At 3:45 on a Thursday morning, I got up, put on the clothes I'd laid out the night before, gathered the bags I'd packed the day before and headed to the airport. I was tagging along on a five-day medical mission trip to Haiti with Leap Global Missions. After chucking my car into the Park 'n' Fly, I showed up at the terminal, found a person with a Leap t-shirt and said 'hello.' I hadn't met anyone who'd be going on the trip prior to that morning, but thankfully people who give up their free time to help kids tend to be pretty nice.
We were all instructed to bring only carry-ons because our checked bags were reserved for large plastic crates full of medical supplies and equipment. Sometime in the six months after the trip was booked, American Airlines changed their rules to only allow two checked bags per passenger, which meant that about a dozen crates of supplies wouldn't be coming to Haiti with us. Not the best thing to find out two hours before your flight.
Half of us had already left to wait in the security line, which was surprisingly long for 6:00 a.m. on a Thursday, so those still at the counter were left trying to figure out what to do. Important things were switched between crates or stuffed into carry-ons while the truck that had just left was recalled to pick up the remaining cases. Those of us in the security line only half knew what was going on, and we heard someone might get left behind; it was a mess.
But everyone made it on the plane, and we landed in Fort Lauderdale (which is to Miami what Love Field is to DFW, it seems) after a couple hours plus the time change. During the layover, people found food, charged phones, and Kristin held a meeting on what the gear snafu would mean for the trip. I'm happy to report that ultimately no one failed to receive treatment because of this. It sounded like most of what was left behind was paperwork, which I think actually received a cheer. Our flight out to Port-au-Prince was delayed by an hour or so, but it gave us a chance to introduce ourselves. Some of us were new, but many had been on multiple trips with Leap in the past.
We landed in Port-au-Prince around 4:00 p.m. or so, and I'll admit that I was pretty bummed to have an aisle seat on that flight. Both sides had the window shades down, so my first glimpse of country number three was through the airport windows. We made our way to a separate ticket counter off in the corner where each of us had to pay ten dollars to enter the country. We then went through the regular customs line, got our stamps and went to collect our crates.
Cliff, our local fixer, met us at the terminal. My impression of Cliff was and is that he's who LL Cool J has made a career pretending to be. A brief but animated conversation in Creole between Cliff and airport officials got us and our luggage out the door, where his team loaded everything into trucks. There wasn't time to check in at the hotel first, so we headed straight for the hospital.
When we arrived, we walked into a packed waiting room filled with parents and children who'd travelled who knows how far and waited who knows how long to see if these American doctors could help. It was a bit overwhelming, but I pasted on a smile and tried to stay out of the way.
The first night would be evaluations. What are the issues and can they be operated on in the next three days. Surprisingly, it wasn't a madhouse. The people were patient, but also rather stoic. In Guatemala, a smile and wave was almost always returned. Here, I got a lot of stony looks. It took some getting used to, but then, they all had something more important on their minds. Our translators for the trip were a group of high school students from the wealthier part of the city. They spoke to each other in English, but spoke Creole to the patients. They really did a great job, especially having to translate some of the more difficult medical terms.
Two things stuck out most to me on this first night. One was being in the room with a child who had some, to me at least, complex-looking deformity. Dr. Beres, one of the surgeons on the trip, looked over the child and casually told the translator, "Yep, we can fix that. Can she come back tomorrow?" Of course I know that surgeons can fix all kinds of things, but it was somehow more impressive to hear it first-hand. Possibly because I can only imagine how relieving that casual "sure thing" was for that mom to hear.
The second thing I'll keep with me was one of the final patients of the night. A mom brought in a baby boy to Dr. Cone and Dr. Hall – two plastic surgeons who were there mainly to repair cleft lips and palates. The baby didn't have the strength to lift his head or move his arms and legs very much. Dr. Cone told her through a translator that he believed her son had Down's syndrome, and that there wasn't anything they could do for him surgically. The woman nodded with a weak smile and left quietly. That got me. Who knows how far she'd come to wait for hours in a waiting room, hoping against hope that these doctors could help her son. They couldn't, and it was just as simple as that. 37 children would end up getting surgeries, but not him.
Cliff's wife prepared too much food for us that night, and we took turns eating in an upstairs room at the hospital. We had chicken, goat, rice and beans, pasta and plantains. We weren't going to be exploring Haiti outside of the hospital and hotel on this trip, so I was afraid I wasn't going to get to try any authentic Haitian food. I did, and it was great.
Driving to and from the hospital was an eye-opener. The streets and houses weren't that different looking than the poor parts of Guatemala I'd seen just a few weeks prior, but it felt different. Less safe. I'd received a stern warning about not wandering off on my own prior to the trip, but it turned out not to be necessary; I felt no compulsion to do so. It's not that I saw any violence or anything specifically scary. I saw women sitting on the sidewalk selling fruit. Kids walking to school. A man with an ancient sewing machine making shoes on a tiny table under an umbrella. (That was a cool, "Did you see that?" moment in the van.) Even so, it just felt more dangerous there. And that doesn't mean that it was.
We stayed in a nice hotel that, unlike in Antigua or Guatemala City, was in stark contrast to the neighborhood immediately outside the gates. There were an odd number of men on the trip, and I ended up with a room to myself. This was probably a good thing for everyone because I had to back up my files and charge batteries every night, which always kept me up too late. The room smelled like sweat, the towels were scratchy and the lights made no sense. But for noticing these and every other first-world problem, I was quick to scold myself. Ha, beat you to it.
The next three days were basically identical: rudely startled out of REM sleep at 6:00 a.m., breakfast buffet at the hotel, rides to the hospital (in two shifts), fourteen hours of surgeries, then rides back to the hotel (in two shifts). The first two days ran behind schedule for various reasons, which kept some of the crew there until midnight the second night.
I've never had surgery (outside of having my wisdom teeth out) or been in an operating room in the U.S., so I had no point of reference for what I was seeing. (Well, House M.D., but that doesn't count.) Apparently, there are a lot more rules and paperwork back home, so it's fun for surgeons to come on these trips and actually practice medicine without all the rigamarole. (Bonus points for using that in a sentence.) I got to see (and photograph) quite a few surgeries, including a baseball-sized tumor removed from a two-year-old boy. Before the trip, I didn't know how I'd handle it, but it really didn't phase me. I realized that I can't have sympathy pains for a patient who's anesthetized; if they don't feel it, then I can't pretend to.
The scrubs Leap were going to bring for me to wear were among the items left behind in Dallas, so I borrowed a pair from Dr. Cone who said they might "fit kind of young on me." I also borrowed a Mickey Mouse surgery cap from Dr. Granberg, who ended up letting me keep it (possibly for hygienic reasons as much as sentimental). Dr. Beres said I'd never go back to real clothes, which I did, but scrubs are pretty comfortable anyway.
There were plenty of times over the course of these three days where I felt tired or hungry or sore, but it was sort of pleasantly humbling to realize that the same was true of everyone. Never mind that I had the least important job on the trip. It was also an exercise to stay attentive and creative after my shots started looking identical a day and a half in. The light in the hospital was great, which helped, but people in masks and scrubs start to look the same pretty quickly.
There was a little hallway between one OR and the recovery area where we had stacked all our crates of supplies. Between a diffused window on one side and shiny white tile on the other, it was readymade for the kind of lighting I still find difficult to create artificially. I first noticed it when people were walking through, and I got a few of them to stop for portraits. I think it's got that Dutch painting thing going on, and I'm pretty happy how these turned out for just being natural light. And I just used the black side of a five-way reflector as the background.
The surgeons managed to make up some ground on the fourth day and, to everyone's surprise, finish on schedule. We had a team dinner at the hotel planned for that evening at 9:00, and not everyone was convinced we'd all be there. We were, and it was nice to unwind with everyone a little. I say that, but I think I was the first one to slip out and go to bed. The night before, I'd had a great conversation with Dr. Cone over a local Prestige beer, but that night I just wanted to sleep. The next day, we had about an hour to pack up the last few things at the hospital before heading to the airport.
We flew into Miami, went through customs, said goodbye to those whose home wasn't North Texas, and killed some time at the TGI Friday's by our gate. It was funny watching everyone finally run out of energy after doing such a good job keeping it together for five days. And it was nice to get in a few more 'so where'd you grow up's with some really nice people before we parted ways. It kind of felt like youth camp – spend a week with a group of strangers, become great friends, become Facebook friends, and maybe we'll see each other in a year. Another trip, someday, hopefully.
So here's another text box at the end of a blog that's supposed to wrap everything up. It was a great trip. It was tiring but rewarding. I know this is what I want to do with my life. But I think I've spent a lot of time explaining what the trip was without explaining what it was about. This kid has a sweet smile that's still there and growth in his cheek that isn't anymore because a group of doctors and nurses came to Haiti and said, "Yep, we can fix that." And that's what Leap is all about, Charlie Brown.