Monday, December 16, 2013
(Photo by John Carroll--December, 2013)
During the last two decades I have had the opportunity to meet hundreds of people who have cared for Haitian Hearts children in their homes before and after the children have had heart surgery. These host families from all over the United States have been wonderful.
In 2003 Haitian Hearts brought six Haitian children on the same flight from Port-au-Prince to the Tampa International Airport. All were sick and needed heart surgery soon. Three of the children would be operated at All Children’s in Saint Petersburg and the other three at St Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa.
In the large crowd of people at the airport who greeted us as we got off the plane were Yves and Micki Morency. The Morency’s were to be one of the children’s host parents in Saint Petersburg.
Micki’s incredible story of Louise (not her real name) is posted below. As Micki beautifully describes, Louise’s heart surgery is only one of the miracles experienced by her and witnessed by everyone involved in her care.
Micki has kindly allowed me to post her article on Dispatches from Haiti in the Peoria Journal Star. Thank you, Yves and Micki, for all you have done. Deye mon gen mon (Behind mountains there are mountains).
by Micki Morency
I met Louise for the first time in October 2003, she was sixteen years old. My husband and I went to the airport in Tampa, Florida about 20 minutes north from St Petersburg where we lived since 1986, with our two daughters. In 2003 they were nineteen and seventeen. The oldest was away in college and the youngest, a senior in high school was preparing to leave home soon. I needed to refill the nest.
I received a call from our local Children's Hospital that they were expecting three Haitian children to arrive the following week for heart surgery through Haitian Hearts of Peoria, Illinois. Would I be interested in hosting the oldest one, since none of them spoke English?
The social worker felt Louise would be happier with a Haitian family, since she was older. And that is where the first miracle happened. Had she been placed with an American family, I believed that perhaps her story may not have been told today.
We brought Louise home from the airport around ten in the evening. During the trip home I tried to engage her in conversation, but I could barely elicit a response. I realized that she was shy and it would take time before she felt comfortable with us.
When we got home, she hesitated to enter the house. I took her hand and we walked through the door. I offered her a snack. While she was eating, I kept talking. I loved to meet people and learn their stories as I shared mine. As usual my husband sat at the kitchen counter observing, but not saying much. Finally I asked her age. She looked at me and thought for a couple of seconds and said, “My Aunt said I am nineteen years old.”
I thought it odd. The hospital said she was either fourteen or sixteen, but we figured we’d confirm that once she arrived. She looked no older than twelve, even though her facial expression told a different story. She looked weary and old. She was 4’8” and weighed 84 lbs. I asked to see her passport, she handed me a manila envelope with her documents.
Her birth certificate indicated she was sixteen years old, and I gently told her. She just stared at me with no sign of understanding. There was no reaction, and I immediately thought: how come she didn’t know her age? That was bizarre, for a teen coming from the capital.
It was late, so I took her upstairs to our guest room. She looked like she just entered a magic place. Her jaw dropped and her brown eyes with the thick and long lashes bulged. Louise stood on the threshold and I had to prod her into the room. She looked at the queen bed and asked me, “Where should I sleep?” I pointed to the bed. She looked confused.
I assisted her with all the gadgets in the bathroom. I turned down the bed, and tucked her in. I woke up in the middle of the night to check on her, and I was shocked to find her sleeping on the floor under the comforter. I decided to let her rest. I went back to my room, but could not sleep. I was confused about her behavior. However, slowly a picture was forming in my mind of what this child life might have been like in Haiti.
The next morning, I went in the room to help her get ready for her first pre-op appointment. I found her sitting on the floor with a very scared look on her face. As I helped her in the shower, I noticed the scars on her back. I asked her what happened, she said dispassionately, “They beat me all the time.” I froze. The anger would come later. After breakfast of oatmeal with lots of sugar we headed to the hospital.
“Louise, why did you sleep on the floor last night? I asked, while driving to the hospital.
“I never slept on a bed before, Auntie, and I didn’t want to get in trouble with the master of the house,” she replied.
I laughed. I realized she was talking about my husband. I had to explain to her that I was actually the “master” in the house, but more importantly that beds were made to be slept on, and I expected her to sleep on it.
When we got to the hospital, I was so excited to take the elevator with her, because I knew she’d never been on one. As the door was closing I asked her to push the number three.
“Auntie, I don’t know numbers or letters. I can’t read or write,” she said flatly.
I just stood there with my mouth open. I didn’t know how long until someone got on and asked, “What floor?”
After meeting with the medical staff, I learned how serious her condition was, she was born with a hole in her heart, a condition called Tetralogy of Fallot. I explained to Louise as best as I could, because even in our native Creole, she looked at me as if I was speaking Chinese. I kept thinking: What hole did this kid crawl out of? What happened to her? How did she get here?
She had several medical tests that day. Through all the needle sticks she never uttered a word. I held and stroked her small hand with the bent knobby fingers a side effect of her congenital heart disease. I told her that she will be able to walk more than ten steps without stopping. She’ll be running and jumping ropes, activities she had never been able to do.
With pre-op tests over, it was time to go shopping. We went to the mall and I asked her to choose every time I saw something she might like. The answer was always the same: “I don’t know, you pick, Auntie.” I insisted in her choosing at least the color. She loved red.
We went home with clothes, sandals, underwear, toiletries and I saw the hint of a first smile. She kept looking in the back of the car, furtively as if the bags might suddenly disappear. She was exhausted. When we got home I fed her and she took a nap on the bed.
After several hours, I went upstairs to check on her. I could hardly make out her outline under the huge comforter, but she had a smile on her face while she was sleeping. I had a hard time rousing her. When she finally awoke, she looked at me with fear in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Auntie, I overslept. Please show me what you want me to do around the house,” she said, while trying to leap out of the bed.
“It’s ok honey. I only want you to rest and have fun before your surgery,” I replied.
“Thank you, Auntie. The bed felt good and comfortable.”
I reached over and gathered her in my arms and hugged her for a long time. When I let her go, she started crying.
“What’s wrong, honey,” I asked, alarmed that I had hurt her somehow.
“Nobody had ever touched me before, except to beat me,” she hiccupped.
She lived under horrible conditions. She was the first to get up and the last to lie down. Even though she cooked the meals, she was not allowed to eat, until everyone had seconds, by then there was never enough left for her. Her mother, who lived in the countryside with seven other children, sent Louise to Port-au-prince when she was a sickly five-year old, to live with Annette, who promised to get her medical care. Annette needed a child-slave to take care of her household and her five children. Louise was one of the thousands of children that are used in Haiti as slaves. But, her mother did not know that.
Louise cooked, cleaned, washed clothes and went to market daily. Her day started at four in the morning, because she had to do everything slowly, otherwise she got chest pain. She was beaten frequently for being too slow. She was malnourished, she never saw a doctor and never went to school. She slept on a straw mat under the dining table, so the kids would not purposely step on her swollen hands. The rags she wore were held together with safety pins. Her beautiful long, thick black hair got so matted that Annette frequently chopped it off, rather than combed it.
The second miracle occurred when a neighbor heard about this American doctor who came to Haiti looking for children with cardiac diseases. She took Louise to see Dr. John Carroll, while Annette was out of the house. The third miracle was that medically she was not supposed to live this long with her heart defect, especially under these conditions. There will be many more miracles.
After her surgery we spent a lot of time together, Louise was afraid of everything, people, bugs, noises, being alone, so I took her everywhere. We bonded over the three- month period before she returned to Haiti. I made financial arrangements for her to go live with Marie, someone I knew and trusted to take care of her, and that decision saved her life again.
Had she returned to live with Annette, I would not be sending money, knowing that she would not care for Louise. I would not have been allowed to contact Louise. It was during one of my weekly call to Louise and Marie, that I learned she was not feeling well. I immediately told her to take Louise to see a cardiologist. He confirmed that she was in congestive heart failure. The patch that was placed over the hole in her heart had come off, and her heart was pumping blood into her lung. That was six months after her return to Haiti.
With the assistance of the hospital and Dr. Carroll once more, we made the necessary arrangements to bring her back as soon as possible. I picked her up at the airport a week later and my own heart hurt. I had to use a wheelchair to transport her. I took her directly to the ER where she was immediately admitted. She was treated for two weeks prior to surgery, to increase her odds of survival.
The surgeon came out to talk to me before the operation.
“She is very sick, so this could go either way. Let’s pray for a miracle.” he said with such sorrow in his eyes.
“Doctor, I believe God brought Louise back here for a reason. He has a purpose for her. She’ll be fine,” I replied, trying hard to contain my need to scream.
“I pray that you’re right,” he said as he reached for my hand and squeezed it with so much compassion.
“I have two little girls at home. I’ll do my very best,” he added, his voice breaking.
I remembered sitting there praying, like I’ve never prayed before. Louise survived the operation and she thrived physically. However, she had a lot of physical and psychological scars to heal. When the surgeon told me that she could no longer live in Haiti, because of her heart, I opened mine and took her in.
Thus, began her journey in the United States. Louise was discharged on a very hot Florida summer day in July and I was so excited to bring her home. I was eager to start caring for her and to reconnect from where we left off.
She had a very high tolerance for pain from the long term abuse she suffered. She refused pain pills, even when I could see her wince when she breathed. Since Louise couldn’t read nor write, the only diversion I could provide was talk to her.
She loved when I talked about life in the US. I shared my personal experience, when I first came from Haiti. She marveled at my ability to speak this “funny language” and still speak Haitian Creole. I explained to her that I had to go to school and that one of the many great things about America, was that one could go to school at any age and become anything.
Her physical healing was very fast. I was amazed how she could run up and down the stairs, like a typical healthy seventeen year old. However, she would tell me that she was scared about the prospect of staying in America, because it all seemed so complicated. There was the refrigerator, the stove, the microwave, the blender, the toaster, the dishwasher, the television set, the remote control, the washer and dryer.
“What about them,” I asked, puzzled.
“I’m overwhelmed” she replied, “How will I ever learn how to operate these machines, when I can’t read.”
She started to cry. I walked over and took her in my arms and whispered “I’ll teach you.”
From that day, she followed me around the house, like my shadow. She might not have been able to read, but she soaked up information like a sponge. Within a couple of weeks, she could use the smaller appliances. Louise was happy and proud of every small achievement, and I lavished praises on her, for I was also very proud of her.
We were both eagerly awaiting her sixth-week post-op check up and clearance, so she could start school. That day finally came. Louise was ready to go to school. We went shopping for school clothes, supplies and a backpack. Her eyes lit up like a five year old getting ready for kindergarten, but in a way she was. She had never been to school before.
The next morning she was up and dressed early. She wore a pair of pink short and matching top that highlighted her light brown skin. Her hair styled in a pony tail made her look even younger than she was. She strapped the backpack on and a big smile on her round face that traveled to her wise eyes, she was ready to go. I tried to get her to eat breakfast, but she just wanted to head out the door.
When we got to the school, her demeanor changed. She stayed very close to me, and was looking curiously around her. I reached for her hand, and without a word, she visibly calmed down. After signing all the papers, I took her to her classroom and introduced her to her teacher. She was a very enthusiastic young lady and I explained Louise’s situation to her. She took Louise by the hand and in a very soothing voice, she welcomed her.
I left and sat in my car in the parking lot and cried, just like I did when I took my daughters to school for the first time. I couldn’t wait to pick her up to find out how her first day went. Well, she talked all the way home, telling me in minute details everything she did, saw, heard and touched.
We had a great routine. I took her to school in the morning, picked her up in the afternoon. We read, did homework, cooked dinner and ate together when my husband got home from work. My daughters were away in college, but just like that I had another family again.
Louise was born with a hole in her heart, so the abundance of love and forgiveness it carries could overflow and bathe her in this wise and serene aura. It is joyful to be in her presence.
(As 2013 comes to a close, Louise is a healthy and talented 26 year old young woman. jc)