Middlebury doctor reflects on Haitian spirit

Editor’s note: Dr. Morris Earle Jr. is a Middlebury pediatrician who last weekend returned from 11 days working in the international disaster relief effort in Haiti. He and his wife Lynn Luginbuhl worked for seven months in Haiti previously. While in Haiti this time, he worked alongside Suzanne Germain, a nurse practitioner from Lincoln, and her daughter Rachel Clark, who worked with the Vermont Medical Response Teams in Haiti from March 17-31. Earle, a medical doctor with a master’s in public health, shares a somewhat different view on the Haitians’ response to the Jan. 12 earthquake that rocked their country.
HAITI — Descending the bumpy drive of the Hopital de la Commaunite Haitienne in Port au Prince, Haiti, on Good Friday, we passed a woman in a t-shirt that proclaimed, in bright pink letters, “Shut up and dance.”
Dancing is big in Haiti. Only the night before, I walked up the steep rocky roads of Petionville to a Methodist church service. We passed the church, which had been reduced to a pile of rubble in 45 seconds in the January earthquake, and turned into a big vacant lot, set up with rough pews.
My Haitian friends and I took seats under a mango tree, where a cool evening breeze was blowing to break the day’s heat, and we could look up at bougainvillea blossoms, palm trees and the mountains rising above. Along with 500 Haitians, we danced, waved our arms and sang gospel rock, accompanied by two electric guitars, keyboard and drums, while inhaling diesel fumes from the generator (no electricity there) and the ubiquitous smell of charcoal.
There were no hymnals, but everyone else knew the words; “Merci, ampil seignour” (Thanks so much, God) was the reigning theme of song and sermon. The pastor told stories from the earthquake and gave thanks to God to be alive and have all limbs present. But the dancing was the best and went on and on, rising to a cadence that could have converted a rock to Methodism. Night fell abruptly, as so much does in the tropics, and Orion and the Great Hexagon shone overhead, looking no different than they do back home.
As part of that swaying crowd I knew I was in love with something and I guess it was just life.
Like the day at the hospital when we rounded on the ward. I tried to be as gentle and respectful as possible, saying to each little child, “Bonjou, madame (or monsieur), comment ou ye?” and the mothers would poke them into saying, in a tiny voice, “Pa pli mal, grace a dieu” (not too bad, thanks to God).
Some of the girls would present their cheek for me to kiss, in the Haitian style. The mothers were laughing at my Creole accent, rusty from disuse, as one told how her child had stopped nursing, but would sneak into her bed at night and steal the breast. In order to make sure I understood, she pulled her breast out of her shirt and presented it to me. This brought down the house, and the ringing laughter seemed to roll out the windows and up the impossibly steep hillsides, filling my mind.
Later in the day, we sat on the veranda of a mansion in Petionville, with a view of ocean and mountains that was to die for, rivaling any house in Berkeley, Calif., sipping cold Coca Cola, and discussing how to rebuild the nursing school and old times at the Hopital Albert Schweitzer, where most of us had worked in our youth.
Meanwhile, spread below us, a million people were living in tents in a crumpled city. It was hard to know whether to cry or laugh. Mostly in Haiti, people laugh.
Tax-deductible donations may be made to the Haitian Community Hospital at: Haitian Health and Education Foundation, 2320 NW 102nd Place, Miami, FL 33172.

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