I didn’t really want to go. I mean, it was my idea, but I never thought the boss would go for it.
But he did.
On the eve of my departure for Haiti, I was nervous, anxious – hell, I was scared. I worried about getting sick, hurt, even killed. Plane crash, malaria, street violence – it all swirled around inside my head.
But the yellow band that never leaves my wrist says “Live Strong,” and I only agreed to wear it all those years ago because I always try to do that. Life is way too precious to waste even a single day, a lesson that has been seared into my being far too many times (I get the message, universe, you can stop sending it!). So there was nothing for it but to face the fear and get on the damn plane to Port au Prince.
As has been the case every other time I’ve felt this way – driving into a burning South Central L.A. the night of the Rodney King riots, riding solo across Dar Es Salaam to begin a bike trek to Kilimanjaro, heading into New Orleans the day the levee broke after Hurricane Katrina – I have come out the other side not just alive and kicking, but more alive than when I left, with a renewed and deeper appreciation for the goodness of humanity and my own blessed fortune.
I only spent about 75 hours in Haiti. I was embedded at a field hospital that opened the day after January’s catastrophic earthquake, set up by the University of Miami and Project Medishare. It’s on the fringes of Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, which, in the first days after the quake, was taken over by the U.S. military and swarmed with camps of media, international relief groups and non-governmental organizations. They’re all gone now. The Medishare hospital remains, and it’s evolved into the largest hospital in Haiti, even though it’s still a collection of circus tents in a rocky and windswept field. Among other things, it has an air-conditioned operating room, a burn unit, and the first neonatal and pediatric intensive care units in Haiti’s long and unhappy history. It’s staffed almost entirely by American volunteers, with doctors, nurses and other medical personnel rotating in from all over the U.S., usually for a one-week tour of duty, though some stay longer.
An awful lot of living, and dying, was crammed into my brief stay there. It’s far too much to write about here (here are the six phone reports I did from the camp; next week we’ll air a special five-part series on KCBS and that will be posted on the website too, along with a photo essay and some video. A shorter version of the series will air nationally on the CBS Radio Network and its stations). But two moments will stay with me a long, long time.
Saturday night, there was a violent rainstorm. The wind knocked down a power line, which fell onto two young girls living in one of Port au Prince’s many squalid tent cities. The girls were rushed to the hospital camp, burned all over their bodies. The neurosurgeon bunking next to me was yanked out of the nearby United Nations bar, where he’d gone for some much-needed R and R, to try to save their lives. He did, at least for a little while. Early the next morning, he told me things didn’t look good, and they were likely to die. The girls’ parents hung around the camp, praying, getting counseling, hoping their daughters would pull through. Everyone else in camp knew they wouldn’t.
Monday morning, the younger of the two girls, maybe 12 years old, finally succumbed to the burns that had taken 75% of her flesh. At the moment she died, I happened to be in the PICU, standing next to the burn unit. The attending doctor only spoke English. The parents only spoke Creole. The doctor whirled around and cried urgently for an interpreter. There wasn’t one to be found. One of the doctors asked if I could translate for them. I grabbed Jean Fritz Saint Bien, a young Haitian who worked in the supply tent, and told him he had to interpret. He insisted that wasn’t his job and he wasn’t qualified. You have to do it, I told him. You speak Creole and you speak English. But I’m not an interpreter, he protested. You are now, I said, and I pushed him forward. Jean Fritz did his best, explaining in Creole that the man’s daughter had died. Perhaps he wasn’t as sensitive and artful as a trained grief therapist/interpreter would have been, but there simply wasn’t such a person available.
The father started wailing, a raw, piercing siren of sorrow. His anguished cries cut through all the other sounds of the bustling hospital tent. The mother began to babble. She was praying, shaking her head, repeating something over and over again in Creole about her daughter and Jesus. She staggered and was caught by two people in scrubs, who led her out of the ICU. We all started to cry. I turned to the girls’ father and said, in French, I am so sorry. Je suis trés desolé, je suis trés desolé. He was inconsolable. A volunteer forensic psychologist, who in the U.S. works with the criminally insane, arrived to provide grief counseling.
At some point I shut off my recording machine. I’m not sure when – I haven’t listened back to the tape yet. I really don’t even want to. I felt like I shouldn’t be there, that it was wrong for me to intrude on this horrible moment as a reporter. I backed out of the room, leaving Jean Fritz to interpret further for the doctors and the shrieking father. I’ve witnessed many, many tragic things in my career but this was one of the saddest. It was just one of several child deaths during the time I was in the camp, but I felt it to my core. Perhaps because it came after four nights of very short sleep, or because of the cumulative effect of the difficult conditions and several days of intense emotions, but for whatever reason, it affected me deeply.
I stepped outside, needing some air, even though the ICU is air conditioned and the heat outside was stifling. Ninety-five degree sunshine with 90% humidity felt more conducive to life at that moment than the chill of the burn unit.
About three minutes later my cell phone rang – it was time for my next live shot on KCBS. It was a tough one to do.
There were several orphans at the hospital, children who came in for medical attention whose parents had died in the earthquake. Three had healed well and become fixtures in camp – in fact, they’re all being adopted by a couple of the volunteers, a big-hearted husband-and-wife team who will be taking the trio home with them to America.
Then there was Kiki - a misshapen kid with some sort of physical deformity. At least he seemed like a kid - a closer look revealed an older face. He has a badly hunched back, and a short, crooked right arm with a stump where his hand should be. He lurches around camp with a limp. Kiki turns out to be 18, which makes him ineligible for adoption.
It's too bad, because he was about the sweetest, most loving guy in camp. He would come up and hug people spontaneously, hooking his handless arm around you in a tight, smiling embrace. I tried to talk with him, but his Creole accent was impenetrable to me, and we never got very far.
Each morning, Kiki would greet me with a big laugh and a warm hug. It weirded me out a little at first. But he just wanted some love. You're a hugger, aren't you? I asked him. Just like me. So we would have our little morning hug. When it came time for me to leave, Kiki was there, waiting. For some reason, I couldn't say goodbye. I wondered about his future. The other three guys next to him would all begin new lives in the United States. The little babies in the neonatal unit and the other orphans will presumably be adopted by someone. But not Kiki. When this camp shuts down in a month or so, where will he go? Will someone take him in? Or will it be back out on the streets? Haiti has some institutions for the disabled, but I shudder to think of what they must be like.
I didn't give Kiki a goodbye hug. I wanted to, but something held me back. A wave of guilt washed over me. I went back to the tent and collected my things. I tossed my bags into a waiting truck, climbed in and drove off. I looked in the side mirror and saw Kiki, sitting at the lunch table, alone, scratching his head with his stump.
I'll be thinking about Kiki, and the sobbing parents of those young burn victims, for a long, long time.
By the way, there's a second band on my left wrist now. It's teal. It reads "Project Medishare for Haiti." I think I'll keep it on for a while.