Thursday, June 13, 2013

Jacmel - Birth in a Geodesic Dome

The earthquake in Haiti was on January 12, 2010.  It is now June of 2013.  It was only three and a half years ago.  People ask me if they finally got things cleaned up down there. They ask why it is taking so long.

I think back to the day I first work up in Haiti and walked to the birth center where I would be volunteering.  It was a short walk on a dirt road to a field filled with tents of all makes and sizes.  There were large army tents and small camping tents.   It was quiet.  Laundry was hung out on tents but I do not recall cooking fires or soccer games near the birth center.

I was ushered into a large, white geodesic dome that had been constructed as a birth center.  A translator said it came on a boat and that the volunteers worked hard to make all the furniture and the storage area in the center of the dome.  Sheets served as dividers of the small birth rooms and the floor was lined with heavy, black plastic.  It was clean, simple and orderly.   There was some electricity some of the time.  There was no running water and so we were dependent on a large jug of water brought each day.  There was one out house with a door hanging from one hinge.  It looked as if the dome and the collection of tents were set down in a farmer's field. They said that the city's mayor had put them there but that the people in the tents were not suppose to be there.

But from that moment on I devoted myself to prenatal care, births and postpartum visits.  The tents, the field and the lack of basic supplies were a backdrop for long days and nights of work.  It was August.  We slid from mother to mother in pools of our collective sweat, amniotic fluid, blood and new mother;s milk.  I looked up from listening to a baby's heart beat to see a hundred more women waiting in the heat with no food or water.  One after the other for hour after hour; repeating the same small advices and encouragements.

Outside there was a sign that said Burne Sehat Haiti.  This was the organization that first responded to the earthquake but by August it was changing hands again and would eventually be operated by Mother Health International.  I was guided, that summer, by a young Canadian midwife who had committed a year of her life to this birth center in Haiti.  She introduced me to forms, protocols, the birth trays, emergency supplies, tool sterilization and then I was on my own to help as best I could.

By the end of hte first day I had seen over 40 women.  They all had relatives who had died in the quake or of disease.  Almost every mother had lost a child.  I knew nothing about their lives or even their country and its culture.  Exhausted by days end ot nights end, whichever it was, I had little time to walk around.  The sidewalks were a sea of rubble and people trying to dig out.  I did not know where they took it all or where all the cement is today.

The babies who were born that summer will soon turn three.  Some friends visited Jacmel a month  ago and said there was no sign of the cement piles or broken buildings and street. Jackmel is being restored to its fame as an artist town by the sea; a quit place to visit and buy art; a place for the yearly Carnivale.
The central square, that looked out over the Carribean, in no longer home to a sea of tents.  The hotels and cafes are open and one can buy from the best Hatien artists.

I read After the Dance by Edwidge Danicat, trying to understand the place I was but did not know.  When people ask if they finally got things cleaned up I am more amazed that anyone could clean all that up and want to say how amazing to move by wheelbarrow all that concrete and rubble and rebuild one's own house and raise a family.

I am not the same person, I was that first tentative sumer in Haiti.  The birth center dome and all the tents have been taken down and people have moved on.  The first months of emergency care turn into discussions of how to support midwives in Haiti so that they can care for their own mothers and babies.

I see my translator and the young Canadian midwife at a midwifery conference.  The translator became a midwife, herself, and was there to take the North American Registry of Midwives exam.  It was a special reunion on a long journey from translator in a post earthquake camp to taking an exam that is recognized in many states.   The journey from help in a natural disaster to support for the training of midwives.

I think of that field sometimes; the sunrising over the dome and the surrounding tents.  The tents glowing red and gold with a tenderness that would keep me coming back again and again.

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