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Dr. Jane Aronson traveled to Haiti along with Joint Council just days after the tragic earthquake that left thousands hungry, homeless, and in poor health. What is more devastating is the number of children who suffered the aftermath of the horrific natural disaster. This post was written at the end of an emotionally exhausted day. Jane and the Joint Council staff went to 5 orphanages. The below post is a small insight as to life in Haiti and for children in many of the orphanages through Jane’s eyes.
It’s the end of the day (Friday, 1-29) and I am emotionally exhausted. We went to five orphanages and we saw hundreds of kids. I am so grateful to have found so many kids who were alive and not even injured physically by the earthquake…. on the other hand, the vast majority of them are in poor health, dirty, likely had at least a few medical conditions, and are not being educated in an consistent manner.
I am frustrated as I write this because I wonder what we can do to change what I will describe for you. At the first orphanage we visited, the kids were in the basement of a big beautiful building that is used for religious retreats. The building is beautifully constructed and painted, and there’s even a swimming pool, but the babies are in the basement. The basement smells like kerosene and urine, and I’m sure that they had to cook cereal on kerosene stoves…so dangerous because of the fumes and the chance of a fire with these babies all around in one crowded room … it made me very anxious. The kids were wet and their diapers filled…I held a few babies and my pants became wet. There was no way to get a smile out of any of these children. Twins came into this orphanage last night. They looked about 3 pounds each. The one twin I held was having repeated seizures as I held her, with the classic lip smacking, eye rolling and staring associated with seizures. The babies had not been examined by a doctor yet; the mother had died in childbirth 26 days before. Other kids just were staring or moved around the room aimlessly. Caretakers were also without affect and overwhelmed by the numbers of children they were supposed to care for in this little room where the floor was covered with filthy mattresses. I took a photo of the toddler who captured my interest…he was so depressed that he just stood holding onto a chair and did nothing…no eye contact and not a muscle moved in his face. He had classic psycho-motor retardation and depression. It broke my heart to see him so sad, but we had to leave and visit the other orphanages.
One orphanage was sweet and clean and had great caretakers who were very engaged in loving the children. I had my stethoscope and listened to each child’s chest. They all had colds, but only one child was wheezing. We told the head Nanny and she indicated that she would take the child to the clinic. We also were able to help the Nannies with the many questions they had about the rashes all the kids had…ring worm, eczema, scabies, failure to thrive, growth stunting…all things that can be easily managed, but the problem of course is that this is just a way of life for kids in orphanages – they live in filth, have very poor nutrition, and are repeatedly exposed to infectious diseases. These physical diseases have an effect on children’s emotions: they are uncomfortable in their own skins and that state of discomfort often causes them to withdraw and become depressed.
In fact, the challenge for me today was that depression….no matter where we went, we saw bored and depressed kids. One orphanage was very upsetting because it was so overcrowded that the kids were running wild and the staff was tired, overworked and angry. They were physical with the children. I watched one Nanny grab a toddler by the shoulder, just pick her up and throw her on a mattress. These kids were especially dirty and most of them had shaved heads and fungal infections.
One boy, Rene, was recently in New York for a shunt operation. He had pressure in his brain and had a special procedure that placed a tube in his brain ventricles so that fluid could drain into his stomach. He never had the stitches taken out of his scalp after his surgery, and they were imbedded and causing infections of the skin. So, in the middle of the orphanage play area, I snipped six stitches, removed them and cleaned the pus from under the skin. It hurt, but Jean tolerated the procedure with some comforting. I cleaned his skin with some wipes I had in my bag, but there was one stitch I couldn’t get out. We decided to take Rene to Baptist Hospital, which had visited earlier in the day. In every orphanage where there are older children, there’s an obvious awareness of how we the visitors could leave Haiti and go somewhere that they wanted to go…to America. And of course all of the orphans we saw today were not only traumatized by a life of lost opportunity, but newly frightened for their lives due to the earthquake. The older children spoke of the sound of the earthquake and the shaking. They no longer want to be inside.
One orphanage run by St. Joseph’s Charity (in the US) houses very handicapped children and young adults. This place is amazingly well-run and the staff is very kind and capable. The young woman who runs the place is KC and she has been there for 5 1/2 years. The children have their own wheelchairs and there is modern equipment appropriate for kids with limited physical capacity. These kids had to be moved after the earthquake and were likely traumatized as they had to be picked up and carried out of the orphanage for their survival. I have been judgmental about faith-based organizations (FBO), but I think that I will have to re-examine this attitude because I have seen the work of many FBOs on this trip and they have accomplished a lot and appear to be very kind and committed to kids no one else wants to take care of.
Finally, by the late afternoon, we had visited all five orphanages. All I wanted at that point was to get back to the guest house, pack my bags, and go home..to see my children and Diana. I felt empty and powerless. I couldn’t see another dirty, depressed infant or smell another filthy old house. And I couldn’t see another fake soccer ball (rolled up socks) or more children with lice, scabies, bald heads, rotted teeth, broken and poorly healed fractures, limps from bone infections, silent toddlers with empty expressions, and babies with wasted buttocks and sunken eyes.
I had come to the end of my tolerance – for that day, at least – for the inhumane treatment of orphans.
Thousands of Orphans in Haiti are waiting for An Answer. Be their Answer by reading about and signing the Families for Orphans Act petition. Will you Be The Answer for the estimated 143 million orphans around the world?