I’m on Haiti time

February 20, 2010

Sorry for the lack of columns, folks.  I’m in Haiti with the Waterloo Region Record until Feb. 25. Girl

You can follow the stories down there at Dispatches from Haiti

Here’s the latest story:

Life starts loudly, ends quietly at Haitian hospital

PORT-AU-PRINCE – Outside the doors of the operating room where she was born by Caesarian section, mothers in labour wail from the overcrowded birthing ward. Their cries can be heard down the hallways and out the front gates, where a few hundred more sick and injured are waiting to get in.

By the dozen, the mothers are yelling, screaming, shouting in Creole. Dozens more wait in the next room with swollen bellies. Every day, more babies keep coming, infants born into one of the poorest countries on earth, a place stumbling toward the future when barely one in 50 has a steady job.

Around the corner in a surgical ward, Fabienne Joseph, 25, can barely whisper. Life starts with such a ruckus here, and ends with a whimper. She’s been at the Universitaire de la Paix hospital since her house collapsed, and after three operations to repair her crushed stomach, she still can’t leave her bed.

Joseph has withered away to skin and bones, and she’ll likely die in the next few days, say the Ontario doctors who’ve been here all week.

“She won’t make it,” said Dr. Tom Marshall, a physician with the St. Joseph’s aid mission, which includes volunteers from St. Mary’s Hospital. “Her body has nothing left.”

Joseph’s mother, Claudette Amilcar, sits by her bedside and watches the nurses change her daughter’s IV. She’s already lost one child in the earthquake, and she still thinks the doctors can save this one.

“I used to have six,” she said, of her children. “Now I have five. She just need help.”

In another country, maybe, Joseph might stand a chance. But not here. When she dies, her mother will probably fall on the floor and wail, as the Haitians do when they lose someone. Eventually, she’ll gather up the things she brought, including the mattress her daughter has laid on, and go home.

They’ll pull the sheet up over her head and carry her away, feet first — the Haitian sign of death in this hospital. Living patients always go head-first, something the Canadians learned the hard way.

Joseph’s body will be stored in a small metal refrigeration unit at the back of the hospital, next to the roaring generator. There are only two bodies there now.

A month ago, in the days after the earth shook and killed 230,000, there was no space. There were so many dead they piled them in the courtyard and in the parking lot, said Jeanty Kety, a guard at the hospital. It made her depressed, she said, but things are better now.

“If someone dies now, they will get a funeral. During the quake, they didn’t do this. They took them all and put them in a hole and covered them up,” said Fritz Dorceus, 26, a Creole translator who works with the Canadians.

At the hospital, the Haitians seem to think everyone can be saved. Last Saturday, an elderly man with severe stomach cancer was brought in. He had stopped eating, and didn’t respond to anyone.

The Canadians knew the man was doomed. But the Haitian doctor looking after him ordered that he be kept alive. With his family looking on, a new catheter and IV drip went in.

“The family thought that this was it. This was going to save his life,” said Anita Otterbein, a nurse at St. Mary’s and volunteer firefighter in New Hamburg. “Three days later, he died. The family was completely aghast.”

They fell to the floor and wailed until security guards removed them from the building. Two days later, Otterbein watched a mother do the same thing, and tried to console her. Her two-year-old daughter had come in with meningitis, and she also believed her girl, too weak to cry, would recover.

The hospital is so undersupplied that those patients in their final days can get little more than strong Tylenol to make them comfortable. Dying is hard here. New life can be even harder.

Birth is a painful, lonely experience here. The women are kept from family, given no drugs, and left naked on tables in an open room while a male janitor mops the floor around them. About a third of their babies won’t make it to age five.

A week ago, Jeanette Saintville, 35, gave birth to two premature babies, a boy and a girl. The girl didn’t survive. The boy is kept alive in an incubator, and his mother worries how she will care for him. She may not have to worry much longer, the doctors say privately.

The mother, who is HIV-positive, already has three other children, and they lost everything they had in the earthquake. Because of religious beliefs that forbid birth control, as many as one in five of the mothers coming into the ward has HIV.

“I don’t know what will happen,” Saintville said, through a translator. “I have to accept what God chooses.”

Up on the hospital’s second floor, a man with tuberculosis lies on a bed that has been pushed out into the open-air walkway. He’s been lying like that for three days, and can barely lift his eyes. His arm is so skinny now his wrist band almost falls past his elbow.

The man just stares out into the blue sky above the hospital. Somewhere down below, a mother in delivery is hollering, hard. Then she gets quiet, and a new voice gets loud.

Another baby has arrived.

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