On nearly every mission or relief trip, there are the moments that define the experience. They can be good or bad, involve the entire team or just an individual, but they are the moments that happen to the *team*, that pull everyone closer together and that rest in the collective memory like any scene of some great success or tragedy.
Ours came on Thursday. The team had split into two, with part of us heading to Drouin to meet and photograph some children for HELP’s Help One Now campaign. The other group went to Kenscoff to set up a medical clinic for that mountain community. (In the interest of full disclosure, I, your fearless narrator for this particular adventure, went to Drouin; this will inform some of my perceptions of the entire event.) The medical team had a very productive and busy day, but because it was so organized, there were a couple doctors that had time to visit a nearby Catholic orphanage. They had been there on a previous trip to Haiti, so they had a relationship with a few of the children; plus, they were hoping to distribute worm medication to the children. So, while the rest of the medical team headed back to our mission home, a few went to see to the orphans.
When they arrived there, the workers thrust three babies into the arms of our team and backed away. The reason was immediately apparent; the babies were literally dying from malnutrition and neglect. A quick glance was all that was necessary to see that there was nothing that could have been done at the orphanage; they would have to be taken elsewhere. The nearest hospital was too far away to be the first option. With all of the medical supplies back at our mission home, the decision was made to bring the babies back there in hopes of being able to treat them and get them strong enough to be taken to a different clinic or the hospital.
While this was happening, the Drouin team was returning from our trip. It had already taken well over 4 hours to get the 140KM to our mission home, and we were finally about 25 minutes from there when the first phone call hit us. The mood went from exhausted to curious to slightly scared as the snippets of conversation went from “babies” to “dying babies” to “jail”. Our situation was not helped in that the mobile phones kept losing service and dropping calls, leaving us in the car confused and worried and wondering if the Haitian police would soon be banging on the doors. Chris immediately started contacting his friends both within and outside of the country to try to get advice on how to proceed with the situation .
Not being in the thick of the medical drama that was unfolding only a couple miles up the hill, we in the car had the dubious luxury of being able to consider the shaky legal situation in which the team was now embroiled. Whatever the good intentions (and they were the BEST of intentions), the reality was that we had taken three babies from their place of residence and had not immediately delivered them to a legal clinic or hospital. We were now caught in the collision of the moral and ethical responsibilities that our doctors felt as both “doctors” and “Christians” with the reality that we were in a country that did not (and does not) value life, especially that of orphans, with the same legal compulsion. Our only point of reference in this situation was that only a few weeks ago, associates of a prominent Haitian pastor discovered another Catholic orphanage with children in similar distress. Members of his team were put into jail after they took over 60 orphans from this place. The pastor had to approach some high-ranking Haitian officials to intervene on their behalf. The officials ordered them to take the children back, and the team refused, saying that they would rather stay in jail because “the children will die.” The Haitian politicians said very clearly, “It does not matter if the children die; we are not running against the Catholic Church* in this situation.”
By the time that the Drouin team finally made it home, two of the children (Geraldine and Woodley) had been stabilized and taken to a different orphanage that had a well-equipped medical clinic. Only one girl remained, and our group, not knowing her name, called her Esther**. Esther was 18 months old, and she was suffering from a gastrointestinal infection brought on by the malnutrition. Our doctors knew that without immediate care in a better equipped facility, she would die. The idea of “in over our heads” is sort of a good starting point for the emotions that were swirling. The legal fears were certainly a part of it, but what was really happening was that our team was engaged in a emotional prayer battle for the most precious of things: the life of a child. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room as we observed both the skill of the doctors and the compassion of the others that, just based on where they happened to be standing when the children arrived, found themselves holding warming bags or IV syringes. Our dear Haitian cook Vonna was right in the thick of it, silently weeping as she supported the head of baby Esther.
Our vehicle returned and Esther was bundled up for the trip. Off she went and just as quickly, the adrenaline drained from the room, leaving behind a dozen teary-eyed, concerned and weary people. The remaining medical team cleaned the used medical supplies and utensils in a near daze. The prayers became louder, worship songs broke out, and the team crowded into the front room to lean onto each other for the support that we needed. Eventually, we drifted off to bed with a sense of hope (and some Ambien). Esther had her stomach pumped and was beginning to respond to her nurses and doctors. Geraldine and Woodley seemed to be doing well, and we rested in the idea that we had saved two and possibly three lives with our actions. But, the word came early Friday that Esther had in fact passed away in the wee hours of the morning; Jesus had taken her home.
In such a situation, it is hard to understand the “why” of the story. The initial medical diagnosis turned out to be accurate, as our doctors had declared it a near medical certainty that Esther was not going to survive the night. And yet, it was impossible not to feel like that was not going to be the outcome. We did the “right” things; we took the babies from a dark and dirty place, we cleaned them up and moved them temporarily to a better place, and — most of all — we prayed to our God Who is our great Healer. For the non-medical part of our group, it seemed unfathomable that such skill and care would not be successful, especially since we had God with us.
In the discussions that took place the remaining two days of our stay in Haiti, three things emerged. First, we have to cling to the fact that Esther is in a better place, which really flies in the face of our American idea of “life at any cost”. We have forgotten that Heaven is our great hope and this did help to remind us that this earthly life, no matter how easy for some of us, is not the only stop in our existence. Second, Geraldine and Woodley were saved! At the end of the day, no matter how we struggle with the lost of Esther, we cannot forget that two of the babies are now alive that would otherwise not be. Finally, we have had to swallow this reminder that we just will not understand everything in this life. For example, two that lived while one that didn’t seems so arbitrary. Geraldine and Woodley are still orphans. They are going to have a hard life filled with hunger and hurt. So, does that mean Grace was extended to Esther or the other two?
At the end of the day, the team witnessed the power of God and we will never know the seeds that were sown that day in the lives of all of us. Vonna came to the doctors later, touched and challenged. With tears again in her eyes, she thanked them for caring, for using their efforts and their resources, and for crying on behalf of strange Haitian babies that we had only known for minutes. Our translators did the same, as they realized that as we fought for Esther, Geraldine and Woodley, we would fight for them too.
Perhaps that was why.
*I in no way wish to disparage the Catholic church in any way here except to identify the ills that are being perpetuated in Her name. Many Haitian orphanages are still run under a bizarre combination of Catholicism and Voodoo. Indeed, the nun who runs the orphanage where we rescued the babies has been accused of being a Voodoo priestess.
** We later learned that her name was Frandline. She was 18 months old and weighed just 8 pounds.