One Less Haitian, One More Injustice
June 30, 2011
This posting was updated on July 14 to include some details missing earlier.
A couple of months ago, Antonia’s sister Wilberta married Yves, a young mason. Joegodson crafted some furniture for them. The new husband is not working and so they have emptied his savings to prepare for the baby while he looks for a job. In principle, there should be nowhere on earth where a mason is more in demand than Port-au-Prince. But the reconstruction is in the hands of foreign organizations that, if they do anything, bring prefabricated structures designed to address the problems of unemployment or economic slowdowns in the donor countries or simply to transfer donations to the ruling class. Meanwhile, the still homeless Haitians can’t pay for the skills of the newlywed mason, just like he and Wilberta couldn’t pay Joegodson for the furniture, and so the cycle continues. In any case, Joegodson and Antonia offered the furniture as a wedding gift.
The new couple lives in Delmas 33 where most of Antonia’s family lives. Antonia has eight sisters. One of her sisters, a nurse, has a job in Jacmel. If only she had been in Delmas yesterday …
On Tuesday morning, Wilberta felt unwell and had swollen extremities. She was two days past term. Her mother and sister, along with her husband, took her to Hôpital Universitaire de la Paix in Delmas 33. Built under the Aristide government, it is still a state-run hospital. It opens at eight o’clock in the morning. People who need medical care arrive at five in the morning. Well before eight o’clock, the line is too long to offer any hope of seeing a doctor. When people with money arrive, they simply ignore the line and walk into the hospital and ask to see a doctor. How can you tell who has the right to jump the line? Appearance and identity – everyone knows whether they belong to the class that lines up or the class that walks in.
Wilberta’s pregnancy has been of concern to everybody. The baby was obviously very large – so much so that, in recent weeks, Wilberta has remained in bed, unable to walk except with the greatest effort. She arrived at the hospital with difficulty, supported by her mother, sister, and husband. She was told that the hospital can see only forty-five women and that she was number fifty in line. However, given her condition, someone examined her and advised that she needed an ultrasound. However, the hospital doesn’t perform ultrasounds in the morning, so Wilberta went to Delmas 29 and paid a doctor 500 gourdes for the service. When she returned to Hôpital de la Paix, she couldn’t find the person that had advised that she get an ultrasound. Finally, a doctor examined it but concluded nothing. A second took her blood pressure and gave her some medicine to lower it. He said that she was anemic. She was put in a room with another patient. Her family was not authorized to enter. When the other patient left, Wilberta found herself alone for the rest of the day.
Wilberta says, “Nurses passed by from time to time but didn’t pay attention to me; they were joking among themselves.” Her pains and discomfort increased. She called for help several times. No doctor came to see her because, she was told, they leave at two o’clock in the afternoon. The nurses didn’t help her. Throughout the day, Wilberta’s family, outside, heard her cries for help and understood that she was alone. The armed security guards refused to allow them to enter that part of the hospital.
After midnight, she began to give birth. The baby’s head appeared but remained stuck in the birth canal. It was crying. The nurses said that they couldn’t do anything because the baby was too big.
Finally, the guards let the family pass. Wilberta was almost unconscious and exhausted beyond the possibility of pushing the baby that was stuck in the birth canal. Doctors Without Borders has a clinic not far away. A cleaning woman and caretaker used a hospital bed on wheels to transfer Wilberta over the potholed road to where she might get some medical help. Whatever hope may have remained to save the baby was lost as Wilberta was jostled and bumped along the potholed route to Doctors Without Borders. The baby died before they arrived, still stuck in the birth canal.
At the clinic, the doctors set about saving the life of the mother. She had lost much blood. The doctors say that the final trip to the DWB clinic did much damage to her as the baby pounded repeatedly inside the canal. She needed a blood transfusion. Over the course of the following day, ten friends and family members donated blood for Wilberta. She has an infection that they are treating; she’s in critical condition. The doctors were unable to fathom how she could have been left alone. They said that the baby should have lived. It was a boy. He weighed 4.82 kilograms. His head was partly out of the canal when he died, probably en route to the clinic. By that time, Wilberta had lost consciousness.
Yesterday, as Wilberta lay in the Doctors Without Borders clinic, her mother, sisters, and husband could not control their anger. But what to do? Who is accountable?
The security guards were once again in place, this time to “protect” the medical staff from the family that wanted answers. So, Hôpital Universitaire de la Paix refers all complaints to the armed security guards. The young husband was frustrated and very angry.
The family wanted to make sure that people knew. (That, ultimately, is why you’re reading this.) Along with Joegodson, they went to four radio stations that used to stand up for the poor as the journalist Jean Dominique once did before he was assassinated. Even Radio Ginen told him that they no longer take on political issues. Canal 11 told him to go to RTNH. They said that, for technical reasons, they couldn’t take the family’s complaints against the state-run hospital.
Before they made the rounds of the local media, Joegodson had called me in Canada to see if I might have any ideas. The family was furious and wanted to make public the mortal incompetence of the state-run hospital. Moreover, they wanted the hospital staff to be accountable for what they had done. I suggested that Mario Joseph and his overworked Bureau des Avocats Internationaux was perhaps the only agency that tried (under the usual death threats) to force authorities in Haiti to account. They represent people displaced by the earthquake and women sexually assaulted. The BAI is trying to bring Jean-Claude Duvalier to account for the crimes of his regime. It’s no surprise that the list of grievances is longest where social classes are the most pronounced. The poor can shout as loud as they want when the rich are deaf to them. Wilberta screaming in pain in her attempt to deliver a poor Haitian is an accurate symbol of the situation. The representatives of the state that is supposed to care for her weren’t even within earshot. For a view of childbirth in Haiti from the United Nations Population Fund, take a look at this video.
As I searched for the phone number of BAI, Joegodson took the suggestion to the family. They discussed it with their neighbours and friends who had assembled to support them. The verdict was unanimous: never go to a lawyer. Absolutely not. They will simply take whatever remains of your money. When I called with the phone number (I had passed along the address during the earlier call), I tried to encourage Joegodson, saying that, in this case, it may be different and that the family may actually have their grievance officially documented, at least. That would cost nothing. They were highly sceptical.
In any case, Joegodson gave the number to Wilberta’s sister, the nurse living in Jacmel. Over the course of the day, as the others struck out with all of the local media, she called Mario Joseph who listened and scheduled a meeting with the family on Saturday morning.
Wilberta is doing better. She’s happy to have her husband by her side. Her family is serious about forcing the authorities to account.
Go here for an update on Monday, July 11.