From a Rooftop in Haiti

I’m still processing the last 48 hours. There’s so much on the go, so many things accelerated that I feel like I’ve been lifted up in some funnel cloud and I’m not sure when my feet will touch earth again and for how long. Then news brings me crashing down hard. Getting a call that Alison Hawkins had passed. Disbelief. Denial. Not Alison, you must be confused. Not her, not now. Team Broken Earth has changed many lives in the places we’ve been. But it also has changed the lives of our many volunteers. How so? It’s a question I get asked a lot. In my answer, I frequently think of Alison.

In the early days of Team Broken Earth, recruitment pretty much happened by word of mouth. People heard about what we were doing and wanted to get involved. Alison approached us to go on a trip early on. She was on the general surgery floor and was still relatively new to nursing but was keen to help. On her first mission, she knew very few of the others on the team yet her energy, enthusiasm, and compassion to the patients of Haiti made her a perfect fit.

For team members who’ve pulled long shifts at Bernard Mevs hospital in Port au Prince, we all know how the rooftop has become the undesignated breakroom. I remember sitting up there with Alison. It was just us. The sun was setting and the generator began to rumble as the lights kicked on. I could tell she was deep in thought when I approached. As I got closer, I noticed the tears in her eyes. She had just punched a hard day in the hospital, but she smiled and said she just had the best workday of her life.

Haiti can be a hard wake up call. It breaks everyone that goes in the sense that you inevitably compare and feel guilty about the life you have at home in the face of poverty and despair that you never thought could be as real as it is on the streets before you. Alison was going through this. She spoke of her young boys at home and how they would have a good life, how lucky we all were to live in Canada. She had a quiet strength. I may have been the shoulder that day, but she offered a shoulder to me many times since, helping me get back up on my feet after a tough case. She had the tender confidence of an old friend. I will never forget that.

The last beams of sun illuminated the roof in gold as Alison went on to say that she wanted some advice and was wondering if she should change careers. Said she was always a little unsure but the exposure in Haiti gave her a better appreciation of teamwork. She returned home and became an outstanding ER nurse and loved every second of it.

I feel lucky to have known Alison, privileged to have worked with her and am a better person for having had conversations with her on the roof. Whenever we asked for help, Alison was often the first to volunteer. Whenever we asked for even a little bit more, she was the first to stick up her hand.

Back before the quarantine, I was grabbing a beer with a friend of mine who had recently lost his mother. He said one of the most comforting things that helped him through his grief was the number of stories and anecdotes people shared with him. Most of which he had never heard before and that surprised him as he was very close to his mother. What was amazing was that this portrait formed of her that he never expected, and it filled his heart. He mentioned the book, Jacob’s Room, a book he read in university. He said one of the most interesting things the author did was never introduce you to Jacob. You never hear his voice. Everything you learn about him, you learn from the memories and stories of those around him. Jacob represented the loss of all the young soldiers who died in the war.

I thought about that today as I scrolled through all the comments and condolences online. I thought about Alison and I smiled at the idea of the many stories and anecdotes there must be out there. Please take a moment to share them. There are many hearts in need of filling today. Mine included. Let’s create that portrait of remembrances of someone we will never forget.

We will see Alison’s smile in her boys’ eyes, her hope in the eyes of patients in Haiti, and her strength when we walk, row, or run Quidi Vidi.

Till we meet on a roof again, my friend.