By Nick Vitone
I recently traveled to Haiti to photograph a team of medical students and professionals from Emory University who were working on partnership with Project Medishare. The trip was designed to offer surgeries to patients in the central plateau, who might not otherwise be able to improve their health.
For me, the first trip to Haiti is like the first trip to the moon; I couldn’t begin to form any worthwhile expectations. What I read in the news or in books helped, but was limited.
Having been there and back, I now feel there are two different Haiti’s. There is the popularized Haiti that grabs attention in the headlines- for the poverty, the violence, natural disasters, politics, the relief efforts and the list goes on. Truth be told, the level of poverty is quite shocking, and everywhere you travel is saturated with reminders of it. Perhaps that is the greatest contrast to most other places I have visited–that there is no escape from the poverty. The poverty, violence, etc. are the “facts and figures” of Haiti, and as such they are informative, but do little to speak of the actual Haitians.
Another Haiti exists as well, this one is much more personable and warm, even inviting. So many of the patients we worked with were very open and generous with us, but what really surprised me was the extent to which their families were involved. Every single patient that we saw had family that traveled to be there. There were no hotels nearby, no accommodations for them. Often times they slept on the floor next to their loved one, or at the foot of the bed.
As patients rested on beds in the communal wards, the families would feed, bathe, and care for the patients at every hour of the day. This wasn’t just the case with the patients getting surgery, this was the case all over the hospital, from the maternity ward, to the ICU, and families were never far from their loved ones. The hospital was constantly humming with life, 24/7. While there was a general somber mood, it was often punctuated with outbursts of laughter. On a few occasions, one of the patients might break into a song or prayer late in the evening, eventually that lone voice would be joined by a chorus of fellow patients and family.
And then there is the reward of seeing the growth of a patient after surgery- it’s a bit like watching winter thaw into spring. Perhaps the best example of this was 22-year-old Jean Massenet, who needed surgery to correct an injury from a car accident. Before surgery, he was very quiet, clearly nervous, not sure what to expect, perhaps no real knowledge of what was to take place during the operation beyond what had been described. After surgery, the sedatives began to wear away, and I’m sure the pains of operation set in. But as the body started to mend, you could see his spirits begin to soar. He was no longer the somnolent patient- he greeted everyone with a smile, joked with nurses, his mother, doctors and the other families around him. You couldn’t walk through the ward without seeing his beaming smile.
It’s this feeling of community that now overpowers my earlier expectations of Haiti. It is surprising close to the US, a mere 2 hours travel time from Atlanta, and yet the culture and sense of community is so unlike anything I have experienced here. I see why people who visit Haiti are so keen to return, and I likely will be one of them.
***Nicholas Vitone is a photographer in Atlanta. He volunteered to photograph the Emory surgical trip July 5-9 in Hinche, Haiti.