By Richard Edward Hale
It’s hard to be prepared or know what to expect when you visit Haiti for the first time. My advice: if you’re planning a trip to Haiti, by all means take a guide. We had three: Dr. Malivert (Mario), and his wife Garlene, and our driver “Wooby”. We were part of a small group that, like many others, traveled to Haiti to “help”. I’m not sure that any of us knew what this really meant, but we were going to provide what services we could to support the medical clinics being run by Mario and Garlene. Three of us are medical professionals (a doctor, a nurse, and a nurse practitioner), and I am an engineer. Their purpose was fairly clear and their task specific. People were sick and dying, and they could help save lives. I was going presumably to help work on a database that would support the clinics. So, I was going to help Haiti by software programming. That didn't sound as impressive as saving lives.
When you arrive in Haiti, you expect to see evidence of destruction and devastation, which you do. The numbers are staggering. Wikipedia lists Haiti’s 2010 earthquake as the second worst earthquake by death toll in history (Wikipedia estimate: 316,000 lives lost). It ranks as the 7th worst natural disaster in history. You also expect to see abject poverty; there’s plenty of that. Haiti is listed by some accounts as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It has one of the highest poverty rates in the world, at 77%, with unemployment somewhere between 40% and 80% (and by my observation, closer to 80%). These numbers don’t lie. You’ll see things in Haiti you shouldn’t see. And you’ll get numb to many of them. I’m telling you that right now.
Our eyes and ears on this trip was our guide “Wooby”. Wooby’s real name is Joseph Robertson. But, “Wooby” is so much more fun to say, and it just feels right. He spent a week driving us everywhere, from clinic to tent city, from orphanage to market. And everywhere we went, he is known, respected, and liked by all. Wooby told us, “I will show you everything, so that you can see.” There is a beautiful symbolism and simplicity to that.
If Wooby was our eyes and ears on this journey, Dr. Mario Malivert and his wife Garlene were our heart and soul. They’re both native Haitians who’ve spent their adult lives and raised their family in Boston. By all who know them, the’re called by their first names, not their titles. They’re that rarest of breeds, doctors without ego. Leaving their comfortable lifestyle and grown children behind, they’ve gone back, giving of themselves quietly and unassumingly to make it right. There is a quote from the book “Brother I’m Dying” written by Edwidge Danticat about Haitian émigré’s, “It's not easy to start over in a new place,' he said. 'Exile is not for everyone. Someone has to stay behind, to receive the letters and greet family members when they come back.” They’re rarer than the Haitian exile, they’re the Haitian exile returned. They have left and come back; returned to run two medical clinics in Port Au Prince. There are over 18,000 patients that visit these clinics, not to mention the many thousands more in the tent cities they serve. Mario has big dreams, but not for a bigger house or a membership in a country club. Besides being a physician, he has a degree in public health policy. Expanding these clinics to provide needed services for Port Au Prince and framing it within improved medical infrastructure and policy for Haiti is his goal. Wow! Thank goodness he didn’t ask me what my goals were. Garlene is no less impressive. While we were there, Garlene worked in the clinics and the tent cities, helping patient after patient, all the while suffering with a kidney stone herself. For the two of them, this is medicine, not as career, but as calling. This is the stuff of movies or novels. And it’s not just their compassion; it’s compassion in the face of hardship and danger. Haiti is not the safest place, especially for Haitians –even more for successful Haitians. Haiti has an incredibly high rate of kidnapping, not for political reasons, but for money. If you’re wealthy, or perceived to be wealthy in Haiti, you’re at risk. As doctors, this makes them targets. In fact Garlene was in the house of a friend, when her friend was kidnapped from the home. So, there’s real danger for them in Haiti. And yet, they stay. Through it all, there’s a steadiness to their purpose, amidst the chaos and despite the overwhelming odds and dangers. They don’t ask for anything themselves, and they give what all they have. If you look up hero in the dictionary, that’s pretty much it. In a world of hyperbole, I think that says it all. What motivates someone for such self-sacrifice? There are many motivations, I’m sure, but I suspect one is knowing that, in the end, over 200 years since its independence, Haiti won’t be saved by the world. Haiti will be saved by Haitians. One Wooby, Mario, and Garlene at a time…one patient, one clinic, one school, one tent city, one soul at a time. The million minor victories that make up the miracle.
I was there a week, and needed to go home. There’s only so much you can see at one time. The senses overload, the heart hardens and softens simultaneously, and the mind recoils. I’m back in my bed now, back with my family, back driving my car down smooth roads to my comfortable office. I’m more thankful and appreciative of all that I've been blessed with. I’m humbled by meeting my betters and mindful that I must find a way to help those who sacrifice so much for so many.
Richard Edward Hale