I need to rebook my flight. Why? Well, the airport is on fire.
Stop slouching. I hear that in my head. Sometimes it’s in mom’s voice, sometimes Nan’s. I usually snap back up. But I’m sitting in a meeting, fighting to pay attention as I become aware that I’m almost sliding out of the chair like I’m melting. That soon I’ll be under the table. It has been a week since the team returned from our latest medical mission to Haiti. It feels longer.
I can smell the open fires that burn outside the gates of the hospital in Port au Prince. The pungent sterilizer used in the OR still lingers in my nostrils like that bonfire smell that stays in your clothes for days. I just can’t seem to shake it. I don’t want to either. Usually, re-entry to Canada is easier than this. This wasn’t my first trip. This should be a habit by now.
I closed my eyes last night and saw the patient who almost died and still needs more surgery. I wonder what happened. I’m walking through the hospital halls in St. John’s trying to stay focused on my caseload and my patients here. But I see the faces from Haiti as if they were here standing in the Tim Hortons lineup or quietly waiting for a name to be called in a clinic. Thoughts have blended the two locations.
Sitting in a cold hockey rink watching Mark skate and a single bead of sweat the rolls down my back like a finger tracing a line as I think about leaving Haiti this time. It had an odd feeling of permanence to it. I’ve been worrying more than normal for those we left behind. I just can’t shake the ominousness of it. A trace of tragedy. A slight shimmer of doom.
This trip was difficult. Challenging. It felt more than ever before that we were working harder, constantly pushing uphill and meeting barriers beyond barriers. We hadn’t been to Haiti since the missions were postponed due to unrest and violence. Even just hours before we left, we were analyzing the risk involved. Making the final go-no-go decisions. It’s exhausting. It’s stressful. You have everyone’s safety in mind while still thinking of the overwhelming need for us to be there.
With the decision finally made to go, we ran into a bigger hurdle at the airport. We were told by the airline we were using that we couldn’t take the much-needed extra bags of medical equipment. Thankfully they rescinded that decision after a public outcry on social media and some over-the-phone case-pleading. We were on our way.
When we arrived in Haiti, the usually bustling airport was quiet. As were the streets. It was too quiet. It’s never like this. Usually there are people everywhere and traffic is chaotic in all directions. It felt abandoned. It made us all concerned, especially those who have experienced this before.
At the hospital, we decided to limit our movements throughout the city to essential only. This was again a safety decision. So, the team had to sacrifice any time off to continue to plow through the endless amount of work. We had more than we could even see and assess, let alone do. That’s been a constant of most trips but this time it just felt bigger.
Towards the end of the week, we were literally prioritizing so that we could do lifesaving procedures only. These decisions are heavy and tiring. Not to mention the technical skills and effort required to execute. It can drain and break you.
Ever get that strange feeling that you’re seeing someone or someplace for the last time? That was the feeling I kept getting as I was packing up to leave Haiti as I’ve done countless times before. But why now? This is always the hardest part of any trip but why does this feel harder? Why does it feel more permanent? Like saying goodbye, instead of “see you soon.” I stopped and took in the scenery a little longer. I made sure I said all my goodbyes and hugged friends and colleagues maybe just a little longer. I’m not a superstitious person. I don’t believe in omens. But something inside me had pressed a record button like I was subconsciously aware to remember this moment.
My itinerary was a little different from the rest of the team. I was leaving a day early. Or so I thought.
I was sitting in a secure vehicle in the courtyard of the hospital headed to the airport. The driver pulled to the gate and waited for it to open. We were told to wait and then told to turn around, there were protests just outside. The vehicle sat silent as we waited for the police to escort us through the chaos. As I sat there in the air-conditioned truck, a battered ambulance pulled up next to us with a patient’s leg exposed. The Haitian nurses were scrambling, and the surrounding area was buzzing with the drama. I felt like I was in an isolation booth. Or this was some ride in a reality theme park. I could feel the weight of the exhaustion. I put my face in my hands and took a moment.
The truck suddenly lurched forward to the gate again and we drove with an escort through the debris left behind from the protest, including a recently extinguished tire fire. The streets were alive and unsettled. I am on the way home (I keep repeating that in my head). I finally arrived at the airport only to learn that it is closed. Why? It was on fire. My first thought was that protesters had been involved (my thoughts went to the protesters targeting the airport in Hong Kong). But that was not the case. An oven inside had caught fire and smoked out the terminal, instigating a shutdown. Back to the hospital. I don’t have much energy left at this point. Rebooking travel here is no easy task. Home felt like it was a million miles away.
The turmoil in Haiti was bubbling over. Yet there were none of the large news agencies there to record it. Feels like it needs a certain death toll to draw attention. I heard more than one of the local Haitian staff suggest that they were longing for the days of the notorious dictator, Baby Doc, because at least things were stable then. Horrific but stable. That’s such a hard thought. And it’s their day to day reality.
What will it take for things to change in Haiti? Does it really need another natural disaster for the world to pay attention? How much can one group suffer and for how long? One of the United Nations founding principles is “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” Surely, they can’t turn their backs on this? I think about our own elections back home and how the squabbling seems so meaningless compared to what the Haitian people have to endure.
When I finally boarded the plane to head back home, I just felt numb. One of the toughest trips to date. The plane started its taxi down the runway, and I was already falling asleep. I had that Bruce Hornsby song humming through my headphones. “That’s just the way it is… ah, but don’t you believe them.” I refuse to and you shouldn’t either. I know I need to recharge. Do family things for a bit. Think about patients. Pick up the kids. Talk to Allison. Take a run. Breath the salt air. Stop slouching.
This is the Thanksgiving Day weekend. I know I’ll be thinking about the many blessings in my life and the cure-all that is family, friends and health. I hope you do too.
All the best,
Ps. As many of you know, Team Broken Earth had to cancel a series of missions for the second time this year. Thousands of patients will not get access to care. It is tragic. But the real tragedy will be if we forget them, turn our backs and walk away. Team Broken earth will keep the light of hope burning bright as we long for safer days when we can make a difference again in Haiti. Till then, keep the faith. Keep up your support, it means everything.