More than four months ago, after staying up most of the night due to steady diarrhea, I asked for some oral rehydration solution. Last night it was revealed to me how ignorant and selfish of a request that was.
Last Friday night I spent around five hours helping change IV bags and translating for some Canadian nurses in the cholera clinic next to my house. The number of patients had been decreasing until a new wave came in the night before last, mostly children. The theory is that a powdered sports drink had been mixed with contaminated water and distributed widely at a nearby school. The clinic was overflowing with two or three to a bed and the nurses were scrambling to make sure that no one’s IV bag was empty for too long. My experience last night made me realize I never had cholera. My single night of discomfort was not cholera; this was cholera.
In Haiti, cholera means more than fluid leaving your body at an alarming rate. Cholera is a crowded clinic with half of the patients outside. Cholera is lying naked from the waist down so you can move quickly to sit on the bucket beside your cot when the diarrhea comes in front of 20-30 strangers.
Cholera is pain. Cholera is the burn of stomach acid coming up through your throat, the cramping of your muscles when the serum starts to work on a wasted body, the small stabs of the nurse missing the vein with her IV needle several times because your arm is just too small.
Cholera is confusion. Cholera is having one advocate, the person who loves you enough to stay by your side for days, always ready with a bucket. Cholera is watching your advocate’s pleas on your behalf get ignored by white and Haitian medical staff members alike that are continually forced to decide where their expertise should be for the next five minutes, where their attention is most needed and where their last bag of IV fluid should go. Cholera means finally getting the attention of a nurse who does brief tests to check your condition that only confuse and frighten you further since you don’t know what they mean. Cholera is seeing that nurse turn to a foreigner with a grave look, hear her speak some words that you don’t understand and watch her slowly shake her head.
Cholera is fear. Cholera is having your eyes widen in terror, searching wildly for anyone in authority who can understand the words you’re saying. Cholera is desperately asking the translator, “Am I okay? Will I be okay?” Cholera is being kept awake when your body is drained of energy because an eight year-old boy keeps screaming, “I’m dying; I’m going to die.” Cholera is weeping in utter despair in a culture that has no tolerance for tears.
Those are the truths of cholera that I saw last night. These are the lies that I hear far too often.
Cholera is judgment. Cholera is a righteous and holy God who cannot tolerate you in your sinful condition. Cholera is condemnation that you in your helpless desperation sought the advice of a voodoo priest after praying to Jesus didn’t do anything for you. Cholera, like the earthquake, is God’s wrath enacted against a nation that sold its soul to the devil.
Cholera is your fault. Cholera is ravaging your body because you didn’t wash your hands enough, because you drank untreated water, because you are ignorant.
Let me clear something up right now: Haitians contracting cholera now are not ignorant. It has been more than a year since cholera was reintroduced to Haiti and in that time, Haitians have painfully learned what cholera is. They know that it’s a bacterium. They know what bacteria are. Though Haitians may attribute spiritual reasons for contracting cholera, they know that it is caused and prevent through physical measures. Some Haitians may fit the stereotype of being superstitious and poorly educated, but at this point, there are very few Haitians who are uneducated about cholera. I am rejecting the theory that education is the solution to Haiti’s problems. The seriousness of the cholera epidemic is not a matter of information dissemination; it’s a matter of resource distribution. The reason that cholera is still a problem after relief agencies have spent the past year informing the people on good public health practices is because educating people means nothing if they are physically and financially incapable of putting their knowledge into practice. For most of us, a world without adequate resources is literally incomprehensible; I ended up dumping out half of the oral rehydration solution I found four months ago, a waste for which I have cause to repent. That’s how we tend to think about resources though: always available, you just have to know what you’re looking for. But you can tell Haitians to drink clean water all you want, but if they don’t actually have access to clean water, it doesn’t mean a thing. Why is it then that we offer education rather than resources? Because posters, radio public service announcements and week long educational seminars cost less than adequate housing, comprehensive public sanitation and clean, running water. Education without wealth redistribution is inadequate and it is time for us in the West to change.
Because for thousands of Haitians
cholera is death.