I’ve dreaded writing this blog. I realize people need to know what happened, but it’s not easy pouring your heart out over a computer screen. Some things are harder to put into words than others and I’m still trying to make sense of it all. The memories of last week keep flashing through my mind, like lightning across a black sky. They’re only pieces, fragments of the whole story; holding the hand of a young girl in labor, an infant struggling to breathe, a frantic car ride, running through a crowded hospital, a tiny coffin, a crying mother. I’m trying to piece them all together so I can somehow explain to you what it’s like to live here. Maybe after reading this, you’ll be able to open your eyes and see that not every country is America; not every child is given the same chance. Baby Elijah only spent three days with us, but I’m certain his name will stay with me forever.
Shellie’s pregnancy was an accident. At 17, she was far too young to be starting a family. The relationship she was in wasn’t exactly true love, to say the least, but we all make mistakes and I was determined to love her through it. We had plans for her to return to school after the baby was born and for me take care of him during the day. I went to America in May to buy baby clothes and all the essentials. I was so excited. I don’t have any children of my own. Shellie and I are so close it felt like this baby would be just as much mine as he would be hers. We picked out his name together and talked about how I would teach him English as soon as he was old enough to talk. It was supposed to be a happy time for all of us, but things didn’t go as planned.
She had a hard labor and her fear of it made things ten times worse, but Haitian women are incredibly strong and God gives us strength when we think we can’t go on. Elijah was born in the evening on July 10th. He was a healthy, seven pound baby with thick black hair and beautiful lips. I fell in love with him the moment I saw him. They brought him to my house that evening and I held him a few minutes before they took him back to his mother. I would hold him two times during his life, that evening at my house and the second time when I was trying to save his life.
The next morning,I went to see him and they were feeding him water with a spoon. They said he couldn’t latch on and drink breast milk because his head was shaped wrong. I knew the oval shape of his head was due to him being pushed out of the birth canal, but I underestimated their lack of education. As I listened to them talk, it was becoming painfully obvious to me how naive they really were. I tried to explain he was fine, she just needed to keep working with him, but I didn’t know the water was as dangerous as it was. My friend Roman was visiting from America at the time and he told me they had to stop giving him water. I tried to reason with them, but at the end of the day, we are just foreigners and they will listen to the advice of a village elder long before they’ll listen to me. I finally convinced Shellie to try breastfeeding again before I left. I had to prepare everything for the feeding program we were having that night, so I left her there still trying to get him to eat. I shouldn’t have left him. Why did I do that?
Roman and I came back with a bottle of formula a few hours later. It was mid-morning and we knew the baby hadn’t eaten since he was born the evening before. I was starting to get worried and aggravated because nobody was listening to me. When we got to the house, Roman tried to feed him, but quickly looked up at me and said we needed to go to the hospital. The baby was struggling to breathe. We could hear his little lungs crackling as he was trying desperately to find air. He hadn’t been drinking the water they’d given him; he had been inhaling it and now he was drowning. The Haitians were still convinced the problem was due to the oval shape of the baby’s head and they wanted to squeeze his head before we left for the hospital. At this point I was angry. I took the baby from the father and told them no one was touching the child except a doctor. “I’m taking him to the hospital. If you want to come you can, but I’m leaving right now.’
The car ride was frantic. I held Elijah in my arms and watched as his beautiful little lips turned a shade of blue. At one point. he stopped breathing completely and I started to panic. Roman reached up from the backseat to put his hand under mine and started patting and rubbing the baby’s chest. Thank God for small mercies. Having his hand under mine was just enough comfort to keep me calm. If I was going to hold this baby as he died, at least I wouldn’t be holding him alone.
After what seemed like an eternity, Elijah started breathing again and we weaved our way through traffic as we headed to the hospital. When we arrived it was hot and crowded. No one was in a hurry to help us. I ran up to a nurse with the suffocating baby in my arms and she told me to go sit on the bench next to the wall. I bypassed her and found a doctor’s office with the door locked. I beat on the door repeatedly until a Haitian doctor answered. I explained to him the problem, he looked at me then looked at the baby, and then slammed the door in my face. Shellie was standing beside me during all this, but I’m not quite sure she understood the severity of the situation. I knocked again, and again he told me to go sit down and wait my turn like everyone else. It was an hour before we got him checked in and hooked up to oxygen. His oxygen saturation was at 59 when it should have been 100. More than likely he already had brain damage at that point.
The hospital staff seemed more concerned with who was going to pay than anything else. I had to go buy the oxygen tank and have it brought to his room. I had to go to the pharmacy and buy his medicine and bring it to the doctors. There was no one to help and Shellie is just a child herself.
I paid for everything. I got him the medicine they said he needed. I tried my best, but in the end, it wasn’t enough. He died in that hospital room two days later. We were home when I got the call and we had to drive through a storm to get to Shellie. She walked out of the hospital carrying a cardboard box with her dead baby inside. If she didn’t understand before, she definitely did now. As soon as she saw me, she collapsed in my arms and sobbed. She cried herself to sleep while I held her on my lap during the car ride home. The poor girl hadn’t slept in days. When we got home, I laid her in my bed and she cried harder.
“My baby’s in the car,” she said.
“No, your baby is with Jesus,” I told her. “He’ll never be hungry. He’ll never be alone. He was too beautiful for this country and Jesus took him home.”
She fell into a restless sleep beside me, crying every time she started to wake. I just held her all night. I didn’t know what else to do.
The next morning Roman woke up early, ate breakfast, and went outside to build a tiny coffin. We had boards left over from the church benches he had built a few days before. Who could have known they would be needed for this? After the coffin was made we were both kind of anxious to bury the child. The Haitians weren’t really in a hurry to get anything done. They were grieving and didn’t know what to do. In America, so many things are taken care of for us, like healthcare, hospice, and funeral arrangements. But this is not America. This is Haiti.
“Am I going to have to put the baby in the coffin?” Roman asked me.
I could hear the strain in his voice. This was not something I had planned for his first trip here, but even in the worst circumstances, he was handling himself very well. What if I would have been here by myself during all this? Two months before, I was sitting on the back porch of the golf course with him discussing the best dates for him to come down. God knew then what was coming and what Shellie and I would both need during this time. Even in the midst of a storm, He is still in control.
A few hours later the Haitian men in the village buried the baby. It was Wednesday July 13th.
I don’t have a great ending to this story. I don’t know why this happened. I’ve blamed myself and the Haitian people and everyone in between. This is Haiti. This is the third world where the infant mortality rate is higher than any in the western hemisphere; where a good education is a luxury only the rich can afford. A hospital is where you go to die and most children are left to fend for themselves. We, as Christians, have to open our eyes to the world around us. We are called to be the light where none is found. These are remarkable times we are living in and to hide inside our air conditioned churches, avoiding the rest of the world would be the greatest of tragedies. If you are reading this now, you were born for such a time as this. We are called to love. We are called to give. We are called to serve. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are at a loss for what to do or how to help, many times just loving the person next to you without judgment is all that’s required. Love God and love people. That’s our calling as Christians. When the world around you doesn’t make sense, look to the simplicity of the gospel for strength.
“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33