Friday, December 6, 2013
They say, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” but where do you start? Last month I read a research article that discussed service-learning experiences in third world countries for occupational therapists. I immediately began researching opportunities on the internet, thinking to myself, ‘how can I make this happen’? I sent a few emails to the president of a non-profit rehabilitation clinic in Haiti and with an unrelenting aching desire to create more meaning in my life and make a difference in the lives of those that could give me nothing in return, I took a leap of faith. Here is the story of my solo journey to Haiti.
Pòtay, Fatra, Debri, Povrete
(Gates, Garbage, Rubble, Poverty)
These were my first observations as we drove through streets ridden with potholes and without signs, speed limits, or stoplights. The devastation from the 2010 Earthquake is still visibly apparent and the poverty is rampant. I see children with extended bellies, hundreds of people selling food on street corners, and starving dogs pulling apart the trash that fills each street. I arrive at the Clinic, a large tent with cloth tarps lining the wet and uneven terrain. There is one table to see patients, a mat to treat children, a desk, and a few supplies in the corner on plastic shelves. Here I meet the Haitian men (Andre and Frantzo) who run the clinic, as volunteer therapists from all over the world come and go.
My first day at the clinic I was told that everyone will show up right when we open. Service is first-come first-serve and trying to initiate appointment times has proved futile in a culture that does not view time the same as most Western countries. Andre the clinic manager and interpreter, begins by taking each patient’s blood pressure. This is crucial in Haiti due to the prevalence of hypertension and high risk for stroke. With only 10% of the country having running water and 50% having access to limited amounts of clean water as well as their excessive use of salt in their foods, their culture increases their risk factors. I would learn over the next two weeks that the majority of the patients at the clinic were stroke survivors who wanted therapy to increase their independence.
I would greet my patients “Bonjou, vini tanpri, kijan ou ye?” then explain the treatment we would be doing and talk with them in Creole as we worked. Occasionally I would yell to Andre (who was often working with another patient) “Kijan ou di...safety” when I needed the translation of a word. An hour and a half would pass and it felt like twenty minutes. I was in my element.
Aside from the stroke patients, there were a few young children that came to the clinic for therapy also. I would find toys from the sparse supplies to provide a rich and stimulating environment to engage their happy hearts. We worked on increasing their abilities and before I knew it, two hours would pass. Frantzo would say, “Okay, Amy, time for the next patient please.” The family would thank me and wait for their ride. Often using the most common form of transportation in Haiti, the motor-bike taxis. One family would regularly sandwich the child between the driver and the woman and ride off without helmets to their destination. I would wave goodbye in awe, as I envisioned all that could go wrong in that situation.
After all the patients had been treated for the day, I would head back to the home where I stayed for the two weeks. There I would find a traditional Haitian dinner prepared for me. Often I went upstairs and talked with the Haitian host family I stayed with. We’d share stories about our days and lives while sipping guava juice (some nights mixing it with Haitian Rhum) and laughing all the while! Then, I’d take a cold shower, write in my journal, do homework by headlamp and read under the mosquito net before falling asleep.
On the weekends I was able to see many different parts of Haiti. I went to two church services at a local nursing home that were entirely in French. Where a limber 90 year old man asked me “Etes-vous tombe du ciel?” -Have you fallen from the sky? I also attended an annual community art festival that had booths set up for Haitian artists to display their crafts. I bought a couple necklaces that were made of recycled materials by Haitian women working to support their families. Each woman’s story was attached and I was deeply moved by them. This initiative empowers women as entrepreneurs and I will be selling their jewelry for them here in the states over the next few months.
I continued to explore the festival with Caroline, the head of the family I stayed with. Caroline is the owner and director of a private Pre-K through 9th grade school. I had read that most educated individuals leave Haiti after obtaining their education. I asked Caroline why she stayed, to which she replied, “Here I am a leader, in America, I would just be a number.” She is extremely intelligent, a wonderful host and a true inspiration.
Caroline’s kind and witty husband Henri was also a great host. On my last weekend in Haiti, we toured the only neurotrauma hospital in the country. Here I met with one of the three neurosurgeons in the country and also with Matt, a physical therapist that manages a program at the hospital called “Project Stitch.” This project teaches spinal cord patients and amputees how to sew to make a living for their families, while also trying to dispel the outdated and oppressing notions of disability. On the tour, we walked into the four bed E.R. to see doctors working hard to stop the bleeding of a woman that was missing half of her face from a motor-taxi accident, with pools of blood and rags all around, there were no curtains separating her from the other patients. The tour continued where we saw the only adult ICU in the country, which had five beds, the only CT scanner and the only acute spinal cord injury ward in the country, which had eight beds. Seeing the progress Matt has made was refreshing, but the disparities in access and quality of healthcare as compared to the states is undeniably unjust.
The thing about Haiti is, even though these people didn’t have money or things to give me in return, what they gave me was worth far greater. A people that have known violence, devastation, lack of justice, and extreme poverty, gave me their smiles, their gratitude, their hard work, sweat and faith, and have further propelled my passion for occupational therapy and social justice. The major similarity between occupational therapy and the development of third world countries is that you must empower people to help themselves, you cannot do the work for them. Traditional charity fails these countries and that is why we must invest in the people, so that they can help themselves.
With treatment focused on the client and the creativity allowed to help empower each patient reach any goal they find personally meaningful; I instinctively knew that a career in occupational therapy was the right path for me. Haiti has taught me that I can use my skills to help others feel successful as they pursue goals and opportunities that they might not have believed they could achieve prior to therapy. I have learned the importance of recognizing and celebrating the little victories with each client and that through occupational therapy and regardless of cultural differences, I am able to instill hope where disability or illness may have depleted it.
This has been the most rewarding experience I have ever been blessed with. I have learned so much about myself as well as having gained greater insight into my therapeutic style. I have a new enlightened perspective on what it means to be brave, by watching all these resilient individuals push through the circumstances they have been dealt, as they strive for a better tomorrow. Each day was an opportunity to learn and I tried to be open to and absorb as much of the culture and life lessons as I could. This experience has helped me realize that the burdens in my life back in the states are rather trivial as compared to the daily struggle people face elsewhere in the world. This new perspective and the cultural competency I gained is not something that can be learned in a book.
I have been altered at my core, truly inspired, and deeply empowered to help others on a global scale. I give my endless gratitude to the patients at the clinic and my Haitian family. As well as a big thank you to my family in the states for their support and love on my journey! We show the world who we are through our actions and not merely our words. I encourage everyone to take a leap of faith and see where it takes them, because“ You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” -Eleanor Roosevelt