TABARRE, Haiti - Children here traditionally receive gifts for the Christian celebration of Epiphany. When a group of orphans arrived for their celebration this year, they found dead bodies.
Two cholera victims were on the chapel floor at St. Damien Hospital, where an Epiphany celebration had been arranged for children whose family members died in the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. A shroud covered a woman named Stephanie. A man named Jerome was in a casket.
At Mass, orphans joined staff and volunteers to sing hymns for the dead. The Rev. Rick Frechette fused an Epiphany message with a funeral one, and the children received their gifts.
Haiti, a year after the earthquake, is a series of overlapping tragedies with little space to grieve. At St. Damien, a pediatric hospital outside Port-au-Prince, the definition of normal is an evolving one.
“We are trying to be normal inside of chaos,” hospital administrator Sister Judy Dohner said.
St. Damien offers a respite from the chaos of nearby Port-au-Prince. St. Damien’s grounds are landscaped and clean; its sewage underground. Constructed by Frechette in 2006, the two-story, 120-bed concrete hospital is the extension of an orphanage he founded in 1988 as Nos Petits Frères et Soeurs, the Haitian arm of an international organization that runs orphanages, Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos.
Treatment at St. Damien is free.
The earthquake cracked the hospital walls and crippled its chapel and tower. More than 220,000 died across the country, among them 35 with ties to St. Damien. Some, like American Molly Hightower, a volunteer, died in the flattening of an orphanages office in nearby Petionville. Others were swallowed up by their homes.
No one ever dug out the body of physician assistant Immacula Flaurentine, director of the outpatient clinic, medical director Dr. Genevieve Arty said. Flaurentine died in her collapsed house.
“There was never closure, because they never found her body,” Arty said.
Dohner staffed the emergency room in the days after the earthquake. When the rush of patients settled down, she broke down.
“I was grieving everything,” she said. “Two hundred thousand people died. The country was destroyed — the whole south of the country was destroyed.”
With time, much of the damage to the hospital was repaired. Staffers patched cracks, replaced windows and braced the tower and chapel with struts. St. Damien painted the names of its dead on a hospital wall.
Memories remain raw, and the sight of the lack of reconstruction in the country pains its citizens. Arty occasionally probes the death of her employee, Flaurentine.
“Why did Immacula die, and why did I survive?” she wondered. “Why? There is a meaning.”
As the country struggled to recover from the quake, cholera presented a frightening menace to the St. Damien staff when it appeared in late October.
The disease causes massive dehydration through diarrhea and vomiting and can kill quickly, sometimes in hours. Treatment is a matter of rehydration, either by a solution taken orally or, in dire cases, injected directly into the bone through an IV.
Although fatality rates have dropped with time, patients continue to arrive at St. Damien, day and night, ferried in pickup trucks and on the backs of motorcycles. Hospital guards direct them to the adjacent cholera camp, a gated piece of land run by St. Damien staff. Some are released later the same day; others stay for days, and some never leave at all.
Micline Jennica Louis, 10, was transferred to an isolation room inside St. Damien due to complications with the disease. She recently curled up, unresponsive, in a bed as her father, Louis Jean, sat in silence. An IV extended from Micline’s arm.
Having never heard of cholera, Jean assumed his daughter had eaten something bad, he said. When her condition failed to improve, he took her to a hospital. Micline developed a fever, Jean said, and she was transferred to St. Damien.
“I haven’t eaten, I haven’t slept, I don’t even know what day it is anymore,” Jean, 46, said in Creole.
Micline’s roommate, 5-year-old Finise Marcellus, moved restlessly in a nearby crib. Taken from a camp due to complications, Finise was improving in the isolation room by the end of last week.
“That’s a grace of God,” said her mother, Marie Claude Pierre, “because I didn’t think she’d get better.”
What comes next for Haiti, be it political unrest or a spike in cholera deaths, remains to be seen. Regardless, St. Damien will continue and so will the people.
“Obviously we keep living, we don’t die,” Arty said. “We don’t lay (down) and let people walk on us. There’s no room for that, not in Haiti.”
Editor's note: Hear reporter Steven Beardsley discuss present-day conditions in Haiti in the video player above.
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