January 10, 2014
Little Lena, with her pretty pink dress, is fast asleep on her 20-something, Haitian mother’s lap across the aisle from me. She is maybe a year old. A small team and myself are on a relief trip, for One Vision One World, to aid some remote villages in Haiti. I have all my camera gear and this positive buzz fills the aircraft. This trip is finally happening. Everything about this trip feels right. As I get to know a team-member sitting to my right, I hear a rustle. I turn to see baby Lena’s mother slipping into a full-blown, in-flight seizure. Her brain is misfiring. Majorly. Lena’s mother is out of control. Every muscle is at max contraction. Her entire body is frozen with anguish. The spit pools and spills from her lower jaw onto her blouse and child. Baby Lena is slipping head first through her mother’s preoccupied hands.
I grab Lena by one leg and scoop her neck before her tiny head hits the ground. A young Haitian man rushes up to help from a few rows back, but doesn’t know the mother. He calls out for a doctor in Creole (the French-Haitian dialect). No one responds. An Asian-American flight attendant runs down the aisle to discover the mother seizing. She frantically shouts up and down the aircraft cabin, in English this time, “Is there a nurse or doctor on board? A nurse or doctor on board?!” The plane is stirring and the mother’s seizure is just ramping up.
Lena, however, is fast asleep on my lap. Whether she is unaware of the situation or simply accepting of a stranger, she is calm. From what I’ve learned of Haitian culture, I’d guess the latter. There are countless orphans in Haiti, but no Haitian would say there are orphans. To witness communal responsibility for children without parents is a beautiful thing. Either way, for Lena’s sake, I am happy she’s comfortable enough to sleep.
An older American doctor rushes back from the front of the cabin. The flight attendant is pressing the doctor for specific details regarding the mother’s condition. Sternly, he says to her, “Give me just a minute.” Every second in flight is taking us further away from a safe landing and the pilots must decide, immediately, if we’re going to divert back to the America or not. It may go without saying, but an in-flight medical emergency stacks the odds heavily against you. The doctor shouts, “I need a spoon! Can someone get me a spoon?” He pulls a pen from his pocket, sticks it in the mother’s mouth, and holds down her tongue until the spoon comes. This prevents her from suffocating on her own tongue.
“Well, this is inconvenient,” I say to myself. I look down at sleepy Lena. I’m ashamed. The future Lena would hope her mother survives while I’m worrying about a potential four-hour detour. What if her mom dies two feet from us on this plane? What if I’m holding her when her mom dies? I’m not ready to be a dad. That’s a crazy thought. Why would I be her dad? Shit. She may already have a dad. I don’t know. But where did I lose my compassion? How did I? Who took it from me? I love people. When did selfishness become an attribute of mine? Snap out of it.
I warm Lena’s shoeless foot and hold her free hand. Lena is taking small, quiet breaths while sucking her thumb. I’m not so bad. In fact, I’m going to be a good dad one day. Even with all my friends’ kids, something more primal happened when Lena slipped off her mother’s lap. This is not my child, but I will protect her. And that single, selfish thought embarrassed me to myself.
Was I not coming to relieve? Here it is right in front of me. Haiti has virtually no medicine for its suffering population, bucketed well-water at best for its poorest, and an overwhelming majority can’t afford a doctor visit, let alone a hospital if something dire happens.
Shit was very real and we hadn’t even touched down. I am fighting to suppress emotion as I realize what I’m getting myself into. The seizure is not letting up. Her shins grind against the seat in front of her. Her position slowly shifts. The doctor holds her in position so she can’t injure herself. Her fingers tightly grip an invisible railing. I mimic the grip, but it hurts to hold more than five seconds. I can’t imagine more than that across her entire body. Fuck. It hurts to watch. I’d seen one other seizure where a woman was standing, seized, fell to the floor, and hit her head. I’m no expert, but it seemed like the medics just helped the seizure pass.
The mother is coming down. She is exhausted and extremely disoriented. Her wild eyes look for her baby girl while she attempts to comprehend the environment. She is overwhelmed. She wants to move around, but is still being held down for her safety. I feel the mother’s pain as she looks right through me and down to her baby. Little Lena, still sleeping, is perfectly in sight across the aisle and her mother slightly calms.
“There’s nothing we can do at this point, but get her to a hospital in Port-au-Prince,” the doctor says. The flight attendant walks to the cockpit with a message to continue on to Haiti. We are an hour away. I don’t think Lena’s mother could tell us what she had for breakfast, but she was mumbling. A good sign. After a few minutes, the doctor convinces her to stand. She is lifted to her feet and holds the doctor’s hand. He guides her to first class where she has the space to relax her muscles. A gentleman quickly swaps his first class seat for coach.
The flight attendant asks me if I can move up to first class behind the mother. I pass Lena over to Luiza Bennett, a fellow NGO team-member and mother to the president of One Vision One World. I quickly fill out my immigration papers. I take Lena back, grab a bottle of water, my carryon, and head to the front. I feel like a dad. This is comfortable.
So there I am, in a first class seat, on my way to the poorest country in the world. I smile at and adore this child I was certain to never see again. I’m stunned by the entire event. My heart has calmed its beats per minute, and I go into this place of comfortably numb. I look out the window and see the slums of Port-au-Prince start to fill the airplane window on descent. We bounce until the tires catch and the reverse burners kick in. We’re landed.
As we approach the gate, I ask a Haitian man in first class to translate for me. “Can you ask her what her daughter’s name is?” He repeats the question in Creole. “Lena,” she says. Pronounced LEE-nuh. The mother, sitting directly in front of us, strains herself to turn around. I can see in her eyes that she is embarrassed. She mutters, “Merci beaucoux.” I know what she means, but I don’t know how to say “no worries” or “you’re welcome” so I just smile, nod, and say, “Oui.” Yes. We hold eyes for a moment. The aircraft door opens.
A nurse and wheelchair greet us. We are the first off. The flight attendant says to me, “Please go with the mother to the hospital so that Lena has someone she is comfortable with.” The matter is clearly urgent, but I need to talk with my team. I’m scared shitless by the request and my team is several rows back. I’m being rushed through immigration, a Haitian baby in hand, and I don’t have anyone’s phone number on the ground. I don’t know where my non-profit team is staying. I don’t know what hospital we’re going to. I know nothing about nothing and I’m being split from the only people I know.
As I’m rapidly ushered along, I look over my shoulder and catch eyes with the doctor. There is great relief in seeing him. He is a doctor. He can go to the hospital. My relief slips to fear when I realize that’s not true. He’s not going to the hospital, and without words, his eyes tell me everything I need to know. “Welcome to Haiti.”
I kiss baby Lena on the forehead, squeeze her foot, and whisper “I love you” in her ear. I hand little Lena over to her mother. The nurse then wheels the exhausted pair past the growing immigration line. I stood there still as stone. I open my mouth to say anything, but nothing comes out. No one was there to listen anyway. For the first time in my life, I was jaw dropped.
Ya. Welcome to Haiti.
The One Vision One World team in Titanyen, a village north of Port-au-Prince, to help locate a young man who will receive a donation to build the village’s first permanent structure since the 2010 earthquake. photo credit: Caroline Jacquelyn
There is a current trip planned for Dec 27-Dec 30, 2014.
If you would like to participate in that trip, please leave a note in the comments and I’ll make sure to get your info email address forwarded on to the right people!