In Septemeber 2008, I traveled 6000 miles to Haiti's Kenscoff mountains. My mission: to care for some of the orphaned and abandoned, the sick, malnourished and premature infants of this beautiful but beleagured Caribbean nation.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Do Not Fear

My Haitian hospital experience was for the most part, a comfortable one. Laying under crisp white sheets, in a freshly painted, air-conditioned en-suite room, I gave thanks for the graces I had been given. Like most ex-pat workers in Haiti, I did not have an insurance policy that would cover surgery and hospitalisation, in-country. Government travel warnings make it all but impossible to obtain insurance for travel to Haiti. This being the case, I was mentally preparing myself to endure surgery and recovery at the Haiti Baptist Mission Hospital. I had visited this center shortly after the 2010 earthquake, and had found a set up very like that of a World War One field hospital. The Haiti Baptist Mission was primitive;  this private hospital in Port-au-Prince, though, was one of the country's best.

The journey there, along Haiti's torn and pot-holed roads had been a jarring one and an exercise in enduring pain. I made it through the journey by extending my arms down against the car seat in an attempt to splint my inflamed belly as best as I could, while our Haitian Paediatrician, who, insisted on personally escorting me downtown for lab work and investigations, urged her driver to go slowly and avoid the bumps. The poor man did the best he could but there is no avoiding the bumps on our mountain road!

I gritted my teeth, grimaced and grunted through a painful sonogragram, mindful  that had these diagnostic tests been performed 24 hours earlier, when my pain had been so bad that I hadn't been able to stand up straight, the procedure might have been absolutely unbearable. At a dingy clinic in the Chanmp De Marrs district of the city, the only clinic that was able to fit me in on an emergency basis, the diagnosis was made. I had a severely inflamed appendix and should go directly to the hospital.

I had been slightly dehydrated when I left God's Littlest Angels but from mid-day onward, I had been instructed to stay strictly nil by mouth.That meant no fluids, and no medications. Hearing this, I had pleaded for an injection  of something for nausea, before I left the orphanage, but the Paediatrician said there wasn't time for that.  Several hours in the Port-au-Prince heat had taken it's toll on my body. I was completely parched by 6pm that night, when I was admitted to the hospital. I remember pleading with my surgeon, in the admissions office of the Canape Vert Hospital, to give me a glass of water. Just a little one. Maybe a few sips, or at least some ice chips? I'm sure I was quite pitiful. The surgeon look at me fondly, shook his head, laid his hand on my shoulder and told me I would get all the fluids and medications I needed intravenously.

The nursing care I received in that hospital harked back to an earlier time; nurses in starched white uniforms wore caps pinned to their hair and delivered particular care, under the leadership of a matron. Matron checked in on each and every patient daily, including on Sundays.

On admission, an IV was quickly inserted and I was given potent IV pain medications, three IV antibiotics and a liter of IV fluid. As the Doctor explained to me that I was not well enough for surgery, I had a flash of insight into why my Grandfather might have died. It is unlikely he would have received IV fluids during the course of his illness. If he was given antibiotics before surgery, which I doubt, they certainly would not have been as powerful as the ones I was being given now. I was in the hands of a skilled surgeon, and an attentive nursing staff; he was treated by a General Practitioner on a remote Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. His surgeon was a man, who, was known to practice while under the influence of alcohol. James Westwood barely stood a chance. I knew this, as I slipped into a medicine induced delirium of dancing lights and fire-work displays. 'Do you feel up to talking?' a  visitor asked one day.
I smiled and shook my head slowly. 'I don't talk now. I just dream.'

The next morning, as my pain killers wore off,  I was being prepared for surgery, and I was in more pain than I could bear. The infection was advancing throughout my abdomen and my peritoneum and the slightest movement or the lightest touch to my abdomen sent pains shooting throughout my belly and up into my chest and shoulder. My Anaesthetist stopped by to check in on me. Recognising that I was suffering, she smiled understandingly. 'It's almost over, I'm here,' she reassured me.

My transport to the operating suite was truly agonizing. I remember wincing as the trolley went over bumps along the route. Flat on my back, moving at  a speed I could not control, nauseated and dizzy. I was gripped my terror, and all confidence in God and my surgical team suddenly abandoned me. I was sure I was going to die! I wanted my Mum!

I was wheeled directly into the operating room, where, I was strapped to the operating table, arms outstretched and legs extended. Being restrained in that position intensified both my pain and my fear. To my horror, a male operating room assistant then began partially undressing me to attach ECG leads. Despite the gentle handling and reassuring humour of the Doctors and nurses, I could not shake the feeling that I was about to be crucified in this austere, brightly lit room. All kinds of thoughts raced through my mind about what was going to happen next. As lovely as the staff tried to be, I was not soothed. They offered no explanation for anything that they were doing to me. The nurses on the inpatient unit had been reprimanded by the surgeon: according to the order he had written, I was to have received 3 liters of IV fluid overnight, not 2. Now, I wasn't even stable enough for surgery, he complained, but the surgery would have to go ahead because there was no more room for delays. 'Why did they start an IV in that vain, anyway' an operating room nurse snapped. 'It's not suitable for re-hydration!'

'Her veins were shut down, yesterday,' the anaesthetist answered. 'They weren't good at all.
'Oh, she was sick yesterday,' the nurse shot back. 'Well, she's much worse today! Today she barely has a blood pressure at all!' Then, turning to me, and patting me on the arm, and reassured me, 'we'll find another vein, Cherie. Pa pe.'

Pa Pe . 'Do not fear.'

As the nurses worked to get a more reliable IV line into me, I looked up at the ECG monitor. Oxygen saturations in the low 90's. Heart beating at a steady 76 times per minute. oh, that was ominous! A day ago, my heart had raced at 130 times a minute at rest in response to the infection. Today, I was critically ill, and my heart wasn't responding, not to the infection, and not to the fear that raged through me. I knew then that the infection was beating me. It was a moment of cold clarity, in which I realized that I was dying. Dying was not just an invention birthed in my mind, by terror. It was a very real possibility, and I couldn't fight it. I wouldn't win. I was blind with panic, desperately reaching for father God. Where are you, now! Why have you left me? Why?

It was then that snatches of bible verses drifted into my head, spoken in a voice I perceived rather than heard. 
I will never leave you, nor forsake you. I will be with you unto the end of time. 

Do not fear. Do not be dismayed

Yes, he saw me, He knew, and he understood that I was in pain and that I was very afraid. He had endured far worse agonies. He had sweated blood. This, though, what was happening to me, was not a crucifixion, not a punishment and no-one intended to hurt me or shame me. He had been punished. They had intended to wound him, and to utterly humiliate him in the process. His suffering had been holy and it had brought me to God. Now, he was here to help me bear my suffering. I have taken on your infirmities, and I can bear your fear. I am a man of many sorrows. Give yours to me.

God had me where he wanted me and his eyes were on me. His spirit had had discerned the prayers I was too frightened to pray. Now, his face was turned towards me. He was telling me he would be be with me always.

Though I thought I was alone for a few, terrifying minutes, I never was. If suffering had to come, at least, I knew, I would face it with my God. Come what may, whether I lived or whether I died, I was going to be OK.

The anaesthetic was injected into my IV line.

'The mask has oxygen, breath gently.'

And with that, I drifted mercifully into oblivion.

Note: James Westwood was born on the 15th of May, 1927. Today would have been his 85th birthday. Happy Birthday Papa!

1 comment:

jane said...

Oh Susan, the fears of surgery, the care of nurses, the huge emotional shock of the care giver becoming the care receiver! Your care was so wonderful as I too wondered how that would evolve. The dreams of this time are so unusual. And you have such a gift to share your experiences. Prayers continuing for a good recovery. blessings