Monday through Thursday are prenatal days. The women arrive in their cute print dresses and always carry purses. The new moms are sent upstairs for an introductory class to learn how their bodies work while prenatal appointments are held downstairs in the unused birthing rooms. We have two Haitian and three American midwives working this morning with one translator for each American accent.
“Bonjou,” I say with a smile, inviting the mother to enter the room before me as a sign of respect. I ask the mother if she would like to sit on the bed and I settle in across from her in a chair. “Mesamin Elisabet.” She mumbles her name quietly, her eyes averted, head tilted away and down.
These women travel for miles down dirt roads by foot, tap-tap (a truck with fifteen people piled in on wooden seats in the back) or, if they have some money, a moto (a motor cycle that holds up to four adults). Some women come to nine prenatals before birth, others just knock on the door for the first time in the middle of booming labor. On average they will have seen us four times before they birth; but that doesn’t mean that we midwives have all the medical information we need in their charts.
Instinctively, I pull back my chair to take my attention off of this mama, giving her more space to be herself. Seven months pregnant with her fourth child, she’s complaining about a never-ending headache, a possible sign of pre-eclampsia, a precursor to eclampsia which causes life-threatening seizures during pregnancy. I give her chart a quick once over to rule out this physical imbalance. Blood pressure looks good. Her pulse is fine. She’s not dizzy, has no swelling, no nausea or vomiting and is otherwise in good shape. At every prenatal back home in California the mama’s pee is tested to see if she’s spilling protein in her urine (a possible sign of pre-eclampsia). These pee sticks are in such limited supply over here, we save them for true emergency situations only, the definition of which keeps changing for me with every day I’m here.
When Haitian women smile, the whole room lights up. And when they don’t, there’s a bleakness, a dismal truth that tugs my heart down. These proud women with burdens on their hearts are easy to spot in the clinic, their bodies curved inward. Collapsed. Heavy.
Their lives are not complicated with the need to be polite. They have not been taught passive aggressive manipulating techniques to get what they want. When I walk in the streets and a kid wants a dollar, he asks for a dollar. When Hatians smile and say “Bonjou,” they’re not putting on an act to cover up their pain, they’re really smiling and appear happy.
And in the same vein of keeping things simple, there seems to be limitations in public displays of intimate connection. I have yet to see joy at the birth of a child, nor automatic hugging, kisses or snuggling of the little ones at post partum visits. I don’t profess to know what it’s like to live a life in a mud hut with a dirt hole for a bathroom, so please don’t take my words as judgments, and know that I have not come here with the arrogant assumption that I’ll make changes or “fix” anything that’s outside of my comfort zone. I’m merely a curious observer who’s wondering if connection and the simple emotional support of being seen and heard make a difference universally.
I ask this mama to describe where her headache is, and she responds with her hands circling her forehead: “It is all my worrying going around and around here.”
I move my attention even further away and take a short perusal over her prenatal notes. I notice that two of her children have passed away. I ask her who she lives with. Her eyes begin to tear. I have yet to see tissues in Haiti, so I go into the restroom to grab some of the sacred toilet paper (sacred not because it’s been blessed, but because it’s not that common to have) and come back to dab her eyes from the pooling wetness.
She looks directly into my eyes, and with the outpouring of tears comes her story of fear. Her eldest son at twenty-years-old was recently in a moto accident and hurt his leg. The pain is so bad that he’s unable to squat (which is needed to use the hole-in-the-ground bathroom) and had to move into town to live with his uncle.
Her pain has nothing to do with this current child in her womb, and everything to do with the trauma of repeated loss. Like most other moms who’ve lost children, she too suffers from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and I watch the imprints from her nervous system express themselves as we talk. It seems that in her life a sick child means a dead child.
I lean over my chair to offer the comfort of touch which she accepts. I put my hand on her knee and explain that I’m not only a ‘Sage Femme,’ but also a Doctor of ‘Chinoise’ Medicine. If she wants, she can come back on Friday with her son and I’d be happy to help with his pain.
Her face lights up like a Christmas Tree, and that gorgeous Haitian smile shines from ear to ear.
When they arrive on Friday she proudly displays her handsome son — who is walking with a limp. I get him to lie down on a bed and I administer a basic treatment with acupuncture needles. The whole time, Mom is glowing. She can’t stop smiling. After the treatment, I grab some essential oils to rub on his legs. I don’t have the Chinese herbal pills that I know will work, so I grab some herbal pills that kinda work, knowing that the belief sparked by having something in his hand to take home will far out weigh the medicine behind it.
Mom can’t stop beaming. The son says he feels better and the translator has proclaimed me a miracle worker.
I tell the translator, “No, I’m not a miracle worker. I’m just another human offering some kindness.”
A week later she comes in wearing the same threadbare blue dress, grinning from ear to ear. She walks right up to me to give me a kiss and a hug. I inquire about her son. She says he is all better and is back in her house living with her.
I’m kinda amazed, because, in the states, when I treat someone with body pain from an accident, it takes not only quite a few acupuncture appointments, but also a thorough contemplation over my fee and many calls to their insurance company to see any improvement. Never have I experienced instantaneous results.
This mom did not need therapy, nor did she need an aspirin to feel better. She needed some elemental kindness, simple support, and an act of physical human connection to know that she’s not alone.
And her son’s healing? Quite honestly, I really believe it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the simplicity of life here in Haiti. Maybe simplicity is the vehicle for how spirit really does work miracles.