Imagine that you are a nineteen year old girl living in Port au Prince, Haiti. Imagine the struggles and difficulties that would entail, even in the best of circumstances; and these are not the best of circumstances.
Delmas area, Port au Prince. Heat. Pressure. Noise. Pregnant.
You were kicked out of your mother’s house – a two bedroom bare cinder block structure shared with a handful of extraneous family members smashed in between thousands of other similar dwellings. Your mother learned of your pregnancy and became angry. Physically angry. She cannot find enough work to support herself and your siblings, and has at times resorted to selling her body in order to eat. There is currently a man in the picture that she relies on for support - and your mother is certainly not going to risk losing that relationship on account of your unplanned pregnancy. You are now not just one more mouth to feed, but two.
You are on the street. The street is made up of gravel, dirt, sand, and garbage. Pregnant and vulnerable, you try to make a life with the father of your child who has little education and no work. It does not go well.
You leave the city to visit your boyfriend’s family in a smaller town in the south. You give birth to a baby girl surrounded by family that is not your own. You are thankful that you and the baby survived. You are not sure what will happen next. You never are. It is March.
You move back to Port to start the next chapter of life in a structure your boyfriend built while you were delivering your baby. It is made of scraps of lumber with tarps wrapped around it – tied in some places, nailed in others, crimped with bottle caps at the corners. It is built in a now-empty lot where a house used to be prior to the ‘goudougoudou’. There are many other homes like yours sharing this lot, many neighbors with stories mirroring yours.
Seven Months Later
You are sick. You stop breastfeeding your baby because you are afraid she will get sick as well. She gets skinny. You are afraid. Your boyfriend leaves you.
You are alone.
Your sister visits you and is concerned by your weight loss. She brings you to a clinic where it is discovered that you are HIV positive. Your sister is devastated. You are still in shock from the events of the past year. You go back to your tent and continue to try and survive with your daughter, who is also losing weight. Things have been so hard for so long that it hardly matters that your situation just got so much worse.
The clinic that tested you wants to test your baby girl and has concerns that you might also have tuberculosis. You decline the TB test. You do not want to know.
The good news that your baby girl does not have HIV does not change your situation at all – but it is good news all the same. A sliver of light piercing the black cloud over your days.
You reluctantly agree to go and take a test for tuberculosis at the government hospital. It is necessary before you proceed with treatment for HIV. There are clinics with medicines available that can slow down the AIDS virus and improve your life, or so you are told, but you are not sure you believe it. The last time you came to this hospital for help you eventually gave up discouraged and dejected after failing to gain admittance. You had an appointment. It didn’t matter.
Only the strong and assertive get what they want and need. You are neither.
Someone you have never met and who barely speaks your language comes to pick you up and take you back to the hospital to try again. You get in the car, because your sister is there and asking you to try again for your daughter’s sake. Your daughter is with you and instantly falls asleep. Neither of you have been this comfortable in a long time.
You leave your baby sleeping in the car with your sister while you go for your tuberculosis test.
The TB ward is housed in a temporary structure staffed by a volunteer doctor from somewhere else. When it is your turn, you spit into a small cup, screw the lid on, and drop it into a plastic bin sitting on the ground. There are many other cups in the bin already, with names written on tape stuck to the sides.
You are instructed to return the next two mornings and repeat this process. You don’t know how you will get there again. Next, you need to get chest X-rays. Some of the staff at the government hospital are on strike, and the radiology lab is closed. You will need to pay for a private lab. The X-ray alone will cost thirty-nine dollars. If you were fortunate enough to have a job in a factory, you would make five dollars a day. You do not have a job. Arrangements are made to cover the costs for you.
You check on your baby before going to the private lab. She is awake and soaked in sweat. Your sister needs to leave to run some errands. You walk the three blocks to the lab, passing vendors covering every inch of sidewalk along the way. During the walk you are harassed to make purchases, ridiculed for your appearance, questioned about your connection to the foreigner walking with you, and short of breath from the exertion of walking in the heat and carrying your child.
In the lab you sign in and wait. And wait. And wait.
You wait for over three hours. You are very discouraged and want to give up many times. You endure the stares and hushed voices in the waiting room...the forced advice on child rearing and proper attire.
When it is finally your turn you have to leave your baby in the hands of a stranger while she screams.
While walking back to the hospital you are criticized by other pedestrians for the way you are holding your child. One passerby encourages you to give your baby away since you are so young and poor and sickly. You are too out of breath and tired to respond.
You have not eaten anything all day. You ask to borrow money that you know you cannot repay in order to buy a styrofoam container full of oily rice, bean sauce, and vegetable stew. The food is sold out of pots on the side of the road being cooked over charcoal. You are heckled and cat-called while you cross the street. You share the meal with your daughter.
You are relieved when you return home to your tent, and given instructions about your future appointments. You stare blankly wondering how you will make it back to the hospital for the follow up testing and results, not sure if you want to know what they will say.
It has been a long and difficult six months for you. The initial test results were negative for TB. You are admitted into a program to receive HIV meds, requiring monthly visits. These visits became increasingly difficult as your body weakens and each trip is painful and taxing. You do not always make it to the appointments, sometimes you are just not willing to face the challenge of fighting for space on public transportation and being ridiculed by fellow passengers. Your condition has deteriorated greatly. Further testing is done with another program in another hospital and it is determined that you do indeed have tuberculosis.
Six + Months Later
Fortunately, and it is very hard and disturbing to say that this is fortunate, you are sick enough to be admitted into the inpatient TB ward, which is a large dome tent in a gravel yard. This is the best option available. You are thankful. Prior to the cot you currently sleep on, you were laying on a foam pad on the floor of a dark cement block room.
Your tiny frame is too weak to stand and walk. Coughing racks your body. The few family members and visitors you received when you were first admitted have dwindled and rarely come now.
The staff of the hospital say that you can stay as long as you meed to heal–this is an unbelievable blessing and rarity in the health care ‘system’ in Haiti.
Your appetite is coming back slowly. Twice now thieves have taken money from your bag while you slept; the money left there for you to buy juice and other food.
Yet you have joy. You smile and say, “With Jesus I will be well.” Others wonder if that means here on earth or when you arrive Home and see Jesus face to face – which seems like it could be any day.
Your nightly routine is to read some hymns that you are too weak to sing, then read ‘your Pslams’ to keep in your head while you fall asleep.
Life is fragile.
Things take a dramatic turn for the worse. Your heart can be seen beating through your chest as if it sat below a layer of tissue paper with no muscle or fat protecting it at all.
This beautiful soul left her tired and weak earthly body on February 20, 2012. In the final weeks of her life many visitors came and sang with her and spent time at her side. Multiple people were touched by her life and the joyful spirit with which she battled disease. While AIDS ultimately stole her health from her, it did not steal her faith or her spunk. She did not die alone or unloved and she now is Home where her suffering is no more.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
*Thanks to Emily Berger, who took our three posts written about "K" and edited and complied them into this story for her monthly magazine, Earthen Vessels.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels,
that the excellence of the power may be of God
and not of us. 2 Corinthians 4:7