March 8, 2010

Letter from Haiti: Haitians' pride, faith amaze doctor

Dr. Ann Lemire is an internist-pediatrician specializing in HIV medicine who works for the city of Portland's Public Health Division. As volunteer chair of Konbit Sante's pediatric collaboration, she works with her colleagues in Haiti to improve care for the littlest patients.

Konbit Sante is a Portland-based nonprofit that has been working for about a decade in Cap Haitien to improve the health care system there.

From Jan. 31 to Feb. 10, Lemire worked in Cap, helping triage patients arriving from Port-au-Prince after the Jan. 12 earthquake there. She treated children in the pediatric unit at Justinian University Hospital, Konbit Sante's partner and the second-largest public hospital in the country.

These are Lemire's notes from her latest trip, used with permission, about "some of the people that came into my life and their proud stance in the face of incredible adversity. I shall not forget this experience of being in the presence of angels."

A different task – quake victims

Nineteen days after the cataclysmic 7.0 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, I arrived in Cap Haitien, the second-largest city of Haiti, 85 miles NE of Port-au-Prince. I was in the company of five other Konbit Sante volunteers and two U.S. staff members. All but one of us had been to Haiti multiple times, but this visit was different. During the next week we worked as a team, attempting in some small way to assuage the sufferings of the refugees from Port-au-Prince and the people of Cap Haitien.

La Marche d'Honneur

On Jan. 31, after a quick debriefing, we made our way to the Justinian Hospital. Partway there we could see the streets ahead filled with people singing and praying, all dressed in white. They were accompanied by U.N. tanks manned with Nepalese and Chilean soldiers who were very respectful of the crowd. I spoke to one of the women, who said this march was to honor the many who had died in l'evenement (the event) and to thank God for sparing Cap Haitien. She handed me a prayer leaflet and asked me to pray as well.

After completing our hospital rounds, and as the sultry, dusty air was giving way to a gentle breeze as daylight drew to a close, we took a walk along the boulevard in hopes of finding some ice cream. Upon approaching the boulevard we again became caught up in this group of people dressed in white -- now numbering in the thousands.

They walked behind cross-bearers and other religious ministers and had small pickup trucks with amps interspersed among them. They prayed and sang with one voice as they held up photos of the dead. Arms swayed and rosaries were held up as they cried out, "Benissez le Seigneur! Grace a Dieu! Seigneur prend pitie!" ("Blessed be the Lord! Glory to God! Lord have mercy!")

We were mesmerized by these beautiful people so peacefully, gracefully displaying their faith, thanking God for safety and praying for their dead loved ones who could not receive a proper burial. As far as the eye could see along the boulevard, the white, swaying procession marched on.

We were all filled with emotion at what we had just witnessed, and this Haitian proverb came to mind: Our nights are long in Haiti, but our dreams are longer still.

Timoun (the children)

During my regular volunteer trips with Konbit Sante, I work with the pediatric section of the hospital. My Haitian colleagues, Dr. Charles, Dr. Toussaint and Dr. St. Fleur, and the dozen or so pediatric medical residents are exceptional in their clinical abilities and their devotion to the timoun (children). During this trip I helped them with seeing children, which once again gave me a greater awareness of what monumental obstacles my colleagues face in their daily work.

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