When I was little, I was never sure what I wanted to be when I grew up (I’m still not sure, actually). But I was always sure what I didn’t want to be—a nurse. In fact, the only thing I wanted to be less than a nurse was a doctor.

So when my mom received a desperate plea for help with the cholera epidemic in northern Haiti and I decided to come along to “help,” I knew I was in for a big shock. I have never been around sick and dying people; even in nice, sterile American hospitals.

I never thought I would be doing this!

And Haitian cholera clinics are a far cry from American medical facilities. I am not used to cots on the floor and in the hallways. Or buckets full of vomit and human waste under the cots.

I was nervous about coming to work at the cholera clinic, not because I was afraid of getting cholera, but because I didn’t know how I would react in the face of suffering and death. I pride myself on being tough, but I knew I was going to be far out of my element.

This is not what I expect a hospital room to look like.


 

Overwhelmed

At first, I was completely overwhelmed by the number of very sick people pouring into the clinic. I was overwhelmed by the chaos that inevitably comes with a crisis like this. But mostly I was overwhelmed by my feeling of inadequacy in the face of suffering. I didn’t feel like I should be there, because I didn’t have the right skills.

This mother of five lost her husband and daughter to cholera.

But then I realized that, in that moment, it didn’t matter. Being well and willing was the only skill I needed. When I began lifting sick people’s heads and helping them to drink, I realized that, even if I could never do enough, it was enough to have tried.

Of course, there are times when trying doesn’t seem like enough. A couple days ago was the first time I saw someone die. And the second time. One of the people was a young boy and the other was a girl around my age.

Another day we got a double (triple? quadruple?) whammy when a little baby and her even littler baby sister came in. After some lightning IV action on the part of the awesome Haitian doctor, we got these two little ones moderately stabilized and then started asking questions.

IV serums are vital to treating cholera; we work under the constant fear of running out.

It turns out that their mother was a woman who was already lying on a cot in the hallway in bad shape and their father was a young man who had died our first or second day at the clinic. Talk about sad stories.

Baby Steps

In addition to sadness, there is frustration. The line of patients outside seems never-ending sometimes. The doctors wish they could practice the level of medicine they are used to. It seems like we are constantly on the verge of running out of supplies. Patients’ recovery is slow or impossible if their families do not care for them.

Sometimes the line of patients is overwhelming.

Immersed in this crisis, it is easy to start chanting my own version of the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, “Cholera, cholera, everywhere/ And all the IVs dried up;/ Cholera, cholera, everywhere/ Nor any hope for health.”

But, shockingly, I come away from the clinic each day feeling encouraged. We are sending a lot of people home. It’s amazing to see what a few liters of fluid can do for a dehydrated person–to see people you drag in unconscious one day smiling and bright-eyed the next.

Every day, we get into a slightly more organized routine. That is to say, the clinic has progressed from the complete chaos that follows a crisis to some level of semi-organized chaos. And each baby step is a joy to see.

The staff have been working long, hard hours--and have been saving lives.

Looking for the Good

This morning, for example, the head doctor was waiting for us when we arrived at the clinic. He was upbeat and told us that, “Today we are going to be scientific!” He proceeded to outline a patient evaluation procedure–something that sounds basic, but which we had been improvising thus far.

On the first night we were here, Dr. Steve said something like this: “We are trained to practice perfectly in an imperfect world, but when we try to do that, we miss the good.”

So when cholera is overwhelming and I feel useless, I have to look beyond cholera and myself and remember to look for the good. The amazing thing is that it’s always there, whether it’s a patient going home, the forever-calm Dr. Brinvert, or the old blind man with his neon-orange sunglasses.

Ebenezer Clinic is not perfect, but it’s doing a lot of good…

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Next Steps
    • Help Ebenezer Clinic keep saving lives by donating to their cholera fund! You can do this via American Baptist International Ministries. Send a check to the following address, attention to Eunice Thetgyi. On the memo line, please write “Cholera Treatment--Steve and Nancy James.”

      Missions Vocation Assistant, Volunteers in Global Mission
      International Ministries
      PO Box 851
      Valley Forge, PA 19482
    • If you are medically trained, consider doing a short stint of work in the cholera ward at Ebenezer to give the Haitian staff a break!
    • Reflect on times when you get so hung up on perfection that you miss the good being done.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Calah Schlabach is a freelance journalist with World Next Door. She graduated from Calvin College in 2009 with a degree in English and a concentration in long-distance running, then spent a year volunteering in Hanoi, Vietnam. She doesn't know what the next turn her life will be, but is planning to make sure it includes sampling plenty of strange/delicious food!

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Comments

  1. Erika said... 

    Reply

    December 17th, 2010 at 11:41 am  

    I’m interested in giving the staff there a little breather… email me with info please. erikakiphart@gmail.com.

    Thanks!

  2. Jim.M said... 

    Reply

    December 20th, 2010 at 12:05 am  

    “At first, I was completely overwhelmed by the number of……”

    “I was overwhelmed by my feeling of inadequacy”

    “I didn’t feel like I should be there, because I didn’t have the right skills”

    You know Calah, as I read this story, these few lines caught me.

    If we are paying attention to what’s around us when these feelings overtake us, then many times we become aware that we are in the presence of God. We are where the Kingdom is breaking through here on this earth. It’s in this space that trust, and faith, and vulnerability all collide head on in a way that reveals the Holy Spirit in and around us and deepens our intimate connection with the God of the universe. Its a blessing that we experience this discomfort. Thank you for showing it to us.

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