Our interpreter at the hospital, Bengie, has got two kids. Bengie looks like a high fashion model, tall and regal with cat eyes and wide cheekbones. I have never seen her break a sweat ever, even when it’s 34 degrees at 100% humidity. By mid-morning the rest of us are covered in a tacky film of sweat, DEET, and sunscreen, but Bengie looks like she just stepped off Vogue magazine. I am not exaggerating.
Bengie has two adopted sons, which is unusual in Haiti. Her youngest son is three years old and she adopted him after his mother died, one week into her job as an interpreter. She’d like a thousand children but doesn’t want to give birth to any of them. Maybe this is what hanging around the labour ward all day does to you.
I try to introduce myself to the patients on the wards as we go around. “Bonjou, mwen rele Phu”. Hello, my name is Phu. I smile and try to look reassuring instead of constipated from the heat. Some of the women smile back, others just look confused. That’s usually when Bengie steps in to save me. Perinne comes up behind me while I’m sitting on the porch, back at the house.
“I’ve just realised something.”
“Your name. It means crazy in Creole.”
Hello, my name is crazy. No wonder the patients are confused. It makes so much sense now.
The hospital in Hinche is the biggest one for miles around. Hinche is the capital of the central plateau and St Therese is the main referral hospital. It’s a compound of low-lying concrete buildings set behind a high concrete fence. It’s also a secret time warp. You spend two hours there and it feels like two days.
We watched a Caesarean section on the first day. The woman contracted for a couple of hours on the labour ward while they finished a Caesarean on someone else. A metre away, another young woman had just given birth to her first baby. I helped put this fresh new baby skin to skin. The midwife walked away, the placenta still undelivered. A different midwife walked in with another new baby wrapped in a towel and plopped it on the weighing scales. Not because she wanted to weigh it. There was just nowhere else to put it. Then she left too. Kelly and I looked at each other. You can say a lot with eyebrows. Hers said “What just happened?” and mine said “What the hell are we supposed to do now?”
The operating theatre is the one air conditioned place in the hospital, and it’s like a white tiled oasis in the middle of a chaotic desert. Still, it doesn’t have any running water. None of the hospital does. The obstetrician sings while he’s putting on his gloves. We’re sort of morbidly fascinated because someone told us they do the Caesareans with ketamine only. Actually though, there’s a nurse there who puts in a spinal block. I think it’s an urban myth to scare the new ones.
The doctor is already through the fatty layer before I suddenly remember that they’ll probably hand us the baby. We tried to ask Bengie what to expect but she’s never been allowed inside. How are we supposed to receive the baby? Where is the resuscitation equipment? She tells us to run the baby across the courtyard to the NICU if we have any problems. I wave frantically at the scrub nurse and mime “gloves”. She seems to understand. She hands me a pair of sterile gloves but the baby is already being delivered. Oh god. The doctor places the baby down at the foot of the drapes and continues unperturbed. Luckily the baby is fine. He has tiny springy curls on his head. We take him back to the labour ward and put him down in the corner that I think of as the baby holding pen. They lie on the scales wrapped in a towel, cueing like mad and looking around, wondering what kind of planet they’ve just landed on. Sometimes I wonder that too.
Saturday is laundry day. The laundry lady collects the dirty laundry from the pile next to the stairs and sets up her buckets under the mango tree where it’s shady. I don’t want to make her wash my laundry so I get my own bucket and fill it in the shower and aggressively stomp all over my scrubs. It’s more work than I expected. I have to stop halfway for a drink and a snack.
The washing powder comes in a 30 pound bag that sits under the stairs. ¡Quality of people who progress! it exclaims cheerfully in Spanish. It’s detergent mixed with bleach and is the first (and only) choice for cleaning anything – clothes, floors, dishes. It’s hard to keep anything clean between the sweat and the mud (and sometimes the blood) but Suave Detergente works like magic for hospital scrubs.
All over the neighbourhoods and the countryside and along the roads you’ll see laundry hung out to dry. You’ll see it garnishing fences, or draped over the road barriers that separate the mountain road from the deep valley below, or spread over the prickly cactus hedges that grow between the houses. Doing your laundry is one of those mundane things that becomes incredibly hard when you have no easy access to water, but everyone somehow manages it. Haitians care about their clothes. Dressing well is a competitive sport, along with gleefully passing judgment on each other’s outfits.
This is not a land of ease and softness and plush, elasticated, wrinkle-free comfort. You won’t find people in stretchy sweatpants out on the street. You’ll find school children in spotless gingham uniforms, and men at church in starchy white shirts, and women wearing bright dresses sitting primly sideways on a moto to keep their shoes clean. I think about the care that went into scrubbing and wringing and pressing those clothes, and the pride inherent in that. It’s a tiny bit of reassurance for me, and maybe for them too. Life can be hard but a clean ironed shirt is a sign of optimism not yet gone bankrupt.
– Phuong Tran, volunteer midwife. (Photo of Bengie by Cheryl Hanna-Truscott)
To volunteer with Midwives For Haiti, learn more here.