Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception in Haiti

Notre Dame de Lamerci has a large main church, which seats about 300. But today, for this special feast day, Mass would be celebrated at one of the seven chapels that are part of the parish.  Father Andre goes to each chapel three or four times a year to say Mass. It is a big deal. Last evening, Father traveled to the chapel area to hear people’s confession as they prepared for the Mass.

“They don’t have a chapel--a building,” explained Father Andre. “But they will make one out of blankets and sheets.” On the morning of the Mass, a white pick up truck made a couple of trips to the site, transporting the alter and some drums. And then we jumped in and made the 10 minute drive.

We arrived about an hour after Mass was supposed to begin. Of course, Mass can’t begin without Father and he, along with us, was waiting for Tamara and Pamela, nurses who were taking care of a sick child who had showed up at the clinic with her mother. But Haitians aren’t as particular as Americans about timeliness; they were cheerfully saying the rosary when we arrived.

The Haitians had indeed used sheets, canvas, and big sticks to construct their chapel. Inside, blue and white paper chains and blue flowers and ribbons festooned the walls. A sea of white hair bows floated above the lovely heads of the many Haitian girls who sat patiently on the benches. 

Mass was two hours. This is a shock to American Catholics who get antsy at home when the Liturgy approaches an hour. But the Haitian girls gave glory to God with their dancing and the choir and congregation lifted their voices and music in beautiful praises. One of the bongo drums looked as if it was made from a tree trunk. 

Father welcomed us and told the congregation that he was offering the Mass for my brother Father Jim, whose birthday is today. 

At the end, speakers made many important announcements, Tamara, our nurse, talked about what to do if you get an open wound. After Mass was over, the people of the parish fed the children a meal.

In the afternoon, we went to a monthly meeting of pregnant women that was scheduled around our visit. Father is giving us much credit for contributing to his recently built maternity hospital. Besides this, having a meeting of pregnant women on the day that the Catholic church celebrates the conception of a baby seems appropriate. 

About 25 pregnant women, most of whom looked to be in their second trimester or later arrive for the meeting. There is also a row of quite elderly people. We couldn’t figure out why they were present.

Tamara talked with the women about how it important it is to have everything clean if they deliver the baby at home. Some of the women asked questions. Then the nurses distributed a sandwich and soda to the women and a bag of rice to take home. These perks ensure good attendance at the meeting. 

During the food distribution, we found out that the older people present were midwives. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Hello Robillard!

John and I just returned from a one-week trip to the north of Haiti. As we didn't have good internet access while we were there, I am posting these entries about a week after they were actually Live from Haiti.

Have you heard the expression, “There are two Haitis: Port-au-Prince and everything else.”? I think this is true, and while we’re usually in the Haiti of Port-au-Prince, this trip we’ve traveled to the other Haiti, more specifically, Robillard, a town about a half hour outside of Cap Haitien, the second largest city in the country. 

If life in Haiti is tough, life in Port-au-Prince is tougher. All the miseries of poverty are concentrated in the capital city, as is the political power. This subject deserves its own post, so for now I’ll focus on Robillard, or as the Haitians spell it, Wobiya. John came here for the first time two years ago. The cholera epidemic was hitting one of its murderous peaks, and Fr. Andre Sylvestre, a Catholic priest and pastor of Notre Dame de Lamerci put out the word that he needed help at his Cholera Treatment Center. John came and worked at the clinic. He was impressed with Father Andre and all the good work he is doing. Besides the CTC, he also has a general medical clinic and with the help of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a new maternity hospital.

More green trees cover the mountains and land here, and, with 16,000 people, Robillard is less densely populated than Port-au-Prince. During our walk around town,  people would smile and call out a greeting. They don’t beg as much or seem as desparate. Perhaps because of this, the Haitian expression, “Moun se moun,” or “Every person is a person,” seems more of a reality. People laugh and joke with us. When we show them the pictures we’ve taken of them, they laugh some more. Our room is next to the church and this afternoon, the children’s choir was practicing. We got to hear their pure, enthusiastic voices as they floated by us, up to God.

Robillard is a countryfied setting and the noises of the outdoor world--birds, frogs, roosters--pour in through our windows. From Robillard, we can see the mighty Citadelle, perched on the top of the mountain, Grand Boucan. 

As in small towns compared to big cities everywhere, people are less jaded. Gentler. They are having more fun. Like the two gents in the picture above.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

With The Right Help, Some Problems Can Be Solved Quickly

We heard about Oniste from another Haitian Hearts patient. As you can see from the picture above, she had an unbelievably huge tumor on her forehead. It started as a small bump three years ago and has grown to this monster, which was destroying her health and threatening her life.

On a few trips this year, John examined Oniste. While he assured her that we were searching for a hospital in the States, the tumor ignored our good efforts and continued to grow. After several near misses with medical center, the amazing Dr. Wayne Yakes, a vascular interventional radiologist who specializes in tumors at Swedish in Englewood, Colorado, accepted Oniste.

John flew with Oniste to Colorado. Dr. Yakes threaded a catheter up to the tumor and cauterized the blood vessels feeding the tumor. This was a critical step as before we met her, Oniste had gone to the Dominican Republic and surgeons there had attempted to remove the tumor. But they had to stop because she bled so profusely.

The day after Dr. Yakes performed his magic, Oniste went to the OR where she successfully had the tumor removed. She had a couple of touch up surgeries after this and she will have radiation therapy as the tumor was mildly malignant, but as you can see from the after picture below, which was taken while she was still in the OR, she is a new woman! Oniste is being cared for by a lovely Haitian family who lives in the Denver area. 

These Haitian Hearts cases require so much work to be the successes that they are, it seems scandalous that I write about them so briefly. For more detailed and comprehensive reports, please go to John’s blog at Dispatches from Haiti hosted by the Peoria Journal Star.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Marie's Miracles

Marie had surgery at Edward Heart surgery less than a week after arriving in the United States. And big surgery it was--she had two heart valves replaced and one repaired, by the best heart surgeon anywhere, Dr. Bryan Foy. The heart only has four valves, so this indicates how sick she was. Unfortunately, Marie's heart wouldn't start beating on her own. Dr. Foy put Marie on ECMO, which is basically like bedside bypass. He would give her heart a few days to start pumping on its own.

Things looked grim. We called Marie's sister Rose who lives in New Jersey. She flew to Chicago to be there for Rose and possibly say good bye. When Rose walked into the ICU, took Marie's hand, spoke to her in Creole, Marie, who was still on ECMO and heavily sedated, opened her eyes. The ICU staff were stunned; another miracle. The next day, Marie was taken off ECMO, and her heart took over on its own.

From there on out, she has made progress, but it has been a roller coaster. Marie successfully battled kidney failure and gall bladder problems. She left the hospital three weeks after she had surgery and went to the home of Linda Mrez to recuperate.

Marie continues to grow stronger. She goes for walks, which before surgery, her sick heart would not allow her to do; it was just barely keeping her alive. We are thankful to Dr. Bryan Foy, Edward Heart Hospital, many other medical professionals, host families, the O'Donnell's and the Merz's, and most of all to God for the series of miracles that allow Marie to live.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The wild blue yonder

So many miracles have already occured to get Marie to the point of being able to travel to the United States--John finding out about her grave condition at the 11th hour; Marie being accepted by a hospital on Easter Sunday; the Naperville host family materializing at the Haitian guest house; getting the visa after an initial denial. Even Marie staying alive through this whole process.

And making it through the arduous trip from Port-au-Prince to Naperville. As anyone who flies now knows, with all the security checks, the "undressing", the flight changes, the cramped seats, traveling by air is not for wimps. This trip presented its own challenges from Marie being accosted by a drunk and impaired woman to having their flight from Miami to Chicago cancelled due to mechanical problems after they were already on the plane. But Marie is nothing if not a wimp.

While they were waiting for their new flight, John had to ask the airline attendants to get their baggage as Marie had packed the medicine that she needed to take. Some of the medicine was a diuretic which makes you get rid of fluid. So when they finally did take off on a different plane for Chicago, Marie had to make many trips to the rest room.

They landed at O'Hare and Patricia O'Donnell who would serve as a host family during part of Marie's stay was there to greet them with a limo and hot soup.

Marie was finally here. Welcome to America.

Monday, July 01, 2013

The pain of dealing with US embassies

One of the most painful parts of bringing Haitians to the United States for medical care is dealing with the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince. Even when we get the visas, which we almost always do, there is something dehumanizing about the process. The wait. The arbitrariness of the process. The assumption that everyone who is applying for a visa is somehow cheating.

The abrupt convergence of the first world with the third world at these embassies brings out the worst in the first world. Is it guilt? Is it fear? Is it the press of people trying to get visas? Is it greed? Is it wanting to be anywhere other than a U.S. embassy in the developing world?

I'm speaking not just from the point of view of helping Haitian patients apply for U.S. visas. We had our own frustrations during our adoption process and our neighbors right now are having their own hair-pulling experiences with the embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. So it's not just Haiti.

Marie's visa odyssey wasn't any different. Her brother helped her complete the 15 page online form. The internet isn't exactly reliable in Haiti--it kept going down and the entered information would be lost--so it took two days to fill out the form. Haitian Hearts paid the $180 fee.

Marie was able to obtain an appointment fairly quickly because she had a medical emergency. The embassy required four letters: one from the accepting surgeon, the accepting medical center, the physician in Haiti who had examined Marie, and the host family.

Marie showed up for her appointment. She was very weak from her extreme congestive heart failure. At her appointment, Marie was denied the visa. She was told that all the necessary documents weren't in place.

We told Marie to wait outside the embassy. Several people made phone calls to the embassy to confirm that the documents had been received. Finally, after several exhausting (for Marie) hours, she was called back in the embassy and her visa was granted.

So all was good in the end, but, oh my, gird your loins for this process.

Above, the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

We need a host family on the double

So thanks to Dr. Bryan Foy and Edward Heart Hospital in Naperville, Illinois, we have a surgeon and a medical center for patient Marie, who is badly in need of surgery. Now, we need a host family. In order to apply for the visa, we must have letters from the surgeon, the medical center, a doctor in Haiti who has examined the patient, and the host family. The host family letter needs to document for the embassy that the the regular living expenses of the patient will be covered by them.

We are putting out the word for a host family and are coming up empty. Marie has a coveted visa appointment at the embassy in the next few days, and we need the host family and their letter for her to have any chance of getting this necessary stamp in her passport.

So John and I are on Google chat, brainstorming furiously about where Marie might stay. A Catholic convent in Chicagoland has been gracious enough to host other Haitian Hearts patients, but they are 45 minutes away from the hospital. As we are chatting away, increasingly desperate, a woman named Kim, who is staying at John's guest house in Port-au-Prince comes into his room. As John has Marie staying at the guest house, many of the guests are aware of her situation and are trying to help. A group of American visitors has just arrived and are getting their room assignments. Kim wants to tell John something.

"Your new roommate is from Naperville."

Less than an hour later, we have a letter emailed to the embassy stating that Patrick, John's new roommate and his wife Patricia O'Donnell will serve as Marie's host family.

Thanks to them for being another miracle for Marie.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

We take a brief break from the miracle of Marie. . .

. . . to bring you the picture above which was taken in the last 24 hours in Cite Soleil, a large slum in Haiti's capital city, Port-au-Prince. When I see pictures like this, I ask myself, "Why? Why do we live in a world that allows--forces?--people--children--to live like this? Why haven't the people of the world who have enough--more than enough, so much enough that it's killing us--banded together, risen up, and changed the world?"

I know the causes are many and complicated. I know it's been like this forever. I know there are obstacles to helping. But I still can't seem to get my mind around the reality that we live in a world where so many people live in places like the above, or slightly better while others of us wallow in affluence.

It's hurting all of us.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Easter Sunday Miracle

So John made the long trip from Peoria to Port-au-Prince, did what he could medically for Marie's congestive heart failure, and prayed and waited to hear from a hospital.

Against all odds, he didn't have to wait very long. On March 31, Easter Sunday, Marie was accepted by Edward Heart Hospital in Naperville, Illinois. Dr. Bryan Foy,  an excellent heart surgeon, who has operated on other Haitian Hearts patients, would be the surgeon. This may be the quickest a Haitian Hearts patient has ever been accepted by a hospital. And a good thing, too, as Marie was very sick. Walking was problematic. All Marie's energy was going to staying alive.

Now, onto the visa application process and other administrative details. . .

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Faraway House Call

"I'm so sick. I can't lie down to sleep. I'm dying." Those were the words Marie Claude Toussaint spoke to John from her home in Port-au-Prince. John listened from 1,800 miles away. He talked with Marie; he emailed her cardiologist; he agonized over her meds. But in the end, her congestive heart failure proved too difficult to manage via phone.

So on March 29, John traveled to Haiti to see Marie. As my dad said, "It's the longest house call I've ever heard of. " When John arrived, he found Marie as sick as she had described, swollen with fluid, unable to sleep. He put her up in the guesthouse in Haiti where he was staying. He managed her diuretics without labs. She got a little bit more comfortable and was able to eat. But it was just a temporary reprieve. As John said, "She needs the knife." 

Specifically, she needed new heart valves. Marie had had heart valve repair surgery in the United States in 2001. But these repairs last only so long. Prior to his trip, John said the hard part wasn't going to Haiti to try to help Marie. The hard part would be leaving Haiti, leaving Marie. So John put out the word that he had a patient who needed surgery now in the dim hopes that he would be able to leave Haiti with Marie.

And then he waited.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Everyday Life

We are all of us, me included, caught up in our own lives. Most days are filled to the brim with jobs, chores, meetings, errands, chaffeuring kids, social commitments. So much of it seems essential. And then there's the non-essential stuff that takes up a lot of time--surfing the Internet, television, excessive social media, shopping, etc.

Normal, modern day, American life.

So what do you do when in the midst of this normal craziness, a voice drops in on your life and says, "Help me. I'm dying."

It's a voice from a poor country, filled with poor people in a world that is more poor than not. So many people are in this caller's shoes. Kind of makes it easy to ignore her voice.

Except in this case, you know the person. You've helped this person in the past.

Do you send her money? Tell her you'll pray for her? Try to help her from afar? Tell her that you're too busy. Ignore her?

Do you tell yourself you've helped before. There's only so much one person can do. You're so busy doing a lot of good stuff up here.

What do you do?

Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Haitians and Irish

A couple of weeks ago, my mom, cousins, son, and I went to an exhibit, the Greening of the Prairie: Irish Immigration  and Settlement in McLean Country. The exhibit is in the McLean Country Museum of History in downtown Bloomington. Some of my relatives--the Killians and the Larkins--were featured in the exhibit--my great aunt Julia Larkin talking about the nuns teaching them Latin at their boarding school and my great grandparents P.J. and Nellie Killian and their six strapping sons.

But why I want to mention this Irish exhibit on my Haiti blog and on St. Patrick's Day, no less, is because it reminded me how much the Irish are like the Haitians. To wit:

Haiti and Ireland are both island nations.

The Irish language, sometimes called Gaelic, and Haitian Creole were both spoken languages before they were written languages. Both languages are tinged with poetry.

The Irish are supersitious; so are the Haitians.

They are both big lovers of music, parties, and hooch.

Both countries were terribly oppressed by a colonial power.

Both the Haitians and the Irish fled the terrible hunger of their countries on boat. Many of these boats turned into coffin ships.

Ireland and Haiti are Catholic countries filled with people who are devout in their belief in God. Sometimes it's been all they had.

Of course, Haiti is much closer to the pain of her history (i.e. it isn't history) than is Ireland.

I'll close with a great quote from the movie "The Commitments." Just substitute Haitians for blacks.

"Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: 'I'm black and I'm proud.'"

Friday, March 08, 2013

Can You Imagine?

Can you imagine what it would be like to have a hole in the side of your face? To have this painful disfigurement on the part of the body that people most commonly associate with you? To have pain every time you move your jaw to talk or to eat? To only be able to open your mouth so far? To have to deal often with infections that can be life-threatening? To have this go on for years? Can you imagine?

And what about this: can you imagine a group of people--your brother, a couple of U.S. doctors, an American friend, a Haitian in the United States--who really care about you? Who examine you in Haiti? Who send your records to the States? Who advocate for a hospital for you? Who pay your visa fees and help you with your paperwork? Who offer to host you in their home?

Can you imagine going to the U.S. embassy for a visa appointment, knowing that getting help depends on the outcome of the appointment? Can you imagine waiting?

And then can you imagine going to bed at the end of the day that you were granted the visa? Can you imagine despair changing to hope changing to joy?

Mimose can. We will welcome her to the United States on March 19, 2013.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Missing Elie

John has written another moving post , this time about the life of a poor Haitian family who were trying to keep alive their two-year-old son, Elie, who had a major heart defect. Tough to do when you live in a tent. John expended a lot of time and effort to try and line up a hospital and surgeon for this child. He also examined Elie on his trips to Haiti, provided medications, and kept in contact with Elie's mom. But, unfortunately--an understatement--Elie died.

When you get to know a child who lives in Haiti, the child ceases to become an abstraction. What do I mean by this? In the United States and the developed world, we get a fair amount of news coverage of the millions who have malaria, or the tens of thousands who are homeless from an earthquake, or the hundreds of thousands who are living in refuge camps or under tents. Those numbers are overwhelming; it's difficult to get your mind around all that suffering. What the mind can't comprehend, it often ignores. These inumerable people--it's almost like they are not real to us, only unfathomable numbers. But one child like Elie who needs heart surgery, one child who needs regular meals and schooling--one person, this is a situation that speaks to our hearts.

And when you know a person, like Elie, it becomes much less easy to rationalize their not getting the heart surgery they need. John makes the point in his post: we here in the United States would move heaven and earth to get treatment for our child. More to the point, we wouldn't have to; it's an expectation. It should be an expectation for ALL CHILDEN EVERYWHERE. It's not about lack of resources; it's about lack of will.

This isn't to say that we don't need big, systemic solutions to the problems that plague Haiti and elsewhere--clean water, schools, decent roads, innoculation programs. We do. But while we're working on these big solutions, we can't ignore children like Elie.

Pictured above Elie's father and neighbors outside his home.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Real Problems

There is this awful social media meme called First World problems, where people write in with the little things that bug them about being the world's most privileged individuals. It's really disingenuous: people like to complain, but they know it's selfish and small minded to complain about such trivial things. So this cute movement has been launched where people are laughing about their complaints--"Yes, we are wise to our self absorption," as if this somehow mitigates the complaints. But in the end, they are still complaining, and their complaints--and maybe their lives--revolve around petty concerns.

Ouch. I guess the above is kind of harsh, but I'm writing it after having read a post that John just wrote, The Praying Man. John was working at a clinic that included dental services. A man who was in terrible pain and waiting to have a tooth extracted was in line, praying to be seen. As Haitian luck would have it, the person before this man was the last patient of the day. However, the staff promised this man that he would be first in line tomorrow, which was the last day of the clinic.

In a stroke of more Haitian luck, this last day of clinic was cancelled; due to the armed presence of unhappy, young men in the area, the staff didn't feel safe and decided there would be no clinic.

Have you ever been in really bad pain? If you are fortunate enough to be a First World resident, you have most times been able to get your pain alleviated. I keep thinking of this poor man in Haiti, with his excrutiating tooth pain. Too bad there's not a social media movement for his Third World problems.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A Tale of Two Sarahs and Haiti's Future

Long time since I've posted to my blog. It hasn't been for lack of news from Haiti. Between the endemic presence of cholera, the hurricane that wiped out so many of the country's crops, and John's seven trips to Haiti in 2012, lots has happened. Our patient Luckner had successful heart surgery in Naperville in September 2012. Our smaller patient, Sarah, in Cite Soleil ended the year better than she started it. John was pretty sure she was going to die from starvation when he first saw her, looking like she does in the top picture. But a few months later, she had put on weight and was much healthier, as you can see in the bottom pic. Her challenges aren't over, but now she has a chance.

January 1st is a big day in Haiti. Besides being the start of the new year, it's also the anniversary of the country's independence. Haiti is 209 years old today. They've been rough years. Is it delusional to feel any sense of optimism for Haiti? Maybe not, if we remember Sarah.