Volunteer Experiences: Alexandra
The woman in the white dress fell through the door just as I was kneeling down to assess the 75 year old woman sitting in a chair in front of me. The scene seemed almost surreal- foreign- as she wailed clutching her round belly. We reached the woman on the ground just about the same time as I picked out the word “baby” from the symphony of Creole ringing out around me. I made eye contact with the only other nurse in the clinic at the time- a fellow ER Nurse who like myself had under a year of nursing experience. I immediately knew from the expression on her face that we were thinking precisely the same thing- oh my God, we are not in DC anymore. Neither she nor I had yet experienced assisting birth. And now here we were on our first day serving in the little two room clinic in Haiti, preparing for the arrival of this screaming woman’s sixth child- with only one non-English speaking doctor at our side. Gone were the comforts of our US Emergency Room- no seasoned nurses or doctors to direct us in how to bring this baby safely into the world, or even tell us where to find supplies that might help us do it. We had solely each other and our own personal nursing knowledge to rely on. The next fifteen minutes were a whirlwind of frantic activity. Tearing through backpacks and shelves of supplies, using the woman’s ebb and flow of painful cries to time out her contractions, and finally experiencing the palpable relief that came with the sudden and timely appearance of Maive, the RN who runs the clinic and all-around amazing individual. Not five minutes after Maive’s arrival there was a drawn out groan followed by seconds of concentrated silence. Finally a new cry- strong and harmonious- filled the room. And then before I was allotted even a second to think- that beautiful, bloody, betadine covered newborn was screaming in my arms. The weight and warmth of her against my body was overwhelming. Even now, months later, I cannot find words (English, Creole, or otherwise) to adequately describe the sense of awe, love, and accomplishment that I felt staring down at that screaming healthy newborn- the first life to be brought into the world at the WE Advance clinic. Throughout my seven days spent volunteering in Haiti, I experienced many more frantic moments filled with thoughts of “Oh my God, I don’t know what I’m doing” or “Lindsey, we aren’t in DC anymore”. However throughout each and every episode of being absolutely unsure, I never once doubted that I was in exactly the right place.
When asked what Haiti is like, my friend and I like to compare it to the “wild west”. You ride around everywhere in the back of a pickup. It feels particularly lawless. Dirt, sweat and blood are all parts of daily life. There are lizards in the shower and chickens in the kitchen. However, after only one ride in the back of that pickup through the streets of Haiti, I learned to be grateful for a shower and a kitchen to share with lizards and chickens. The vast tent cities that make up the Haitian communities and the images of endless lines of people bathing in the stream of water running down the side of the road is what will stay with me for the rest of my life. Their resilience and strength is both humbling and inspiring. Every Sunday countless families emerge from the dusty tents- stepping around the overwhelming mounds of trash that litter virtually everywhere in Haiti- dressed in their Sunday best. These families of 4-5 climb upon a single motorcycle in order to make the journey to church. This scene is both strange and hope-filled. The all-consuming poverty that these people endure on a daily basis is devastating. They have literally nothing. Their poverty makes that of the US look like luxury. However, these people were some of the most appreciative and loving patients I have ever encountered. The children wearing mismatched, tattered clothing were quick to laughter and kindness. Parents walked from distances, enduring hours of the blazing sun, just to have their children seen by a doctor. Their dedication to life and family despite their circumstances is humbling.
Nursing in Haiti is an experience all its own. You can’t solely be a nurse in Haiti- you are whatever Haiti needs at the time. You are a practitioner and a teacher- someone in possession of precious knowledge that is so often taken for granted here in the US. It didn’t matter what I was doing in Haiti. Whether it be advising girls to not wash with bleach, listening to the (nonexistent!) lung sounds of a young man involved in a tap-tap accident a week earlier, or handing out bags of clean water to a group of thirsty children- I constantly felt appreciated and enriched. At the beginning of this experience I was well aware that I would be giving my time, knowledge and sweat to Haiti. I just didn’t realize that Haiti would be giving so much back to me. This experience challenged me in ways I have never experienced before. Every moment I was forced to “think outside the box”. Everything went back to not only basic nursing skills, but basic survival skills. I would start the day off with shaking hands jumping out of the back of a pickup, my mother’s words of “you can always do more than you think you can” echoing in my head. At the end of the day I would climb back into that same pickup, exhausted, more than ever sure that my mother’s words were true. Haiti gave me a confidence in my medical skills that nursing anywhere else would never be able to provide.
In addition to the Haitian people, watching the tireless Global Dirt crew work day in and day out was nothing short of inspiring. This group consists of truly amazing people. They are rugged and hard-working, with an extraordinary and absolute dedication to their cause. They made us all feel at home in a foreign country, something I would never imagine possible to do. When I first arrived in Haiti, Sarah, one of the amazing DIRT crew members, talked about the “Haiti Bug”. Once you experience Haiti, it gets into your soul- you feel almost compelled to return. Now, months later, I believe in this Haiti Bug. However, it is not just the Haitian people or the country itself that is drawing me back- a huge part is the inspiration drawn from the entire Global DIRT team and organization.
I stepped off the plane in New York a changed person. My amazing experience in Haiti shaped me not only as a nurse, but also as a person. My appreciation and satisfaction for my life, my home, and even my air conditioning has been taken to a new level. Haiti runs through my mind on a daily basis, and I can’t wait to get back. All I need is a tattered bandana, a stethoscope around my neck, beads of sweat pouring down my neck- I’ll know I am in exactly the right place.