Do Not Forget Me
An Alumnus Works with the Disabled in Por-au-Prince, Haiti
There is a Haitian proverb, "Neg di san fe, Bondye fe san di." In English, it translates into "People talk and don't act, God acts and doesn't talk." I read the proverb on a "tap-tap" (the Haitian version of a taxi cab) and, as I reflected on its meaning, I found the idea of praxis imbedded within. Praxis is an important concept for those of us who wish to have a positive effect on the world because it requires us to put our beliefs and theories regarding something specific into practice.
Since August 2000, when I was in an accident that left me dependent on a wheelchair, I have been involved with the disabled community in Salt Lake, mainly through my teaching of inpatients at LDS Hospital. Until recently, though, I had always thought that my efforts were, to a certain extent, minimal and inconsequential. In April 2005 I went to Haiti to finally do some work that was worthwhile, and Haiti taught me that even the smallest contribution can have a noticeable impact.
Having graduated from Westminster College in December 2004, I was free to translate my ideas into practice: praxis. And I would do that in Haiti. I had been looking at praxis as my desire to travel to the western hemisphere’s most deforested and destitute nation. Once there, I learned what praxis really meant.
Healing Hands for Haiti (HHH), which Dr. Jeff Randle of LDS Hospital founded in 1998, started as an idealistic undertaking and has become an international foundation. As its fundamental mission, HHH aspires to work its mostly American volunteer staff out of a job by establishing a self-sustaining rehabilitation clinic in Port-au-Prince. By teaching Haitian physicians, nurses, therapists, and prosthetists how to effectively diagnose and treat patients, HHH’s goal is to improve awareness of and conditions for Haitians with disabilities. Because of the growing violence stemming from the political instability that has plagued Haiti since its colonization, many people have sustained injuries that require some type of rehabilitation. HHH has received international funding to help these people, many of whom were innocent bystanders. The situation that has developed out of Haiti's long history of political corruption is difficult to describe, but something I saw in the HHH clinic might help to delineate it.
I stood in the physical therapy room assisting Betsy, a physical therapist from North Carolina, in stretching the hamstrings of a recent SCI (spinal cord injury) patient. I glanced through the window to a wall in the waiting room, where a poster displayed the visage of a young Haitian boy who appeared excruciatingly sad and hungry, but triumphantly tearless. Mediated through the poster’s bold, white Impact font, the boy quietly pleaded, “Ne m’oubliez pas.” Do not forget [about] me. The sense of tension created by the boy’s desperate, albeit tearless, expression, coupled with his modest request, succinctly articulates the current situation for Haiti and its people: sad, fearful, and humbly asking for help, with an unwavering hope that help is on the way.
The countless Haitians who lined the halls of the clinic every day our team was there also exhibited their patience and hopefulness that help, in whatever form, was on its way. At the same time, the Haitians that I communicated with expressed an Above: The little boy at the General Hospital Orphanage. Jason Wilson 15 almost undetectable, yet still discernible, swagger attributable to their sense of cultural pride. And while the volatility of the Haitian political infrastructure would suggest otherwise, Haitians have confidence that they will persevere and rise above any adversity that they may face.
Their sense of confidence is confusing to me because they also seem to desire and expect help from abroad. And they appear to have the greatest confidence in those people whom they ask for help. This contradiction became strikingly evident to me when a SCI patient named Johnny came into the clinic expecting to walk out. Johnny had been shot in an armed robbery and left for dead—all his possessions taken from him. The doctor who had fused Johnny’s spine had failed to tell him that he would never walk again, so when Johnny heard of an American doctor in Port-au-Prince, he thought that doctor would be able to give him some medicine or treatment that would cure his ailment. Sadly, Dr. Randle had to tell Johnny that he would never walk again; and Johnny, along with his wife and brother (who had brought him to the clinic), were crushed by the news and expressed to Dr. Randle that their lives were over.
Shortly after Dr. Randle had broken the news to Johnny and his family, I was called to assist and, from my perception, do exactly what I had come to Haiti expecting and hoping to do. That day had been spent at the most squalid of Port au Prince’s three orphanages I had visited, and I had arrived back at the HHH team guesthouse entirely drained, more emotionally than physically. I was immediately approached by one of our nurses and team leaders, who relayed what had transpired at the clinic and expressed her belief that it would be helpful if I went there, spoke to Johnny, and answered any questions he might have. I gladly agreed and, with the help of one of our team’s translators, had a lengthy conversation about life in a wheelchair— information difficult to swallow in one’s rookie season.
Johnny, his wife, his brother, and I spoke for well over an hour. They expressed a genuine gratitude that filled me with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that humbled me deeply. Johnny’s wife told me that Johnny had not looked so happy since he had been assaulted and that, for that reason, she was eternally grateful. Unfortunately, I felt a bittersweet sense of satisfaction because I realized that, had it not been for our conversation, Johnny and his family would have continued to feel as if their lives were sub-par because of his injury.
To my mind, the idea that Johnny had thought his life was over because he would never walk again exposes the sad truth about the Haitian paradigm regarding people with disabilities. The Haitian mindset gives them very little respect, evident by the lack of even the slightest wheelchair accommodation. In Haiti, and especially Port-au-Prince, when women give birth to children with noticeable disabilities or birth defects, the majority of these children are disposed of as one would a piece of garbage. Along with the lack of proper prenatal care, spousal abuse, and drug and alcohol abuse during pregnancy, this paradigm makes Port-au-Prince home to an obscene number of overcrowded orphanages that lack sufficient funding and, consequently, proper facilities and personnel to care for the orphans who inhabit them. HHH and the teams that travel to Port-au-Prince dedicate much of their time and many of their resources to visiting orphanages throughout the city.
It was at the most squalid of orphanages where I realized that my efforts working with the disabled community in Salt Lake were no less significant than the work I was doing in Haiti. It occurs to me, as I look back at my journal and write this, that I had this moment of clarity on two different occasions on the same day. On our team’s last workday, I was scheduled to visit the orphanage which I know only as the General Hospital Orphanage. I had heard other team members vividly describe the poor conditions there, but descriptions do no justice to just how poor they are. I can only say that it was a setting in which, upon arriving, I immediately expected to see Sally Struthers. Every one of the countless flies that surrounded the children looked like it was more nourished than the child it bothered.
The team arrived with donated medical supplies, toys, and clothes; and we stayed to help the women at the orphanage care for, feed, and play with the children. One little boy, who was blind and had a hip condition that kept him from walking and crawling in a normal fashion, caught my attention right away. He stared blankly past me, or through me, and made hardly any movement, gesture, or expression. As I looked at him, I was stricken by the eeriest sensation I had ever felt. Perhaps it was me overanalyzing him, but his expressionless demeanor conveyed this uncanny sense of knowing and acceptance of his seemingly hopeless situation. I began to tickle him and show him signs of physical affection, which most of the other children responded to, but I had no success. Finally, I began rattling a little plastic key chain near his ear. He responded slowly, but soon began laughing and screaming with joy at the shake of the keys. I gave the keys to him, and he continued to shake them without pause. The noise of the keys mixed with his laughter and screaming created a polyphonic harmony that was music to my ears. I realized then that while this child’s situation was hopeless in many ways, at some level he was experiencing joy at that moment, and only that mattered. For these kids, one moment of joy that our team members helped them experience, no matter how small it seemed to us, was unquantifiable in terms of its importance to them. If I had only given this one child such an experience, my involvement with HHH was officially a success.
As I think back on my involvement with HHH and how it came to define praxis for me, I realize that praxis is what HHH is built on and hopes to foster among the Haitians with whom it is involved. The power of HHH and its mission is its hopes of strengthening not only conditions and awareness for Haitians with disabilities, but also its confidence that Haitians have the capacity to respect and honor people with disabilities, recognizing them as people who can contribute to their society. And I believe that if praxis can bring a positive change in just one child, that change can spread infectiously throughout an entire culture.