Haiti’s squalor, poverty, and chaotic governance lay naked for the whole world to see following Haiti’s epic earthquake disaster in 2010. No one could look away and ignore the failed social and economic experiment. Something was wrong and had been wrong for a long time. Of course, I had tears of gratitude in my eyes as I scanned the media coverage and watched the millions of dollars’ worth of medical goods donated by Project C.U.R.E. being flown from the decks of US Navy ships by helicopters directly to the front lines of the terrible disaster. But our determination to help Haiti did not just start with the earthquake.
In 1996 I had been summoned to Port-au-Prince to assess the local hospitals and arrange for donated medical goods to be delivered from our US warehouses. Of Haiti’s seven million people, four and a half million were children. Fifteen out of every one thousand children died from malnutrition, dehydration, infection, and HIV/AIDS.
Dr. Frank Thomas, director of the central hospital, accompanied me on the assessment study. We walked through stuffy passageways, ducking into large open wards crowded with sick and dying people. The tumult and turmoil was reminiscent of war hospital scenes from Gone with the Wind or Doctor Zhivago. There was no such thing as privacy, and one person’s groans or screams were piled upon everyone else’s misery.
As Dr. Thomas and I walked along one of the outside walls of the children’s ward, we passed a closed door. Through the door I could hear the screams and wailing of some tormented soul. I nudged Dr. Thomas with my elbow and winked as I asked, “Psych ward through there?” He stopped in his tracks and opened the door to the outside. The sun had not yet burned the jungle mist from the Haitian morning. At the foot of the stairway was a very young woman kneeling in the moist soil. Her face and hair were a mess. I could tell she had been lying face down in the mud, and the tears had washed down through her dirty face and fallen on her starched, white blouse. The noise she was emitting was not crying. She raised herself out of the mud and began with a low guttural moan. As she straightened up, the wailing crescendoed into an agonizing scream and then into sobs so deep she could have been vomiting.
Dr. Thomas took hold of my arm and pointed back through the doorway and into the children’s ward. “Look over there where all the babies are lined up lying on that long wooden plank.” I looked across the large room and saw perhaps ten babies lying side by side. At either end of the plank was an IV station with a baby tethered to an infusion tube that was connected to a bag of saline hanging from a rusty IV pole. “We have only two infusion stations for the dehydrated babies. They must wait in that line until it is their turn. That young mother’s baby could not wait long enough to receive the infusion. He just died, and they wrapped him in a towel and carried him away. This young mother intuitively knows her precious baby didn’t need to die.”
I looked away from the room and back out at the tormented young mother. At that moment I could not move. I felt her grief start in the back of my head, down over my shoulders, through my thorax and into my abdominal area, across the fronts of my thighs and into my shins. I didn’t just feel sorry for her; I didn’t just feel compassion toward her. At that moment, I owned her grief!
After a bit I could walk again, and Dr. Thomas and I moved back into the hospital and gently closed the door. In my warehouses in the States, I had thousands of IV stations and thousands of bags of saline solution! Sympathy and compassion were not enough; I had become spiritually engaged.
The grief and compassion I had experienced was not guilt; it was a goad. I had been prodded by eternity. From that time on, I would endeavor not to stumble, not to take my ease, but to press on, to push to the desperate locations where the need would not wait for my own convenience. I would endeavor with all my heart to arrive in time in the future so that it would not be necessary for another precious young mother to fall in the emotional mud of despair, weeping for her lost child.
No wonder I was so happy to see those US Navy ships unloading millions of dollars’ worth of Project C.U.R.E. donations at Port-au-Prince!