Saturday, February 20, 2010

Looking Up

This morning, walking down the muddy road from our host home to our field hospital, I happened to look up, and realized the trees gently shading the morning sun are laden with mangos. Luscious, soft, sweet, heavenly fruit. And they appear to be everywhere...when you take the time to look up. Then I spotted the bananas dangling with tantalizing promise. Then flowered tree limbs that stretch out from behind crumpled walls, wafting a sweet purple scent down onto the street in greeting, transiently blocking out the odor of burning garbage. Why did I not see these things yesterday? People walk past with soft "Bon jour's" and kind smiles on their lips and in their eyes. The things one sees when one lifts one's eyes from one's feet.

We arrive at the hospital and the question of the morning is, "How is the baby?" -- the 3 pound dying infant from the night before. "He's alive, and breathing on his own..." are the words that create a good start to the day. The sick child was found in the arms of his mother in the crumpled slums last night by our astute medical team, who had spent the day in devastated neighborhoods looking for ill patients unable to access care. If he had not been plucked from the streets, he would now be dead. And now, he will live. I wonder what he will become. And, what will become of so many of these children...the fragile future of this country.

In walk-in clinic today, a young girl with a healing severe leg fracture. She had been trapped under rubble, her leg crushed. Doctors had recommended amputation - a harsh but necessary triage strategy to save the lives of the most people in the absolute overwhelming devastation in the days after the earthquake. Life over limb, when there is no time for delicate, intricate orthopedic surgery, when hundreds of others are lined up needing the same life-salvaging care.

Her family had refused the amputation. They took her to another field hospital. Again, the recommendation was for amputation.

"I cannot have my leg amputated," the girl had cried, pleadingly. "My mother would be so mad..."

So, the family found a third orthopedic field group, who, reluctantly, per family's demand, attempted to salvage her mangled leg. And as of today, miraculously, one month from her injury, her leg appears to be slowly healing. Impossible. Yet happening.

The girl grumbles at our ortho PA, who insists she stay in her cast, on crutches, or the bones of her leg will likely collapse. She is getting intensive fracture and wound care here, including honey dressings -- a natural, locally available antibacterial wound covering which keeps out the germs of the dusty Haitian streets. She is doing incredibly well. Yet she is frustrated.

She hates her cast. She crosses her arms and pouts. She wants it off. She wants to walk. So far, one month of pain. Crutches on the rocky muddy streets of Port au Prince. She is mad. She glares angrily at the ortho PA, who tells her she may need the cast for 1-2 more months. She seems unaware of the miracle which is her healing others mere yards from her lie with their healing amputations. She gets on her crutches and storms away, as only a preadolescent can do.

I laugh silently to myself, as I watch her hobble angrily away, and think, "Oh well, she's mad, and that's okay, and she is healing, and that is good..."

Then, suddenly, she turns back around, storms back over to our ortho PA, glares at her for a moment, then leans gently into her, rests her head on her shoulder, and wraps an arm around her waist.

"Merci..." she whispers, and looks up at her with wide brown eyes and a reluctant smile. Then turns to leave again.


I, too, have received several of these hugs today. One from a little girl of five. She plays with my wristwatch, pushing buttons and cleverly changing the time back to Alaska time and the settings to a 3:02 am wake up alarm. Nice. I start to tickle her to get her to stop. So, she wraps her arms around me, hugging me fiercely, cheek against my side, eyes tightly clenched. Then she looks up. She rests her chin against my hip, and quietly stares up at me with a piercing child smile.

The osmotic flow of love.

It is a long day. But a good day. As I walk out into the street from the hospital, it is dark. Up in the sky, I see the comforting familiarity of stars twinking through the lattice of purple flowers and a million mangoes.

Note to self...even in hard times, remember to look up.


  1. Hi Barbie,
    Found your blog through a mutual ice friend. I'm so delighted to hear that Haiti has such a caring and competent medical professional on hand. Thanks so much for sharing your story (your talents are endless - you are a wonderful writer, too!)

    Best wishes for your own health and strength.
    Hugs from the Netherlands,
    Sheri Bluestein

  2. I had forgotten it was the beginning of mango season until I saw your post. It's an annual time of feasting in Haiti, and despite the terrible deforestation it is rare for people to ever cut mango trees. In the countryside people will be eating mangos for several months. Thank goodness for free food hanging on the trees. This is a great post; I can use all the smiles and hope coming of Haiti than you can deliver. Keep up the good work.

  3. Hi Barbie,
    I found your blog through the Antarctic Facebook group and I'm so glad to be able to share the experience in Haiti through your eloquent words. Thanks for sharing with such depth and emotion; it is good to hear of the love and healing as well as the hardships. I honour your contribution and think what you are doing there is nothing short of a miracle too. I'll keep reading. Sending love and hugs to you,
    Christine (Powell)

  4. hey Barbie,
    I'm a wilderness EMT from AK with a friend in the Antarctic Facebook group. I'm enchanted by your writing, and I'm enjoying all your posts. I'd love to hear more about your personal medical background, as I'm interested in furthering my own education so as to be better prepared and more experienced, so I can do similar work in similar situations. What you are doing is phenominal, and thank you.