I always get asked, “Why do you go to Haiti?” Sometimes it’s an easy answer and other times I’m asking myself the same question. In the weeks leading up to a trip when I’m juggling work, trip coordination (med ordering, booking flights, making sure everybody knows what they need, fundraising), and my sanity; it can be easy to forget what motivates me to make this trip. Even as I arrive at the busy Port-au-Prince airport with all my anxiety around getting through customs with the meds, with the tension of passing through the throng of people trying to help me with my luggage, with the fear that the staff person from Midwives for Haiti won’t be there to greet me; the question swirls in my travel weary brain “Why do you do this to yourself?”
The answer always comes at some point during the trip in the form of an encounter that will be both very non-American (this doesn’t happen back home!) and pure Haitian in its beauty. Over the years I’ve come to think of these encounters as “holy moments.”
On this trip there was lots of good stuff but the “moment” actually occurred on our 3rd day of mobile clinic. We were doing an impromptu clinic in a church because the river we would cross to get to our planned destination was too high. This happens a lot in Haiti so doing clinics by a river or under a tree in a pasture are unplanned glitches that I have grown to look forward to.
At the end of this particular day when clinic was over (I thought!), I happened to be standing by the river, fascinated as I watched people crossing on their horses or motorcycles, or just wading through on foot. On the opposite bank a middle-aged woman approached with an infant bundled in a blanket. She waded into the water and headed our way with the infant held high against her chest. Mid-way across she began speaking to the interpreter that I was standing with and they chatted back and forth for a minute as she completed her crossing and continued up the hill. I don’t speak the language so I didn’t understand the conversation. He and I eventually made our way back to the clinic and walked back into the church to find this same woman inside. She wanted her grandchild to be seen for the diarrhea the baby was experiencing. Diarrhea – not an uncommon complaint in worried parents either in Haiti or in the United States. Pretty routine, right? Unbeknownst to us all, The Moment had arrived.
The baby’s mother had died suddenly the week before when her daughter was only 3 weeks old. All the grandmother knew about the death was that the mother had a big headache and then just died. Not a common occurrence in my country but not something a Haitian would question. Life can be hard here.
I was getting my stethoscope to do a quick exam on the baby when I was asked by one of our interpreters, Bengie, if it was okay for Isabelle to nurse the baby. Isabelle has a baby of her own and she had plenty of breast milk to share. Of course I gave my okay although I didn’t really think it was my decision to make. The decision was Isabelle’s and the choice that she made was to give of herself to this baby who had nothing and in so doing, she made a choice that turned out to be a gift to us all.
We all watched as she nursed the baby who hungrily latched on. I was just starting to realize that this was The Moment when suddenly I noticed Isabelle’s tears running down her face and falling on her breasts. It was a moment within a moment! In this country where life can be brutally tough and death is commonplace, I had thought that a Haitian might be immune to this kind of tragedy. But I was wrong. Even though Isabelle was able to provide this meal, she knew that there were many more meals for this helpless child that she will probably go without. The brevity of this moment was lost on no one, not me, not my team, not the grandmother, nor the other interpreters.
There is a lot more that I could write to describe the moments within that moment – the offer that she made, the tears that flowed, the abundance of breastmilk and love, but the telling of this story wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t give praise to Isabelle and Bengie, our two female interpreters – Isabelle, who nursed the baby, and Bengie, who facilitated the whole encounter. Their love of babies was shining on both of their faces. Certainly they both work hard as interpreters but their real passion is babies. Bengie would have adopted that baby, as she has 2 others, right there on the spot!
Thank you, Isabelle and Bengie, for reminding me why I come to Haiti. I left this “holy moment” as I leave all others – happy to have been in Haiti, privileged to have had this experience, and already planning my next trip.
-By Vanessa Fowlkes, FNP
(The picture shown is the grandmother carrying her hungry grandchild across a river to reach the mobile clinic.)
The medical team present committed to supplying the baby with ten months of formula and we are ensuring the family has a clean water supply. You can also help us support mother and babies in Haiti by making a tax-deductible donation to our programs.