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Off to the Unknown...My Heart is in Haiti

By Chris Workman, PE, Director of Environmental Services, Koontz-Bryant, P.C.

On January 7, 2014, I left from Manassas, Virginia at 2:00 am for Ronald Reagan Airport. You might remember that day: it was bitter cold, close to 4 degrees. My ears were so cold I thought they were going to freeze and fall off. I just needed to remember that I was headed off to warmer climates for a week of providing medical aid in a small village clinic. First to Miami, Florida for a short stopover, then on to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to catch a “Tap-Tap” for the long ride to Petit Goave, Haiti, just southwest of the nations’ capital. The taxi/trucks are called Tap-Taps because you tap your coin on the roof when you are ready to get off. Along the way, we were greeted in the little towns and villages by hundreds of children and young men selling candy, water, sugar cane, and bread. As for now, we had brought our own nutrition bars and bottled water; but, the trip had just started and our store of food would only last so long.

At the town of Petit Goave, we caught a sail boat to the island of la Gonave. The 40-foot sailboat could have been 25 years old or it could have been 75 years old. It was constructed of hand-carved wood (beams, planks, mast, hull, and deck) and hand-sewn sails. It was partially powered by a 75-horsepower outboard motor, used only to assist the wind-driven sails. The Haitians were expert sailors, working the sails as well as any professional sailors in the USA might. The boat did not have a deep keel and used large stones for ballast. In addition to the weight of the ballast, our team consisted of 13 Americans and three Haitian translators, so the boat was carrying about 20 people including the crew. The load also included the 26 suitcases of medical supplies we had brought with us. The trip to the island took three hours and took us across open ocean and rough seas.

After the long ride in the Tap-Tap and the long sea voyage in the sailboat, our destination, a small village called Source a Philippe, was in sight. As we approached the pier and exited the sailboat, the children and young adults we had meet last year came running up to us, welcoming us to their village shouting “bonjour, bonjour!!.” The Haitian men unloaded our supplies and we made our way up the guest house. This building was constructed very similar to all the post-earthquake buildings in Haiti - cinder blocks, rebar, corrugated-metal roofs, and lots of concrete. But, it was home for the next seven days, and had cots, toilets, showers, and sinks - all the comforts of home. Each morning, the Haitians would travel to the local spring, collect water in plastic containers, and fill our reservoir tank mounted on top of the roof. The sun heated the water in the black plastic tanks, so we could have luke warm showers from time to time. We spent that first afternoon and evening settling in, renewing our bonds and friendships with the local villagers, and getting ready for a big day at the clinic. We ended the first day with a late dinner prepared by the Haitian women. All our meals were prepared by the Haitian women, and were cooked over an open charcoal fire. Over the course of our visit, we enjoyed fish, conch, lobster, spaghetti, pancakes, goat meat, beans and rice, and peanut butter and jelly. One day, we even enjoyed a birthday cake, prepared in honor of one of our team members, complete with champagne.

The clinic had been established about ten or fifteen years ago, but has since fallen into disrepair. It is located close to the guest house we stayed in at the village. Last year, we helped the Haitians clean the building up, repair the earthquake damage, and gave the exterior a new coat of paint. This year, the Haitian men installed a toilet, sink, and wall, complete with a new door. We subsequently delivered our 26 suitcases of supplies and set things up to receive new patients. Each day, we saw about 75 villagers, including old men, workers, teachers, young women, pregnant women, children, and small babies. My task was to collect vital signs (height, weight, temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and upper-arm circumference on the children and babies) and to comfort the patients. We worked with a doctor, three nurses, and five translators. We were able to dispense medicines, such as aspirin, vitamins, antibiotics, wormer pills, as well as fit eyeglasses and give out tooth brushes. We administered first-aid when needed and conducted health education on personal hygiene and human sexuality. In all, we were able to see about 350 villagers.

Our goal was to establish an ongoing clinic, something that can operate when we leave. Two more teams from the Methodist Church are scheduled to work the clinic in the next several months, but while we were there we hired and trained Haitian nurses and assistants to carry on in our stead. This is the mission of the United Methodist Church in Haiti: to love, serve, and enable the Haitians wherever we meet them.

After a week of working in the clinic, swimming in the Bay of Port-au-Prince, eating Haitian food, getting to know the Haitian villagers, and attending a church service that included hand bells, recorders, two choirs, and a very long sermon, it was time to head back. We boarded the 40-foot sailboat at 3:40 am so that we might encounter smooth seas. Pitch darkness (except for the full moon), no lights on the boat, and in complete silence, we quietly departed the village of Source a Philippe and headed by to Petit Goave. This trip took five hours, and due to rough seas and heavy winds, the sailors dropped anchor in the middle of the bay and waited for at least a half hour for the seas to calm and the sun to come up. We were all soaked in the ocean spray. During that time, and after the weather cleared, I could see hundreds of stars I’d never seen before. When we reached the village of Petit Goave, the sun was up and the temperature was back to the normal 85 degrees. We headed straight back to Port-au-Prince to spend the day and night at the Methodist Guest House and prepare for an early flight the next morning to Miami, Florida.

I had survived another mission trip to Haiti, knowing that I had helped hundreds of people. In turn, those people had helped me gain a brand new appreciation of the life I have been given and the health I have enjoyed. I will be keeping up on the news in Haiti, and I will be looking forward to my next mission trip - wherever that might be.

If you would like to learn more about Chris Workman and his trip to Haiti please contact him at 804-200-1920 or via email.