Life … at Ste. Catherine Laboure

8 May

Yesterday I spent the day in Cite Soleil, a populous shanty town on the shores of the Caribbean in Port au Prince. Part of the afternoon took me to the Cite’s only hospital, Ste. Catherine Laboure.  It is a state-run hospital with green and cream painted walls and a big wrought iron green gate, and a friend of mine, Dr. John Carroll from Peoria, Illinois, volunteers his time there periodically throughout the year.

So he showed me around: the Salle d’Urgences with its three gurneys and beat-up grey cabinet of meds, the puddle filled ground floor courts and corridors, then up an outer set of stairs to the wards.(There also a few operating rooms but they are in disuse now.)

Ste. Catherine was run for almost two years after the earthquake by Doctors Without Borders. They managed the place, supplied equipment and medicines and offered their services for free. Last December, the Haitian health ministry took it over again and everyone still working there has noticed the difference. With a combination of user fees and inadequate supplies, the flow of patients as diminished considerably, I was told. The user fees aren’t high – and are now dispensed with for children under 5 — but for people with no money, prohibitive nonetheless.

But the really shocking thing about Ste. Catherine is the fact that for a district of 300,000 people, this is all there is: three gurneys, maybe 30 or 40 hospital beds, no OR, and worse, a small, vastly underpaid staff that leaves at 4 pm.

We walked through the upper wards that, not surprisingly, were filled mostly with babies and children. Dr. Carroll told me the nurses there earned about $70 a month. And as we looked around the walls with their peeling paint and uncapped electric outlets and empty oxygen tanks, it struck me that the one good thing the Haitian government might do would be to turn Ste Catherine into a star hospital. Clean it, re-paint it, fix the wiring and install the best equipment. Double the pay of the staff so that it would be a magnet for good doctors and nurses. Keep it open 24 hours a day and do everything in its power to show people not only that it is there, but can be run better by Haitians than the famous foreign doctors of DWF/MSF.

As we spoke, Dr. Carroll suddenly cut himself off mid-sentence and walked over to a tiny baby lying in a yellow-painted iron crib, inert and no longer breathing. As he applied CPR to the delicate chest, I could see the lack of response, the closed eyes, the miniscule lips slowly turning blue. I went for a nurse and Dr. Jeanty, the pediatrician, searched around to find a hand-held breathing apparatus. After what seemed an interminable amount of time, the baby began to breathe again.

The baby’s name was Robertson, and his 16-year-old mother, Genevieve. Shortly after four, the staff having left for their bus home, she remained there, like all the other patients and their family members, alone with her sister and fragile baby. Whether Robertson would make it through the night, no one could say.

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