Thanks to the presence of teams from Haiti, Italy, Germany and the USA to help at our cholera camp, I was able to sneak out of Haiti today for three days to visit my father. As I left, a staff member was drilling a catheter into the leg bone of a near dead child, as a last effort to help Giulia and Pietro give fluids to this small victim of cholera and malnutrition. Nebez, director of St. Luc, walked to a corner of the room with head bowed, as it is very hard to watch all this suffering. Poverty is already a terrible reality, and cholera is a terrible disease. We are running out of corners to hide in.
We call our cholera tent center “St. Philomena Hospital”. We don’t mention cholera so as not to stigmatize the people there. We forbid pictures to protect their dignity. Signs leading to it say “rehydration center”. It’s amazing how fast we put up this facility that is made of 16 huge tents with the capacity of 17 beds each. Imagine setting up a water system, laundry, logistics, beds, electricity, a charting system, a supply tent, a simple meal service so fast for a 130 bed field hospital…even with Christmas lights to brighten things up a bit. We have set up 130 beds so far, but as I mentioned the capacity is about 250 beds..
Just the supplies are an enormous challenge. We need on an average 12 liters of IV fluids for each adult patient. As you can imagine, our field hospital is far from perfect and a den of frustration, but up to now we have received over 400 patients and half of them would have died without this help. We have only lost 14 people, and even this with deep regret.
And it gets complicated. I went over to the tents at 3 am the other day for a baby born in the cholera tents, and I could not really bring the mom and babe anywhere else so as not to spread cholera. But the baby developed respiratory problems due the complete absence of abdominal muscles, and the mother kept bleeding persistently after the delivery of the placenta. So we had two emergencies in the middle of a disaster at 3 am. Some of the other cholera patients are very sick with TB, malaria, typhoid, and problems that only surgery can correct. It is an impossible situation.
But overall, it is very rewarding to see people rebound with IV fluids given vigorously, after being nearly dead. It is also disheartening to see people visiting them in the tents fall sick to the same disease. The deaths are especially hard to take. There was a young mother with her two young children, all three sick. The mom, whose name was Horace, died but the kids were in the next tent improving, with no idea their mom had died. Shelby is 5 and Godson is 4.
We had a funeral mass for Horace in our small chapel. An aunt dressed up the two small kids and brought them over to the funeral. We were all heartbroken at the scene. Godson looked like quite the little man, with an ill-fitting blue suit his family had found for him somewhere. He stood at attention as I rang the bell for mass, and stared reverently at his mother. It reminded me of the small John Kennedy when we watched the funeral of President Kennedy on TV many years ago. Then I realized all the ways it was nothing like the Kennedy funeral. Horace was on a floor in a simple body bag with flowers on it, Godson was in a suit that didn’t fit. The world was not watching.
I sat with the children at their bench instead of in the priest chair, I read the gospel to them with them on my lap, I explained to them the beauty of the incense and prayers, and had them look around at all us us, true friends to them, who tried to save their mother and now shared their sorrow and faith.
During the mass, I also decided to adopt them. Not legally, of course, but I told them I want them to visit me the first Monday of every month. We will have something to drink and talk a bit, I will treat them to ice cream now and then and help their aunt with school and food bills. I hope Horace rests a little bit more in peace knowing I will watch over her children as long as I am alive.
The official numbers refer to 40,000 sick and 3,000 dead, with the expectation of 400,000 sick before there is a decline. We have had less admissions over the past few days. Maybe because of election turmoil. But other centers report the same decrease. The high hope is that there is already a decline. But cries from missionaries and healthcare workers around Haiti continue, as they beg for help and supplies.
Thanks for your prayers and donations to help. A special thanks to those who have come to help. Sorry most of us cannot get too often to the office or the email. We are encouraged by your encouragement to us, and your prayers.
Fr. Rick Frechette