The Hospice St. Joseph, 33 Rue Acacia, located in the Christ Roi neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, was to be our home while in Haiti. And, it would be my base of operation in the years ahead. It is impossible to think of the time spent in Haiti without thinking of the HSJ as a sort of axis mundi. It was (I use past tense because on January 12, 2010, the floors pan-caked and the building ceased it previous existence) a three story building with a rounded façade on two of its sides. The building and large parking area and courtyard were surrounded by a high wall and reached through a double wooden gate off of Rue Acacia.
The first floor was partially open and served as a neighborhood clinic, pre-school, and food depot. The second floor had a chapel, a large dining room where we ate buffet style, several smaller rooms for sitting and discussions, and a couple of bedrooms. The third floor housed the rest of the bedrooms—including several of those belonging to permanent residents and those provided for guests. A wraparound veranda connected most of the room entrances. Our rooms were on the third floor.
Each room, which slept two to four people, had its own toilet, sink, and shower—partitioned off with wooden, louvered, swinging bar-doors. But, water was severely limited and, on a number of trips, several of us shared a half-full 5-gallon bucket of water and a margarine container for dipping. The water was for our bathing and the toilet. We were careful with the precious commodity. It was certainly a re-education for someone who liked long, hot showers.
We went to our assigned rooms, dumped our baggage, and, after introductions to the full-time residents, met down in the courtyard to begin our first series of meetings and interviews. And, there, we met firsthand one of the reasons we were there. Outside the front door of the Hospice where we were to re-board the van, stood a mother with her little girl—three or four years old, at most. Her left foot and leg were horribly festered—a huge open wound running with pus. She had been burned in an accident with hot cooking oil. She must have been in terrible pain but she didn’t cry. Instead, she shivered slightly and partially hid her face in her mother’s skirt, shyly peeping out at the blan yo (foreigners) who were equally entranced by her. She was dressed in a crisp, clean yellow and white dress and her hair was carefully separated and contained by numerous bright yellow barrettes. A shy gaze briefly flickered with a smile when her mama bade her respond to an offered “Bon jour.”
The child belonged in a hospital emergency room. The problem was that she couldn’t just be taken to a hospital. Patients going to hospitals are expected to bring their own medicine, bandages, clean water, and, often times, candle stubs for light when the electricity is off—which is the case more often than not. All of it unspeakably expensive for the poor. Medical attention is often out of the question for most Haitians. This little girl’s mother had come to the Hospice in order to pick up a burn kit and other essentials before taking the child on to the hospital for treatment. Afterwards, they would come back to the Hospice to pick up the prescribed antibiotics and additional bandages. This was our first personal introduction to the poverty and suffering of Haiti.