Just over a year ago I stepped onto the tarmac at the Port-au-Prince airport for the first time, full of anticipation. I was part of a medical team composed of doctors, medical students and interpreters headed to Haiti's Central Plateau, one of the poorest regions in an impoverished country. I assumed that I had come as part of a team to deliver medical aid to a hopeless people. In four days we had treated more than 600 patients. As we flew away exhausted, Haiti's steep treeless slopes fading in the distance, I knew that Haiti had given us much more than we had given it. The Haitians that we had met were plagued by a lack of almost everything we take for granted, but full of the spirit of life.
In the coming days, I fear that much of what we read and hear about Haiti will be stories that are born out of the desperation of its people or highlight only the inadequacies of this small nation. I choose to tell a different story of Haiti: one that gave me a new outlook on life, which brought me back to Haiti again last week, and will certainly take me back many more times.
One case illustrates an attitude toward life that I have rarely witnessed in the U.S. but seems to permeate the Haitian people: As we held clinic in a dirt-floored church and school, an older man hobbled in on crutches, his lower leg bent obtusely. He informed us that he had been gored by a bull several months ago while working his field and had required surgery to mend his fractured leg. Complications had forced a revision operation, and by the time he arrived at our clinic, infection had eaten through his bone, and his leg was wobbling freely from side to side. Despite this, the man thanked us constantly for our help, smiled broadly as he told his story and gladly took the antibiotics we provided. Our vehicles were already full of gear and other sick patients; our only choice was to instruct him to head to a larger clinic for further evaluation. As he thanked us again, we gave him a pair of cheap sunglasses which he accepted with sincere thanks, a hug and a smile from ear to ear. Two days later, as we walked to the main clinic in Thomonde, we saw our friend hobbling out the gate, his leg still bent. He told us that he had walked to the clinic on his crutches, a journey which must have been at least 15 miles on rough roads and through rivers. He proudly showed us his X-ray, told us of his referral to a larger hospital and bid us goodbye with handshakes, hugs and many thanks. In truth, it was to this man that we owed thanks — he demonstrated an attitude that we all learned from and should aspire to, and his is just a single story among many.
I've found what many who work in Haiti have found — scores of its people are in desperate situations, much of the country is broken, and yet it is a very special place. Despite all that is wrong with Haiti, it is home to warm people who have so little, but love so much. Do what you can to help the Haitians, and do not forget about this place when the headlines fade.
Chris Gibson is a graduate research assistant at the U.'s molecular medicine program.