Sunday, March 28, 2010


A mother stands in the center of our tent hospital. Her toddler stands at her feet, hiding his face in the folds of her skirt at her legs; he tugs repeatedly at her dress to get her attention. When he fails, he -- in typical two year old fashion -- cries out in frustration, tugging harder, grunting, trying to climb her. This draws knowing smiles and giggles from the patients and our staff. Headstrong, willful, smiley Emmanuel. Always trying to get his way.

If you look closer at the belligerent child, you will notice scars along his scalp, winding through the tangled mass of his dark hair. As you follow them, they will draw you to his face, where they course across his right eye, and down the side of his nose. These thick jagged lines are complimented by the more precise and straight surgical scars which track down his forehead, behind his ear and along the side of his neck. Emmanuel's face hints at a horrific story.

He has been passed from surgical team to surgical team -- first on the USS Comfort, then the Merlin surgical tents set up on an old tennis court, and finally, yesterday, Miami's white tent hospital at the airport. He has been our inpatient in between. We had been searching for a surgeon to make a final revision to Emmanuel's scars, but for weeks, no one could do this, due to lack of an anesthesiologist to properly control his airway for the final complicated surgical intervention. So, for weeks, Emmanuel has stayed in our tent hospital, with his dramatically deformed face, a prosthetic device sutured into his nostrils to prevent them from scarring shut, and a flap of tissue from his forehead twisted at its base to cover the place that once was his nose. Though the right side of his face was mangled, the left eye was largely unharmed, and it is through this left eye, and his intact smile, that Emmanuel has won the hearts of our hospital crew.

While rounding on patients, it is not uncommon to feel a sudden sharp slap on one's back side, and to spin around indignantly to find Emmanuel grinning, his left eye crinkled into a smile, his hand still raised in a gleeful threat that he is about to slap you in the butt once again. If you hold out a fist to him, he pulls out his, and gives a powerful fist bump greeting -- a sign that he is, indeed, a little Haitian man. He will sneak up upon you to unzip your pants pockets and steal your pens. And is commonly seen proudly wandering with a bag of drinking water that he has cleverly pilfered from a controlled stash at the nurse's station.

Two days ago, on a scouting visit to the Miami Field Hospital -- which has, by the way, received the official word from the government that it must move off of the Airport property in 3 weeks -- I wandered my way through the pediatric tent, and into the back surgical suite, bearing a photograph of Emmanuel's face on my telephone. I approached a group of men and women in surgical garb. Understand that, in the USA, a perfect stranger wandering in sandaled feet, a t-shirt and khaki pants into a surgical suite would guarantee one an escort out to the street in handcuffs by a thug in a dark security outfit. But there, with my American looking face and a strategically placed stethoscope, I received only curious stares from the surgical staff.

"Hey," I asked, with pseudo-casualness. "Is anyone here a plastic surgeon?"

And, unbelievably, as if I were standing inside a poorly written Hollywood movie, a handsome man in blue scrubs with a surgical mask dangling around his neck looked up and said, "I am a plastic surgeon. How can I help you?"

Really?? I asked myself internally. Did that just happen? Perhaps you don't quite understand....the number of virtual roadblocks and cement walls and alligator-filled moats we have transcended trying to achieve this very encounter, this moment in time. And here, finally, it was presenting itself. So shockingly simply.

"Uh.. great," I said, trying to appear casually unimpressed by this moment of good fortune. I turned on on my phone and opened to the photo of Emmanuel, turning it towards him. "Can you help this boy?"

The surgeon took my phone and stared at it. "Looks like he's had a half finished flap procedure..." he said, naming off specific flaps and techniques standard in his surgical world. I explained that we'd been unable to find an anesthesiologist, and were therefore unable to complete the revision...that we (and Emmanuel) were stuck, half finished, without a plan for his next essential plastic surgical intervention. We didn't know how to proceed.

"Okay," he said. "I'll do him tomorrow."

My mind stuttered with momentary incredulity. day after today tomorrow? Unbelievable. Outwardly, I nodded, with an false air of calm professionalism. Inwardly, I laughed -- a laugh of deep, fatigued relief.

Thank. God.

So, already overwhelmed, you can only imagine my reaction when he also agreed to do surgery on Rony, our other boy with facial trauma -- the one who'd had Bot fly larvae growing in his eye socket, and for whom we'd also been searching desperately for a surgeon.

I merely scrolled to Rony's picture on my phone, and thrust the photo at him, breathlessly challenging, "Okay, well, while we're at it... what about him?"

After he inspected the picture, and heard Rony's story, he said, "Okay, I'm leaving in a couple of days, but I'll fit them both into my schedule. Bring them both back this afternoon."

This afternoon.

I stared blankly for a moment, then a smile cracked my face. Unbelievable.

"This afternoon," I repeated to him, then nodded. "We'll be here." I retreated backwards through the door of the surgical suite, with a forced casual wave of my hand...then turned, and with a great lack of professionalism, sprinted back to the truck, intending to retrieve the boys before this vortex of luck stopped spinning.

And so today, two days later, Emmanuel and Rony reappeared back at the gate of our hospital, accompanied by our nurse, surgery complete. For the sake of their privacy, I will not include their photos here, but rest assured that the results were absolutely stunning-- as evidenced by Emmanuel's mother, who beamed a gigantic smile as she carried her boy proudly back through the metal gate into the courtyard of our field hospital.

Emmanuel's transformed appearance raised audible gasps -- which, ironically, it did not do when he had previously presented his disfigured face to the world. But now, with the fine scars of a deft surgical hand tracking down his face, where there once was a tangle of tissue, was the beautiful, nearly symmetrical face of a child.

So, today, beaming mother stood up in the courtyard of the tent hospital, little Emmanuel squirming at her feet, and told our community she had something to say. She closed her eyes, and began to sing, a deep, resonant rendition of a Creole hymn, "Alleluia..." All the patients fell silent as she sang, her little toddler at her feet trying unsuccessfully to climb up her dress. She swayed and raised her hands in song, thanking her God for healing her child.

Her gratitude is impressive, particularly if you know the rest of her story. This woman, who stood up to sing her thanks for all she has received, had three other children. But they are now dead. They were all crushed -- and are still buried -- in the rubble that was her house, which collapsed in the earthquake of 12 January 2010. The house under which her little Emmanuel was trapped, then plucked free. Her shattered little boy, all that remains of her family.

Emmanuel. Beautiful, vigorous, little spirit. Miracle boy. His mother's last hope.

Made whole a stranger in blue scrubs...who made the time.



  1. Thank you for this... I long to see and experience what you write about. Thank you for your words and your dedication. Thank you.

  2. All I can continue to offer is my tears of prayer, joy, heart-ache, and heart-hope... The reality you, and the others like you, send us from Haiti are incredibly and indelibly touching. Thank you.

  3. You have such a beautiful way with words! Thank you for sharing your stories and for all you are doing in Haiti. You truely are a very wonderful and special person! You are in my thoughts and prayers.

  4. Thanks for making me cry AGAIN. Sending a donation to Heartline Ministries so you all can continue your superlative work. Terri Urban

  5. Barbie!!!! I am SO EXCITED for Emmanuel and Rony! It is awesome to hear their stories come full circle. Thank you for advocating for them! Thank you for writing it down so the rest of us can celebrate too. Such great stories of healing and provision for those beloved little patients at Heartline. I am so glad they have not been forgotten!
    I join Emman's mom with my own Alleluia...

  6. Beautiful, Barbie - beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Makes me want to have my own little Alleluia service here.
    Thank you for continuing to fight for the Haitian people - for restoration and life.
    Sarah O

  7. Greetings,
    I'm a friend of Jen's from MN. I haven't been to your site before...what a beautiful story. Emmanuel got to the guy in the blue scrubs because of your fighting spirit. Blessings as you serve with dignity.
    marcia erickson

  8. This brings tears to my eyes as I imagine his mother standing there, singing praises to a miracle or miracles. And thanking her Father in heaven.
    I am blessed to read these little bits and pieces of your journey.
    Thanks for sharing with the us and thanks for caring enough to be there in Haiti.

  9. I came over from the Livesay's. Thank you for sharing. I'm bawling here. God is alive and working in Haiti.

  10. This was shared as part of the Easter message Sunday in worship. Alleluia!

  11. Barbie,
    I understand you worked in Anarctica, and I am interested in speaking with you regarding your experiences there. Please contact me @

  12. i am so blessed today reading this. Glory to God.

  13. I didn't read this before. What an amazing story. You are an amazing advocate and writer.