Saturday, November 20, 2010

Haiti during the time of cholera

"Momma, momma, I want my momma." The plaintive cry from the little girl lying in the quarantined tent soon gave way to soft snuffles. Then she dozed again, her thin arm hooked up to an IV dripping lifesaving fluids into her dehydrated body.

Suddenly she began coughing, leaned over the side of her cot and threw up on her pair of sandals.

Haiti, during the time of cholera.

My visit this week was my first trip back to Haiti since February. The images of rubble and destruction have faded, replaced by the white tents tucked away in the back of hospitals. The misery is worse.

We met these two children, in the photo, at a hospital our organization has helped extensively over the years. To get inside the quarantined area, you step on a dirty sponge soaked in bleach. The tent is behind the hospital building, away from prying eyes and other patients. You wash your hands in a bleach solution, don a disposable gown to gain access.

The father of the two children was coaxing his son to drink the serum that rehydrates. The father's name is Fritznel. His pregnant wife, due any moment, also contracted the disease and was in another clinic across town. Fritznel's house was destroyed during the earthquake and he lives in a tent city. Two older children were at home, watched by neighbors.

Fritznel has no job. No home and no money. He was extremely worried about his wife, who was very ill. When I asked him what he was going to do, what he would eat tonight and feed his healthy children, he began to weep.

In all my 16 years of traveling to Haiti and talking with dozens of poor people, I have never seen a Haitian man cry.

Later in the week, Fritznel took us to visit his tent. The tent city, near the half million dollar flagpole Artistide had erected in Cite Soleil, but never added a flag, is called Aviation Field Number 3. The thousands of residents here came after their homes were destroyed because it was the closest open field they could find.

The original tent where he lived is abandoned. He sleeps at a neighbor's tent because he worries the original home is contaminated with cholera. Behind this tent is a deep gully filled with trash and excrement. There are few latrines in Aviation Field Number 3. There are gullies and an overpowering stench.

It doesn't take much to see how quickly cholera can spread among the people.

We then visited Fritznel's wife in another cholera clinic. The same procedures of washing your hands, having your shoes disinfected. Patients lie on cots listlessly. Some had IV's attached to their arms. Fritznel tenderly helped his wife sit up, got her cot out of the sun. His worry was a living thing, eating at his face with deep lines much like a freshly plowed field.

His wife complained her belly hurt. The doctor told us she could go into labor any day. There had been a fetal heartbeat, but it was faint. There was some question about if the baby would live, since the mother had been dehydrated and on an IV for more than 3 days.

At night, I'd lie on my hard mattress at the small but clean motel and think about Haiti since the days of the earthquake, and Haiti now during the time of cholera. Much of the rubble has been cleared, but you still see buildings tilted crazily on their sides like lurching drunks. Our motel is next to one building. It still tilts at a dangerous angle, as if it would come crashing down with a hard shove. In the morning, I'd get up and nod at the Russian aid worker sharing a room with his colleague, both with the World Food Programme. He'd sit on a lavender chair, shirtless, and chain smoke.

The heartland of the outbreak is the Artibonite Valley. As we visited villages in Grande Saline, which is fed by the now-famous river filled with Vibrio cholerae, we drove alongside a canal the color of milk chocolate. Vibrio cholerae is probably present in this c
anal as well, as it's fed by the river.

It's the only water the villagers have to drink, which is why our organization installed a water purification unit.

Mounds of rocky brown dirt cover the graves of a few cholera victims buried in the local graveyard. The simple mounds, covered with memorials of plastic flowers, are a sharp contrast to the surrounding stone mausoleums. Children following us to the cemetery recited the names of those buried. "Madeline. Titi."

The small government hospital in Grande Saline had only 5 patients when we arrived. "Four," the medical assistant corrected. "One died this morning."

The man had been brought into the hospital on a bed. He lived only an hour away, but they had to find a boat to cross the river. By the time they reached the hospital, he was dead.

This is why there are so many dead bodies in Gonaives. Doctors told me people live so far away that by the time they get to the city, they drop dead in the street. Cholera can kill in 4 hours if not treated.

In the morning, the city dump trucks come by and pick up the dead bodies and burn them, salt them with lime so they decay faster.

The hospital is small and usually quiet. It wasn't when the cholera first arrived. The assistant said she knew the exact date when the sickness started. "October 20," she recalled. "Hundreds of patients began arriving. We had people all over, in beds, on the floor. I've never seen anything like it in 14 years."

On the first day, only a few died, but then the death toll started multiplying. Five a day. Fourteen a day.

On our way back to the city, we passed by the black smudges of burnt tires. There had been protests and blockades. Most of the violence was centered downtown by the still-crumbled presidential palace.

All over the city, the country, were posters of the 19 presidential candidates. One of them, with a white gleaming smile, sharp as a shark's tooth, is wealthy. Very wealthy, I was informed. He has 80 million dollars for his campaign.

Eighty million dollars.

The thought circled in my head like a buzzard. Eighty million dollars, while the streets of the city are potholes, the cholera clinics are filled with the sick, and the tent cities are filled with potential victims. If he gets elected, will he effect change?

Doubtful. The only certainty these days in Haiti is that cholera is here to stay, it's getting worse and spreading fast, and the death toll continues to rise.

As I write this, cholera is now in the largest prison and it's infested Cap Haitien, the port city where we have a large operation. They are putting patients in a gym because there is no more room.

This is Haiti, during the time of cholera.


Cynthia Cooke said...

That's horrible, Bonnie. I can't stand to see the children suffering. And what you said about that politician gave me chills. Even $1 million can buy a lot of food and help so much. Thanks for posting. And for going down there. You are very brave.

Bonnie Vanak said...

Thanks Cynthia.