The Not-so Subtle Art of Balance

I get a lot of thinking done at 30,000 feet. There are one or two lights illuminating the seats of my fellow insomniacs. I’m sure even the stewardess is catching a nap. The elevation and isolation of this flight gives me perspective. To say it has been an unusual week would be an understatement. I’ve tried to balance fears, expectations as well as life and death decisions, all the while maintaining the balance of the pressures of home and a hard anniversary.

It all started with the protests happening in Haiti. They’d turned violent and the situation was getting worse by the hour. We had two teams on the ground, one in Port au Prince and one in the north. Frustrations by citizens and police alike exploded on Monday and this was all raging outside the gates of the hospital.   

We needed to move quickly. All volunteers went to immediate lock down on a secured second floor of the hospital. While I cannot imagine the stress level of the team involved and am in no way trying to equate my stress to theirs, I could not help but feel it. These are my teams. My people. Rapid assessment with our partners on the ground in Haiti and at home in Canada led us to the decision to evacuate early. 

On an organizational level, we had talked before about the possibility of evacuation and it is something we have planned for but hoped to never have to use. We made the decision to bring the team to the airport. This would mean travelling in heavily armed vehicles at the crack of dawn. Team members had to put down their tools and immediately get ready. Within two hours, the decision was final and tickets were booked to come home.  

I was so focussed on getting our folks out that I had hardly considered what happens in the aftermath of asking people to stop working. It was clear it was not safe for our team to be in an open area of the hospital, and they needed to be locked down. But what happens when someone comes in who is sick and needs help? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.

On the phone with the team from their secure position, there was a man brought in whom had been shot. He needed urgent, critical care. But the violence was still growing outside the gates. The question came from one of the surgeons: “can I go down to help him?”  It hung heavily in the air. All sound disappeared and I could hear the depth of each of my breaths, the click of each thought. There was a life in my hands. And I was thousands of miles away. 

Surgeons do not often struggle with decisions. The good ones make them efficiently, not necessarily quickly, but efficiently and effectively. But I was struggling with this. I was there but I wasn’t there. God forbid if something happened to one of our volunteers. But this man’s fate was in my hands. And my heart sank hard and fast. I know what needed to be done. I just hated having to do it. Evacuate. As soon as possible. The phone felt like a 50-pound weight in my hand.

The team got out. I was relieved but I knew that it came with a heavy price. I’ll carry that for them. They were the ones on the front line. They were the ones with so much to lose. The violence continued to escalate. The Canadian Embassy had been closed. Evacuations were occurring. Leaving was the right thing to do. It was also far from the easiest thing to do.

It’s not a very Valentine’s sentiment to say but it seems the second week of February is cursed in Newfoundland and Labrador. It was during the early morning hours of February 15th, 1982, that an oil rig, the Ocean Ranger, listed heavily off the Grand Banks. They began to take on water and a mayday call was sent out. Eventually they had to make the decision to leave the ship and there was an eerie correspondence that turned out be the last words heard from the rig: “there will be no further radio communications from Ocean Ranger. We are going to lifeboat stations.” 

The rig was lost, and all 84 men died in the chilly dark waters of the North Atlantic. Most Newfoundlanders knew someone, or knew someone who lost someone. It is one of those moments that defined who we are. A nautical disaster that dances in our frightened minds, and flows through our very veins. It’s hard to think of roses and chocolates.

Closer to home, it was February 15th just 2 years ago, again in the middle of a vicious snow storm, that I got a panicked call from Allison’s mom. Between the sobs and gasps, she was saying she could not reach Allison and that Rick, Allison’s father, had died suddenly and unexpectedly. Rick had a super human heart, just not the arteries to hold it. He was a larger than life man who loved his family, loved to golf and, above all, loved life. As much as I will miss Rick, the thing that brings the biggest tear to my eye to this day is seeing his sense of humour and his smile in my son, Mark. 

A small rumble of turbulence wakes no one. A few of the lights have disappeared as we insomniacs dwindle in numbers. There’s a thin glow on the horizon. Yeah, it’s been a tough week. One thing I’ve learned by the example of Rick’s life is to always look for the balance. Yes, these decisions are hard. These anniversaries are heavy. But look for things that will balance it all out. Despite the protests, Haiti is a country that is changing. There are good people there making a difference. And though we had to leave, we are far from gone. We’ll be back. Again. Again and again. Even the tragedy of the Ocean Ranger has meant that today, thousands of offshore workers are safer by this sacrifice. And then there’s Rick’s smile on Mark’s face. Balance.

My eyes are getting heavy. This is a long haul flight to Ethiopia and what promises to be a busy but productive trip. Another step on another continent for Team Broken Earth, I feel good about that. I know there are tough days ahead for Haiti but this violence, like the earthquake before it, will change the place. But not define it. Maybe I’m naïve for thinking that. But I’ve enough of the world to know that balance will be achieved. Funny how everything seems peaceful from 30,000 feet.