Monday, July 21, 2014

Coffee with an Angel

Taking teams of engineering students abroad means I deal with sick students.  Gratefully, this is not difficult for me; I have been to the ER or held a barf bag for a few over the years. I don't mind.  It forms a special bond between us.

During my last trip to Haiti with 12 other engineers, three of my students got a virus. Two of them got better relatively quickly, but one girl, Elle, (rhymes with jelly) went a little crazy before she bounced back.  For a few days she had headaches, a sore throat, and dizziness, like the others. We treated her symptoms and tried to keep her hydrated in the Haitian heat. But after a few days Elle started showing signs of brain malfunction. 

Elle is very bright, but Saturday night she started being unable to answer questions like "when did you take your last dose of ibuprofen?" or "how much did you take?" or "where did you leave the kittens?" so I got concerned.  My online medical degree had prepared me for this, however, and I suspected that between the Haitian heat and her fever she was dehydrated.  On Sunday morning I was awakened by someone poking me in the back saying "the girls tell me Elle just vomited" which, of course, only made dehydration worse.

"Well then," says I, "we're going to the hospital."

One of our Haitian friends, Jon Doudou, drove us to the nearby border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic at Dajabon. Incidentally - this was near one of the worst massacres in the history of Haiti.  Also incidentally, Elle's boyfriend, Jerry, (rhymes with berry) who is fluent in Spanish was on the trip came along to help communicate.  When we got to the border we had to leave the truck on the Haitian side because it didn't have the proper papers to cross back and forth.

[Jon Doudou and I often get mistaken for each other on account of our dressing alike.]

With no truck, that means we needed to take a cab to the clinic.  What I had failed to understand until that moment, however, was that all "cabs" in Dajabon are motorcycles.  So Jon Doudou gets a couple motorcycle taxis and the six of us, including the drivers, ride to the clinic.  Three people on a motorcycle is really nothing by Dominican standards, but I'm pretty sure that between Jon Doudou, myself, and our driver, there was over 650 pounds of manliness on our bike.  That's a lot of manliness, I tell ya.

Well, I could tell you about how Elle was back to her smart self in about 2 hours after they started the IV, and I could tell you about how they wanted to keep her for a while and observe for signs of Chikungunya which she did not have, or I could tell you about how Dr. Nirla tried to come over from Haiti to relieve me around 5:00 PM but that she was unable to because someone decided to close the border an hour early.  And I could go on to explain about how Dr. Nirla had Elle's contacts case which she had to pass to "some guy" under the bridge for him to hand-carry it across the river border, but instead, I'm going to tell you about my time with Angel Gabriel Marte Tejada, the nurse on duty.

Angel was the only person at the clinic and Elle was the only patient. So he spent a lot of time sitting with us in her room just chatting. Jerry helped us translate between Spanish and English. We talked about our families and lives and how I liked coffee and what his plans for the future were.  About 10:00 PM on Sunday night, I mentioned that I was getting a headache.  

At this point Angel brings me up to the front of the clinic by myself. No translator. He patiently tells me in Spanish until I understand that he wants me to sit at the front of the clinic in case any patients come while he goes somewhere. So yes, he is leaving me in charge of the clinic. Sorta.  I agree because I know that if an emergency patient comes by I can go get Jerry.  Between Jerry and my online medical degree I was brimming with confidence, despite my headache.

So I sit down in the front of the clinic which is open to the street while Angel gets on his motorcycle and rides away.  Fortunately, no patients arrived while he was gone.  Ten minutes later Angel returns with a plastic water bottle full of delicious Dominican coffee!  He correctly assumed that my headache was caffeine withdrawal. Then he and I sat together on the front porch of the clinic drinking coffee out of little plastic cups used for taking pills. The cups were so thin the coffee burned your fingers, but I kinda like that anyway.

[Angel and I drinking coffee and talking about life.]

Keep in mind our conversation was very slow because of my inability to speak Spanish very well. But we weren't in any hurry - in fact we had nothing else to do. I reminded myself that relationships are of cosmic importance.

If you have ever heard me try to speak Spanish, you won't believe the rest of this story. But it's true. We talked about complex things such as the Dominican problem of illegal Haitian immigration, and Angel noted that it was similar to the problems we're having in the US.  He told me about a motorcycle accident he had when five Haitian men on a single motorcycle ran into him. He pointed out a prostitute and pimp that walked by in front of the clinic and we discussed how the sex trade was bad for everyone.

I told him about my experience when my son David was born Cesarean section. I explained how I sat with Martha behind a curtain that separated her head from the rest of her body.  I was busy telling her how good she was doing when the doctor said, "Hey Brian, do you want to see her uterus?"  The doctor had taken her uterus out of the incision because of some complications and she wanted to know if I would like to take a gander at it before she put it back in.  "Sure" I say, because how many times do you get an opportunity like that?

So I stood up and peered over the curtain.  Then something happened that has never happened before or since.  My knees actually wobbled.  Before me lay something that looked like a cross between my wife's body and a butcher shop.  Freaky.  I sat back down before I fell down.  Good times.

Perhaps because of Angel's medical training, or perhaps because of my online medical degree, or perhaps because we had all the time in the world, I was able to communicate this complex story in Spanish.  We had a good laugh together. It was one of my favorite experiences of the trip.

Relationships are of cosmic importance.

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