After completing 10 surgeries that day, candlelight mass was a nice moment of relaxation and thought. The busy operative day left little time to think and process the true magnitude of what we had just accomplished. 10 surgeries in one day. Most well run surgical centers in the United States can’t even complete 10 surgeries in one day. Amazing! And exhausting. I don’t remember Father Rick’s homily that night, but I wasn’t surprised that even this candlelight mass was a funeral mass. Father Rick had been away, which meant that the souls of the deceased before us had been waiting for their funeral mass and their salvation.
As always, the number of “bodies” at the funeral mass never correlates with the number of names that Father Rick reads. Although it looked like one body, there were several children under one of the burial shrouds. Every time the shroud is lifted and more than one child is under there, I catch my breath just a little. As I’ve commented before, death in Haiti is all too real and ever present. Despite seeing patients meet untimely ends in the United States, nothing prepares you for what can be an overwhelming sense of death in Haiti. And for all the work we had done that day, here before us lay several who could not be helped or for whom help came too late. And yet, this wasn’t a sad occasion, for there was a great sense of peace at the funeral mass that night. The hymns sung by Father Rick and Sister Judy hang in the night air as a soft, cool breeze makes its way through the chapel windows.
I stayed after Mass to help a group of volunteers bring the bodies over to the morgue. I’ll honestly admit part of me wished I hadn’t, but part of me will never forget what it’s like to carry the body of a lifeless infant and child from the chapel to the truck. As we arrived back at the main entrance of St Damien’s, a woman carrying a baby came out of the hospital and approached our truck. The baby seemed very sick and almost lifeless in her hands. No crying and very little tone. She had been turned away from St. Damien’s because there were no available beds, and she had no clue where to go. The ER physician (Donnie) sprung into action, taking a look at the baby, assessing the situation, and trying to figure out what to do. Thankfully Father Rick was still with us at this point, and he told us to take the baby over to St. Luke’s.
Once again, a feeling of helplessness washed over me. I’m not a pediatrician, and I don’t routinely deal with sick babies. Not knowing what to do or how to help is an incredibly frustrating feeling for any doctor, but particularly for surgeons who are used to jumping in and getting their hands dirty. We transported mom and baby over to St. Luke’s, and Donnie got an IV started thanks to the pediatric nurse in the cholera clinic, started some antibiotics and checked a finger stick for blood glucose. Throughout all of this, the baby hardly moved or made a sound – not a good sign. After what felt like hours but was probably more like 30 minutes, Donnie got the baby situated for admission. We climbed back into the truck and were getting ready to pull out of the gates of St Luke’s.
I would have taken a picture of what happened next if it would have been appropriate, for it would have been a picture that speaks a thousand words about what life is like in Haiti. As the gate of St Luke’s opened, a young man was being helped off of a motorcycle and into a wheelchair to be brought to the Emergency Department. It was clear that he was in poor condition as he could barely stand up and certainly couldn’t walk. To get a ride to the hospital, he had likely given his last few dollars to the motorcycle driver. Not an ambulance ride, but a ride on the back of a motorcycle, clinging helplessly to the driver in the dark on the terrible streets of Port-au-Prince. He had given what meager money he had in order to come to St. Luke’s, where he knew at the very least his care would be free and a doctor would see him. Had he chosen the General Hospital, he may have died sitting in the hallway, waiting to be seen.
And on the street behind the scene of a semi-conscious man being helped into a wheelchair was a UN truck, sitting idly and watching. Watching and not helping, waiting for the motorcycle to move so that the UN soldiers could drive past. Yes, the picture would have said a thousand words. It would be the perfect picture to describe why the Haitian people dislike the United Nations, and it would speak volumes about the poor, the sick, and the desperate in this country.