Being really sick in a really poor country

Yesterday I volunteered at a TB/AIDS clinic. The two medical volunteers who work there are both on vacation, so the rest of the GRU volunteers each offered to cover a day.

The doctor who has been running the clinic for over a year, myself and another volunteer headed out at 7:00am. The tap-tap ride was long and bumpy, made worse by the fact that I didn’t actually have a real seat. This was actually more like a bus than your average tap-tap – this had several rows of benches with a narrow aisle splitting them down the middle. It was so packed when we got on that I just laughed, and then sat down in the aisle. Thankfully the aisle was narrow enough and my butt just wide enough to kind of balance on the edges of two benches. (Side note: only in Haiti would the “stop request” button be two wires that you rub together). To give you an idea of how packed these things get, here is a photo of the inside of one; I took this on the bus ride home, so it’s dark, but you get the idea:

Bus ride home; view from the back

No inch of spaced goes unused.

When we finally arrived at the hospital, the first thing I noticed was a nearly dead, beat up looking rat dragging itself across the sidewalk. I figured that was a pretty good indicator of what I was in for.

After we had put on our masks and gloves, we went inside the clinic to do the first round of check ups for the day. Some of the weakest patients had been lying in their own urine and feces all night because the Haitian nurses won’t clean them after they “go”. Some of the patients are so weak that they can barely lift their own arm, let alone get up to go to the bathroom, and therefore have to wear diapers. It’s pretty likely that they would go unchanged for days without our doctor or one of the volunteers there to do it. As far as how the actual clinic looks, you can probably use your imagination. The beds are packed in tight with maybe a foot between each one. And when I say “beds” I really mean cots. If a patient is lucky enough, their cot might have a thin mattress on it, or sometimes just a sheet with no mattress. It really all depends on what kinds of things the patient’s family brings. Some patients had lots of bedding, extra clothes, some form of entertainment, good food… but plenty of them didn’t have anything because their family never visits them. There was one 30 year old woman who looked closer to 100, who was just lying on the bare cot (which is broken and sometimes collapses with her on it), begging for at least a sheet to put under her.

So, what did I do at the clinic? My day was spent going down to the street vendors to buy food, then bringing it back and feeding the patients. Sounds simple but was actually very time consuming. Some of the patients had to be physically lifted up to a seated position so they could be fed, and then you had to convince them to eat. They were skin and bones (we’re talking grown men weighing about 80 pounds, and the women even less) but they often didn’t want to eat because they felt like crap. At the very least, I stuck a straw in their mouth and made them drink a Bongu shake, a high-calorie milk shake drink in a can. It was interesting hearing some of the patients’ stories… there was one guy who had lived in Brooklyn for a while, and another who was determined to win a car through some contest that involved collecting the labels from the Bongu shakes. He wouldn’t let me walk by him with an empty Bongu can without me giving him the label. The saddest was a woman who didn’t want to leave the clinic because she claimed that it was better than being at home.

At the end of the day, I was ready to leave – that work is exhausting and I give a lot of credit to people who do it on a daily basis. While it was sad and shocking to see the state that some of the patients were in, it was encouraging to meet a few of the doctor’s past patients who had come back and are now working in some way with the clinic. They looked so healthy that it was hard to believe that they had once been so sick. Even though this sort of thing is definitely not for me, I am glad I went. Nothing like working with tuberculosis and AIDS patients in one of the world’s poorest countries to make you appreciate what you’ve got.

2 Responses to “Being really sick in a really poor country”
  1. Sue says:

    What a description of your day! I could really imagine it in my minds eye….can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like for those people! I am very proud of you for all the help you are giving down there.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    This is very hard to read, Fayth. My eyes are welled up – because of both the sad, harsh reality of the lives of these Haitians who are at the HIV/TB clinic, and because of your powerful way with words. I read this, and I want to be there – in that clinic – immediately … and I bet your words will inspire the same feeling in everyone else reading your blog. Does the hospital need sheets? Twin fitted? I could buy and send a dozen. Let me know something that is needed and the address of your tent, and I will send in the next week or so. I want to be there with you. The calling is that strong. Let all of us who love and support you know what we can send to you to help. Even small gestures help. That I know. xo Liz

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