The rains are coming.
Today we drove the truck through the slums under gray, misty skies. The air is a beautiful 10 degrees cooler. The streets are filled with mudpuddles. And there is an air of hostility. There has been a shift in the morale of this neighborhood....for the worse.
There has been a delivery of relief supplies. Grey tarps emblazoned with the letters USAID are scattered on the streets of the neighborhood. I don't know how they got here, or to whom they were dispursed. There are some. But there are not enough. Our progress is slowed as we creep along amongst crowds surrounding these grey sheets of plastic. A screaming match. One man weilds a 6 inch knife. Another a set of scissors. They argue heatedly, gesturing with their weapons, cutting at the tarp, threatening each other. Other bystanders grab the plastic, and a violent tug of war ensues. Chaos. Over a sheet of plastic. A shelter from the rain. This is desperation. The scene repeats on street corner after street corner.
The tent cities have grown. I am impressed by the human ingenuity. I take note of the clever skeletons of would be shelters being erected on sidewalks and streetcorners. All awaiting a tarp, which will equal simple roofs and walls and privacy and possibly a bit of dignity. A small shred of dignity. And a barrier from the rain, which will soon fall relentlessly for weeks and flood the streets and overflow the garbage filled rivers flowing through the slums.
We make our way to our first stop, outside of a school. We come here three times a week to perform wound care on our regular patients, who somehow learn through the neighborhood grapevine that the truck has arrived, and make their way towards us on their crutches and in their casts. This is where the boy was dropped at our feet with a femur fracture on Monday. Here we practice performance medicine -- always in front of a gigantic crowd of boistrous, curious children, who surround us 4 and 5 deep and watch every move and every dressing change with fascination.
Somehow my identity has been revealed to the crowd, and children and teenagers peer through the metal bars of our truck, fingers poking through the painted metal mesh, and call out, "Barbie...Barbie...." Some of them poke at me through the mesh walls. I am like an animal in the zoo. "Barbie...Barbie. Hello, Barbie," they call, practicing their English. "Barbie...Barbie..." Poke. Poke. I tolerate it for several minutes as I inspect a deep wound. "Barbie...Barbie..." Poke. Poke. Poke. I finally lose it, turn around and say, "Barbie working!! Stop!!" They smile, having finally achieved my attention. "Barbie working! Barbie working!" they repeat. I close my eyes and shake my head with a smile. "Barbie...pretty! I love you!" says one boy of about twelve. Now, that's more like it, my ego says with a smirk. I turn and wink at him. He smiles. I continue at my work.
Suddently the children go silent. A strange sudden, disconcerting peace.
"What's the matter? What happenned?" I jump up and ask. Is it the tarps? A fight? Has someone been stabbed?
The children have left our truck and have moved 100 yeards down the street, circling something. They are silent. Then a sudden cheer is heard, as if in a baseball stadium...As if someone has just hit a home run.
"What the..." I ask, and jump out of the truck. Just 4 days ago, the center of this crowd's attention was a boy with a femur fracture. What can it be today? I arrive at the periphery of the crowd, and discover Morgan, the daughter of the heads of our Mission, one of the nurses on our truck. An all American, caucasian, freckled young woman with curly brown hair, raised in Haiti, fluent in Creole. She is jumping a thick black cable of rope swung rhythmically by two teenage Haitian girls. Urban jump rope. Fantastic. Girls enter and jump a few times, the rope going faster and faster, snapping loudly on the ground. They jump out. Rhythmic. Graceful. Others enter. The crowd is cheering. Morgan, laughing, comes and stands by me and Chase, our Los Angeles County Paramedic.
"Come on, Chase. Your turn."
Chase. An amusingly dry, sarcastic, highly competent paramedic, used to riding ambulance in the depths of urban L.A. Dressed in an LA Fire Department shirt, blue pants and combat boots. His full arm tattoos -- like gang symbols -- gain him more respect in this neighborhood. He shrugs, raises an eyebrow and says, "Here goes..." and jumps into the fray. Three grand jumps of the thick black jump rope. A hero. The crowd goes wild. He jumps out.
"I believe I'm perhaps the first white man to jump rope in the slums of Haiti," he says with great seriousness as he returns to the edge of the crowd. He wears a small smirk of pride.
Three graceful Haitian girls take his place in turn, stylin' at the jumprope. Then it's my turn. I'm pushed towards the rope...one, two...I'm skipping the big cord rope... three, four...Glorious....five, six.....The children are screaming joyously. The serious girls spinning the rope break into great smiles. I exit...exhuberant. Success. I am 6 again for a moment, jumping rope in my driveway with my sister. The children surround me like a sea, and pull me to the ground in a gigantic squirming pigpile. Their strange doctor, behind the cage, has entered their world, and can jump a rope. Squeals and smiles. These are the beautiful moments.
We grin as we drag ourselves back to the truck and climb up onto the roof. The children swarm about us as we slowly wind our way away. Hey youuuuu.... Hey youuuuu...... Their joyfilled cries fade behind us. They point. We point back. Hey you....
The rain begins to fall. We are getting wet up on the roof of the truck. I peer out over the tent cities. Tents made of cotton sheets flap flimsily in the the breeze. Tent skeletons of sticks and wire loom cachectically, tarplessly. Sounds of angry adults echo around us. Desperation. More battles over tarps.... We are all getting wet. All of us. We pass a spray painted sign on a metal gate which is the courtyard to a spontaneous tent community. In English, and Spanish, and French it reads: "Please, somebody help us...."
Food. Shelter. Water.
Where are the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by the Red Cross for Haiti Relief? Where are your donations?