What’s it like to travel seven hours through one of the poorest countries on earth?

It’s exhausting. Physically and emotionally.

Physically in my case yesterday because the road we traveled has to be one of the worst anywhere on the planet. Of the 7-hour trip, the last three are spent on what I can only describe as a bumpy garden path wide enough for two cars (barely) over terrain that has never been graded. There’s no worn-down flat part because this ‘road’ is made out of rocks (small boulders actually) and three times, we had to cross a river without a bridge. When the rains come, the road is impassable. And this is the only access from Port-au-Prince to La Pointe where we are staying. To dull the monotony of the return trip, I’ve convinced my host to let me drive home.

But the real drain is on your emotions. I found myself tired last night. Tired of seeing people live in miserable conditions. Tired of seeing little babies struggling for life due to malnutrition; one of whom surely died through the night. Tired of hearing doctors telling me stories that would make you cry. Tired that the world, despite uncountable efforts, seems so damn incapable of ridding us of this scourge. Of poverty.

And then the guilt sets in. I get to go home. I will eat tonight. I will sleep safely. And then…how dare I let myself get tired from just seeing their poverty. They’re the ones who have to live it.

The guilt is crushing. And it’s a useless emotion because in the end, it’s selfish.

The balance comes from, all of all things, the wisdom of the tacky serenity prayer you see on bumper stickers: know what you can change and what you cannot. Our work cannot rid this land of poverty, nor can it solve the crisis that is public-health here. We can however, help a little hospital work a little better. Patients there will get care that is a bit more timely, a bit more effective, and a bit more clean today than they would have a year ago. There’s a little baby boy that (hopefully) had his first birthday last week because two of our volunteers saved his life minutes after he was born last October.

I held that baby last year. I wish I could see him today. Maybe he’d give me the hope I crave.

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Looking for it, instead of at it…

Six weeks ago we shipped a container full of medical supplies, birthing beds, and 300 feet of plastic pipe to hook up the water system at the hospital. Worst-case, it takes 4 weeks to get a container to Port-au-Prince. We left ourselves a lot of wiggle room. Or so we thought.

Alas, nothing in Haiti is predictable. With the change in government last week, we got caught in transition (and translation) and as of this morning our container had not cleared customs. Only a senior government official can do this and despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find this elusive character.

We hoped to get here and start the week by looking at our supplies. Instead, we’ve spent the last two days looking for them. We’re only here for five days and I was worried we wouldn’t meet our goals so we made a decision to stop waiting on others. We had bought supplies locally many times so we figured we could do so again, even if 300 feet of piping was a tall order. We had already expanded the scope of our water project the day before, so we were going to need to buy more anyway. Why stand around waiting for some official to grant us our goods. Action beats waiting any day.

As I mentioned in the post this morning, our goal is to provide clean water to the maternity ward by the end of the week. The only way that can happen is if we start today. And so we went to work. You can see below that the reference to the “Haiti Home Depot” is based on fact, although I suspect this is not a licensed franchise.

The Haitians are nothing if not enterprising.

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Water everywhere. Water nowhere.

It’s a cruel irony that this place is surrounded by water, has rainfall what seems like every night, and hundreds of thousands of people have no access to clean water. Sanitation in the tent cities consists of what appears to me to be one port-a-potty for every 300 people. People use the same water to clean themselves, their dishes, their children, and to wash away human waste. This is the last place on earth that was capable of holding off cholera. No wonder it didn’t.

Drinking water comes from some enterprising folks who sell tiny water bags for a few pennies each. Imagine tiny zip-lock bags with drinking water sealed in; essentially a few a mouthfuls per bag. That’s it.

At La Paix hospital where we work, they’ve never had potable water. We’re trying to change that today. I’ve got two hard working guys with me on this team who are determined to get clean water to the hospital – particularly the maternity ward. Throughout the developing world, it’s usually the maternity ward that bears the brunt of poverty, disease, and lack of water. Haiti is no different

The hospital here draws from a deep well that is heavily salinated; another consequence of the earthquake that among other obvious things, disrupted the water table and drastically increased its salt levels. The water they do get is pumped into large cisterns that are exposed to the elements, not to mention some deadly microbes.

Every day in Haiti, people get sick due to lack of clean water. How cruel is that when they show up at the hospital, the situation is just as bad as the tent settlement from where they’ve just come? How can we expect to make a dent in the maternal mortality rate here if we’re delivering babies without clean water?

Six weeks ago we sent down a container full of piping and other plumbing supplies. It’s supposed to show up today. Let’s hope it does so these guys can get to work. Otherwise, we’ll be making a trip to what we affectionately call the “Haiti Home Depot” – an entire blog post on its own.

Like everywhere else in the world, water is life here.

When I see a young mom walk out of the hospital with a healthy baby, I am awestruck at the tenacity of that fledgling life – knowing how high the deck is stacked against her before she even draws a breath, the beauty of her life leaves me speechless.

This work can’t wait any longer.

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The Wave of Help

Short post today – heading to the hospital momentarily – I have arrived in Port-au-Prince and have realized that I have the same initial reaction every time I come here. It’s not the smell of the place that hits you first, or the humidity. It’s not the dozens of more than eager porters willing to help you with your bags for a few dollars in return.

No, my initial thought was, what are all these people on this plane from Miami going to do here in Haiti? Twice daily, a large plane lands at the airport, and hundreds of aid workers flood into the city. Every day. Every week.

Are we helping? Are we getting in the way? Are we here out of some sort of moral delusion? I wish I could answer that question. There are lots of opinions – just google ‘Sean Penn Haiti Rolling Stone” and you’ll see what I mean.

I guess all I know is that our work has resulted in a $5 million investment into one of the poorest parts of the city and despite the difficulty of our work, there is a little place on the Delmas Road that is better now than it was before.

The other thing I know is that today is my daughter’s 10th birthday and although I’m several thousand miles away from her, I love her, and I know that it is possible to show a child that you can indeed make a small difference in this complicated world we all live in.

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Finding myself

Ever find yourself in a situation where you’ve convinced yourself that you’re in way over your head? You’re sitting there just waiting to be exposed for the interloper you are and the question “how on earth did I get myself into this?” keeps running through your mind.

Happened to me today.

Today was a day of celebration in Haiti – for us, for the people we work with, and hopefully, for the people we’re here to help. We spent the morning getting ready to show off the new areas of the hospital to the Minister of Health and the Canadian Ambassador. In typical Haitian fashion, everything was behind schedule and the degree of last-minute improvisation was comical – with literally minutes to spare, workers were still calmly painting, mopping, setting up chairs and erecting a plaque to commemorate the day. And their level of calmness was staggering – if this was my event back home I’d be losing my mind. Here, they meandered their way through the whole thing, dignitaries be damned. Given what these people go through day in and day out, it shouldn’t have surprised me that very little fazes them.

In the end though, they pulled it off.

And then, there I was sitting in front of over 100 people, at a table with our country’s Ambassador and several other dignitaries and it was my job to get up in speak (partly in French, even though I’m not bilingual) on behalf of our Canadian team.

And that’s when I felt it. How did this happen and why are they trusting me to do this?

But as I rose to speak, I looked out and the faces of 9 Canadians stared back at me. Over the course of the last several months these people have become my friends and I am in awe of their dedication to this project, their work ethic, and their endless supply of humanity. My uneasiness and self-doubt lasted only a moment – it was my fellow Canadians, and the nearly 100 other volunteers they represented that gave me strength to push through.

This was hardly my finest public speaking engagement. Between someone else interpreting my English, and my “functional” French as my new friend Greg put it, I got through without making a fool of myself. But that’s not the point I realize now.

Today, I was given the honour to represent over twenty years of tireless work on this island. It didn’t really matter what I said, or how I said it. What mattered is that we were here, and our small little group stood in solidarity with our Haitian friends and took the next step in what remains such a long journey.

There were smiles and optimism today. That’s what matters.

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Today was a day of tangibility. Having had the privilege to work in this field for the past seven months, the question I get the most is “how do you know you’re making a difference?” And it’s a good question; it is both rightly skeptical and it dives to the heart of this kind of work: trying to do things that make a difference.

I last set foot on Haitian soil four months ago and at that time, one of the things we planned was a new warehouse for medial supplies and equipment – unheard of in Haitian hospitals. Today, I walked into a 3,500 square/foot thing of beauty – it was like walking into a cathedral for the first time. I was speechless.

It’s clean. It’s big. It’s organized. I mean really organized. Like we do at home.

And it was here. No longer a plan or even a dream. It was here because we made it happen. It is a tangible representation of our work and the support of our donors.

For one of the guys on our team, it was the culmination of 19 years of work. He barely held back his tears. And this is all over a big concrete warehouse that probably wouldn’t even pass the building code back in Canada. For us though, it means we can get on to the next order of business – helping this hospital become a model of healthcare in this still-broken country.

The last time I was here I gave a young mother some money to buy her infant more formula because if there was any at the hospital, nobody could find it. Today, I found two boxes of formula on a shelf, nicely labeled and easy to find. A small sign of progress for sure, but progress nonetheless. In this country, they can use all the progress they can get.

That’s nowhere more evident than in the teeming tent cities that still dominate the landscape here. It’s been 14 months since the earthquake and nearly a million people still live in squalid, dangerous, and now, disintegrating conditions. It’s beyond words really and despite all of our good work here at this hospital, the tents are a constant reminder that no matter what we do, hundreds of thousands of poor souls in this city still live in a constant state of precariousness.

Life here was captured for me today by a five-year-old boy who spends his days at the hospital where his father works as a caretaker. I brought some books, toys, and clothes for him and his siblings and in my box of goodies were some bottles of soap bubbles. He had no idea what to expect and it was his special gift to me today to see the look on his face while he was seeing something for the first time.

It was magical. And it was fleeting.

Like most of the people who live in Port-au-Prince, this little boy lives a life that is much like those bubbles.

Fragile. Unpredictable. Short.

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Trickle down effect

I spent my last evening in Uganda with a wonderful physician named Henry. A hematologist by training, Henry is one of our International Outreach Program’s biggest stars. He has done a 4-month residency training and 1-year fellowship training here in Canada through our program’s affiliation with McMaster University’s medical school. He is probably the most highly trained and skilled physician in his field in Uganda and is now building an international reputation. He frequently travels throughout Africa and the rest of the world to speak at conferences and lecture at other academic institutions. He has recently discovered a promising treatment for a rare disease here in Uganda that until now, has been thought untreatable.

You might wonder, why on earth does he stay here in this country with a healthcare system that is deeply flawed? I think it has a lot to do with the things that mean so much to many of us – family, community, and a belief in changing things for the better. Henry could probably work anywhere in the world but having spent time with him this evening, travelling through his village on the outskirts of Kampala, visiting his child-hood home, and meeting his 80-year-old mother, it seems obvious to me that he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And then I realize how much impact our work is having. Not only have we trained Henry, but in doing so, he is able to support his entire family in a way that would be impossible without our help. In this small little village, Henry is “the man.” Driving with him along the dusty, bumpy roads, he honks his horn and waves to everybody. They all enthusiastically wave back.

For the people here, it seems like he is their hero. And to his family in particular, he is a life-line. He has built a pig-pen behind his mother’s house to provide further income for the family. He has facilitated the extension of clean water to the village and during our dinner alone, he spoke with his sister several times; two of her children came down with malaria and he was offering advice, comfort, and with a bit of our help, some anti-malarial medicine to treat the children. Happens a lot, he says.

Henry is courteous, affable, and confident. He credits his time in our program as a life-changer. I like to think that Henry had it in him and that we just enabled his development along the way. In spending time in Canada, he learned the art of the possible. Now, he’s taking that experience and bringing it to his people, his patients, and his family.

The great thing about Henry is that he’s not alone. I met dozens of young physicians who are alumni of our program. They’re all doing similar things.

These people are game changers. I am humbled by them. And I leave Uganda, knowing two things:

I will be back. We are making a difference.

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