A day in Haiti, a life in the balance

by | Mar 25, 2012 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – How do you save a life? You start by finding it.

This was a typical hot day at the mission orphanage in Haiti. Our group of volunteers, nicknamed the Detroit Muscle Crew, was busy hammering, plumbing, wiring and slapping down concrete. One of the young Haitian men working with us – his name is Jackie – had a question.

Could we help his sister?

What happened to your sister? we asked. She fell, Jackie said. Was she hurt badly? He thought so. When did it happen? Four days ago.

Four days ago?

A small group was dispatched to check it out, including Detroiters Herbert Studstill and Val Gokenbach. Studstill has been in Haiti off and on for five years and has seen a great deal. Gokenbach is a former vice president and chief nursing officer at Beaumont Hospital who has joined us many times. This was her first house call.

What they saw was only slightly more shocking than where they saw it. A narrow passageway full of stinking sewers led to a cinderblock dwelling atop a platform. The entire home was the size of one small American bedroom. The roof was made of tin, keeping the heat in.

“It had to be 110 degrees in there,” Gokenbach recalled.

Four people lived inside: Jackie, his younger brother, his mother – who was crying and reading a Bible when the group arrived – and his sister, Redja, who lay on a bare mattress, next to two buckets of blood, barely conscious.

Terrible living conditions

How do you save a life? You start by asking questions. Redja, they were told, had been playing with some children when she fell and landed face first on concrete. Her jaw was fractured. Her teeth were knocked out. She bled profusely – Gokenbach estimated four units of blood had been lost, about 4 pints, or a third of her supply – and Redja’s mother had been trying to get her to drink the blood back into her body.

For four days she had been lying there with no attention, no medicine, no relief, no fluids. Her face was contorted from swelling, her lips were horribly swollen and cracked from dehydration. She had a fever. She likely had an infection. Her hands were cold and clammy, indicating a drop in blood pressure. Her pulse was 120 beats a minute. She was in hypovolemic shock and barely able to moan in pain.

When Gokenbach, Studstill and the others returned, they shared with me the details of her situation. We decided to bring Redja to the Have Faith Haiti Mission by dispatching several young men who could carry her. The consensus was she would die if left in that house. At least with us she would have a chance.

A new chance at life

How do you save a life? One step at a time. Redja was fed fluids through a syringe. Eventually, she became responsive enough to start antibiotics, then pain medication, then iron supplements. Ice brought down the swelling in her face and mouth.

By the next day, she expressed hunger, and she was given rice, beans, peanut butter, even a Twinkie – anything she could get down. Her strength increased, her pulse dropped. She finally was able to urinate, suggesting she at least had been hydrated. A doctor visited. A dentist was arranged – paid for by Studstill, Gokenbach and others.

By the third day, Redja was speaking. She said she would never forget what had been done for her. She said no one had ever shown her kindness before.

She is 20 years old.

You may ask how this could happen. What about medical care? Insurance? Ambulances? But the rest of the world is not America. There is not always a phone. Not always a hospital. Medical care must be paid for in advance. Impoverished and sometimes superstitious families may not know what to do or whom to call.

By the end of the week, Redja was out of danger. Continued care is being arranged. If not for Gokenbach, Studstill and other volunteers, there likely would be a funeral this weekend. Instead, Jackie has his sister back.

We think on this now and shake our heads. It was just another hot day in Haiti. We were going about our business. Jackie had a question…

How do you save a life?

Sometimes just by showing interest in one.

To help, go to www.havefaithhaiti.org.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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