No! MESI, PAPA!” this time with her arms held out directly in front of her as she looked into Dick’s eyes. It was then that he realized she was thanking him. Dick looked at her, not knowing how to respond. She seemed satisfied that Dick understood her clearly, and she continued down the path. Dick too returned to his walk, heading back to the clinic, and as he did, he looked up to the sky, and with a whole new feeling to the words, again said, “Mèsi, Papa.”