By Marsha Morton
As a new nurse, I did not know what to expect working for a medical mission. I went with the attitude that I would do whatever work got thrown at me, whether it be cleaning an exam room or tending to patients. Our first clinic day in the slums of Shada was a real eye opener for me. The room I was assigned to with Dr. Ratner was small, beastly hot and very noisy from the nearby generator. I thought to myself about the line from The Wizard of Oz, “we aren’t in Kansas anymore Toto”. The pediatric patients kept flowing and I found myself doing whatever was needed including weighing and measuring patients, holding patients, and giving medications. I had to abandon all the learned nursing skills and find a way to administer medications given the short supply of spoons, cups, and syringes. I had to reuse syringes to administer Tylenol by wiping the tip with alcohol and try to keep the syringe from touching the child’s mouth. At the end of 5 hours I was very tired but felt like I really had accomplished a lot with very little resources. The game was on and I was really enjoying it.
After my first day as a nurse in Haiti I felt pretty confident that I could do whatever was asked of me. I thought I had seen the really tough cases in the Shada clinic. I was able to get into the Open Door Clinic a few hours ahead of the first patient and was relieved to see that the room was larger and lighter and there was no generator banging away outside the window. I had time to set up the things I thought the doctor and I would need next to the examining table and I had a 2 foot surface where I set up the medications. The first patients were straight forward: intestinal worms or tinea capitus or large ring worm of the scalp. I was feeling confident.
The third patient was a 6 month old boy who was brought in by his mother along with a sister who I thought was about 2 years old. The little girl turned out to be 4 years old and so malnourished that she could hardly stand on her own. She went with me without making a sound and let me feed her crackers and peanut butter, milk, and whatever other food I could take off of our other staff. The entire time she was eating she held onto my index finger, my heart was breaking. After eating for almost 40 minutes I had the translator ask her if she wanted anything else. She replied that she wanted to touch my blonde hair. Dr. Ratner enrolled both of these children into the malnutrition program after explaining to the mother about the dangers of starvation. The entire staff waited in anticipation the next day to see if the mom returned with the kids to enroll in the malnutrition program. She came back and we were all so happy to see the kids looking clean and wearing clean clothes. It was a small victory.
Toward the end of the day a young woman was brought into the examining room carrying a bundle of dirty rags. Inside of the bundle was a baby boy who was a month old and weighed only 6 pounds. The baby was hardly moving and did not make any sounds as I removed his clothing. I did not have any hot water so I washed the baby in tepid tap water and soap. The baby tried to cry during the bath but it was a very weak effort on his part. The mother stood looking on, possibly hopeful. After he was clean, Dr. Ratner urged the mom to breast feed the baby. She found out that the mother had lost a child to starvation the previous month. The mom did not know that she could feed the baby all day, instead she was feeding him only twice a day thinking she did not have enough milk.
I kept looking at this weak, helpless baby and thought how can this be? This is the 21st century, why was there no one who could help this mother. We found a clean blanket and clothes for the baby from the mission supplies and made her promise to come back the next day. I excused myself from the clinic and went outside and cried, I could not process that there was so little we could do to help this baby. The baby was the topic of conversation among the staff for the rest of the day and evening. We were all waiting to see if she would come back and when she did come back everyone we treated her like a visiting VIP. She came back in clean clothes and the baby was in a clean outfit and blanket. She seemed pleased that we all cared about her and her son. The doctor at Open Door promised to look in on the mom and baby after we left. Lessons for this experienced nurse as we left our medical mission in Haiti: We do what we can and then we pray.