Dying in Haiti

In the mid-90’s I had a chance to meet President Aristide. I was an “added” member of a small delegation of Catholic priests who met with him one afternoon. Mildred, President Aristide’s wife, served us cold, sweet citron in their home in Tabarre.

At the meeting human rights, Haiti’s problems, and other subjects were discussed. President Aristide’s comprehension of our questions and comments in English was excellent but I thought his spoken English was difficult to understand. However, he was patient with us, since I am sure he had heard different variations of our concerns many times before.

I remember that my comment to President Aristide was I thought genocide was occurring in Haiti. My work is in “downstream” Haiti and I see the worst of the worst wash down the Haitian river.

Quite honestly, I do not remember President Aristide’s answer to my genocide comment.

Since that time I have read about the derivation of the word genocide and about the man who took much of a lifetime to “create” the word. However, I could not give an exact definition of the word right now. And I didn’t even look up genocide on Wikpedia before I posted this. So please forgive me for not doing my homework.

I DO know that my thoughts regarding the plight of most Haitians have not become more cheery in the last 15 years.

My definition of genocide is “to kill a people”. That seems exactly what is happening here….at least to poor people. The official definition probably says much more.

It seems that we are witnessing the slow destruction and death of the Haitian poor. That is what I see every day and one “writes from where one stands”.

A couple of days ago in the pediatric clinic in Soleil, the genocide of the Haitian poor seemed alive and well to me.

The mothers stories of their sick children and their anguished lives were told to me over and over. And the scary part was they told me their tragedies in a fairly dispassionate way. Kind of like how a friend at home may say that the “Bulls lost to the Pistons last night”.

For example, a mother brought in her two year old boy named Slovensky. The toddler weighs 17 pounds and he had diarrhea and was coughing up long white worms (twelve to be exact). He had recently been discharged from St. Catherine’s Hospital right next door and was “still sick”.

Slovensky has severe underlying malnutrition. His heart rate was normal and he gazed at me with knowing eyes. He just appeared to be an “acute on chronic”. But he was definitely very sick.

Mother then objectively reported to me that Slovensky’s eleven year old sister died from cholera on the same day she became ill. Mother watched her daughter die at Saint Catherine’s Hospital last week. When she told me, her voice didn’t crack but she may have had a slight facial contortion when she related the story. I was waiting for her to break down, but of course she did not.

When her little girl died, mother was at her bedside at St. Catherine’s and the girl’s body was taken immediately and buried in a mass grave outside of Port-au-Prince. Mother said they did this because they didn’t want her little girl’s body to “contaminiate” anyone.

I told mother that Slovensky needed to be readmitted to Saint Catherine’s for fluids and she said “I have no one”. She meant that she had no one to take care of Slovensky’s remaining sibling at home if she was tending to him in the hospital. Mothers are expected to bathe and feed and change the sheets and buy IV tubing for their children. This meant that she was going to refuse admission of pathetic Slovensky.

When I asked where the children’s father was, she said that he was killed on January 12 in the earthquake. He was downtown in Port-au-Prince pulling a cart (bouret).

And she told me all of this fairly matter of fact.

So I enlisted the help of one of my Haitian pediatric colleagues to convince the mother that Slovensky should be admitted. Not surprisingly, the pediatrician listen to the facts, eyed the patient, and then sided with the mother and agreed Slovensky should go home.

I was very frustrated and tried to fight back in defense of Slovensky. But mother wanted nothing to do with my arguments and neither did anyone else. And Slovensky just laid in his mother’s arms silently watching the situation. It appeared that he didn’t even care what happened.

So with a slew of medication, I sent pathetic Slovensky back into the upper part of Soleil with his satisfied mom who could now be at home with both of her children. (Home for them is a falling down shack and tent.)

There were more histories somewhat similar to this the other day. In fact every day has similar stories told by stoic and fatalistic poor people.

The infant mortality rate and the maternal mortality rates are very high in Haiti. And people are dying everywhere in the slum from preventable and treatable diseases…cholera being the most recent killer.

I need to do my homework.

During genocide how many people need to die? Do they all need to die at once and from the same cause? And do people witnessing genocide like family and friends have to get use to it and report the loss of loved ones in an objective fashion? And do other people with means, like me, need to go through stages of “acceptance” of death and destruction before it can be called genocide?

I will look it up on Wikpedia.

John A. Carroll, M.D. is a physician working in Port-au-Prince.



John A. Carroll, M.D. is a physician working in Port-au-Prince.