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Linking My Past with the Present

November 13, 2012

Over the last two days I have had an unexpected but very welcome opportunity to link my past with the present, while incorporating some of the training I pursued in the interim.

As many of you know, I spent many years immersed in prison ministry.  In Manitoba, I spent 10 deeply fulfilling years working with inmates at Stony Mountain and Rockwood Institutions.  Later, when I moved to British Columbia, I again became involved in the ministry, albeit to a lesser degree.  Nonetheless, I have been in every federal correctional facility on the BC mainland; only William Head on Vancouver Island escaped me.  I continued to provide some support for a few men who had been released into the community until I came to Haiti.

On Monday morning, I accompanied a group of nurses from Pennsylvania whom I had met on Sunday at our little church in Montrouis, a few of the staff from Life Connections, the mission who sponsors the prison work, as well as the new GP who arrived this summer to work at New Vision Ministries in Montrouis, Dr. Tom (everyone seems to go by first names here), to hold a clinic at the prison in Saint-Marc.  We set up triage stations in the central courtyard, as well as a pharmacy—a long table—and ensconced Dr. Tom in an adjoining room.   I worked with a triage team consisting of myself and two other nurses.  We did assessments of prisoners and staff, provided advice and wrote “prescriptions” to be filled by those manning the pharmacy table.   The team had also brought “care packages” of toiletries for distribution.

I had brought my camera along, hoping to get some pictures, but my request to the guards for permission to do so was denied.  Staff members were very couteous and accommodated us on most points.

We were presented with routine complaints of respiratory infections, skin rashes, stomach complaints, and urinary tract infections, as well as a couple of suspected STDs, and injuries resulting from beatings.  There was an underlying aspect to most of the maladies:  inadequate nutrition and hydration.

Prisons in Haiti do not feed their inmates.  I spoke to young men who told us that their families live in Port-au-Prince and can only bring them food every five days or so.  Most days they go hungry.  The inmates are unsure of the safety of the drinking water supplied, so unless they can afford to buy water, they often drink very little.

The Saint-Marc prison is a nondescript blue and white 2-storey complex set around a central courtyard.  At present it houses 465 prisoners, including 20 women.  The prison is very cramped; in some of the cells there were as many as 36 men.  Those on the team who had been there before noted that it had been cleaned up considerably since their last visit, and wondered whether it had anything to do with a recent UN visit.  All the men released from their cells to see us wore bright yellow UN International Prisoners’ Day T-shirts, emblazoned in Creole with “Prisoners are people too.”  I was surprised and pleased that staff had no issues with us wandering around the prison and seeing everything.

As I was leaving the prison the first day, I encountered an exhuberant and rather large RCMP officer from Quebec, here to train prison staff and the Haitian National Police.  Identifying me as Canadian from the Canada/Haiti flag pin I wear on my hat, he greeted me in French.  I replied in French, and undoubtably my pronunciation tipped him off to the fact that that was not my native tongue, for he immediately switched to English.  He asked the questions that inevitably are part of first-meeting conversations between expats—where I was from, how long I had been in Haiti, and what I was doing here.

Today the team picked me up on their way to Saint-Marc.  Things were a little slow starting as Dr. Tom and the team leaders had to make a trip to a local pharmacy for some supplies; almost everything in Haiti requires a lot of time.  Things were in fact slow all day; unlike yesterday, the staff was slow about releasing the prisoners from their cells to attend our clinic.  Between cells there was a lot of downtime.

In the afternoon we saw the women for the first time.  They were very interested in the clothing the team had brought for distribution, carefully making their selections.  I noted that a couple of the young women had “customized” their UN T-shirts, creating eyelet seams and fringes at the bottom hem to make them more stylish.

We prayed with several of the prisoners, and received several requests for bibles.  Unfortunately we had none with us, as none of us knew of any source of inexpensive Creole bibles.

The nurses with whom I worked were dedicated and very knowledgable.  We each asked questions of our patients through our excellent translator, conferred with each other and when the problem seemed serious, referred the patient to Dr. Tom.  I was able to contribute a little of what I have learned of tropical diseases and Haitian medical problems to the mix.  Many times, though, we agreed on a diagnosis of “living in Haiti”.

We began all our assessments by asking the patient’s name and age.  We soon learned to have them write this down for us rather than struggle with Haitian spellings.  Later we remarked on how difficult it is to gauge the age of Haitians.  Many thirty year olds appear to be teenagers, and some fifty year olds look ancient.

I find it difficult to see serious problems, especially those requiring surgery, not being able to do a thing about it, and knowing that surgery will probably never be done.  It is especially difficult when I know that a relatively simple procedure could relieve suffering, greatly improve a life, or possibly even save it.  My heart sinks when I know the misery of the person who sits before me could be relieved by something so simple as clean drinking water and adequate food.  I am constantly reminded at how blessed my life has been and continues to be, and just how much I have taken for granted.

As I left for work at the nursing school, I thanked everyone for including me in the clinic.  The mission coordinator, who lives in Montrouis, promised to keep in touch.  I sincerely hope I will have the opportunity to work with the team again when they return to Haiti in a few months.

I am regularly made aware of how many of my life experiences have prepared me for life in Haiti.  God wastes nothing, turning even the bad in our lives for good.  If we let Him.

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