By Andrea Klausner
This is a tribute to motherhood, but it is not for the faint of heart.
I recently traveled to Haiti on a medical mission with a local not-for-profit organization called “Hands Up for Haiti.” It was a mission to bring eye care to the residents of Cap-Haitien, the second largest city in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. My team consisted of three ophthalmologists, one of whom was also an oculoplastic surgeon, an optometrist, her 17-year old son to assist her, and me–a lawyer and writer with no medical training other than the diagnostic skills I picked up as the mother of four children. I was asked to go along to document and photograph the mission. I ended up doing so much more–triaging the patients, assisting the doctors and even scrubbing in as a nurse in the operating room. When you are in Haiti on a humanitarian mission, there is no such thing as “not in the job description.” Sort of like the definition of a mother.
I went on this trip with some trepidation, knowing that I would see tremendous deprivation and disease. However, nothing could prepare me for the emotional toll of what was essentially “battlefield medicine.” Day after day, we greeted a parade of suffering but stoic people who had come to expect so little in their lives that they were tremendously grateful for whatever assistance they could get. But they are also a proud people, coming to see the doctors in their “Sunday best,” the women in hats and heels, the men with polished shoes, as if to let us know that their poverty did not define them. Many waited for hours to see a doctor, but we never heard a complaint. They thanked us politely whether we could help them or not. And more often than not, we could not help, although 90% of their conditions could have been prevented or corrected had they been able to receive timely medical intervention.
The most gut-wrenching part for me was seeing the children, with infected eyes, blindness and a wide range of conditions that even our well-trained doctors could not diagnose. Many were orphans from the local orphanage, found on the street and as young as 18 months.
I remember one young mother who brought in her young son because his eye had become severely infected when she accidentally swept wood chips into his eye. For 15 days that boy suffered because his parents had no money to make the trip to the hospital or to pay for a doctor. Had we not arrived at the free clinic and prescribed antibiotics for the child, who knows what would have become of him?
All I could think of was how helpless the mother must have felt, watching her child suffer for so many days, unable to get him medical attention at will. I put myself in her shoes, thinking of my own precious children, and felt my heart break. But when you are struggling just to obtain potable water and food, you have no choice but to prioritize. The stakes are nothing less than survival.
I watched another young couple receive the news that their beautiful three month old daughter was going blind and that there was nothing our doctors could do for her. When the mother was told, she collapsed on the floor in tears. Life for most children in Haiti is difficult, but the fate of a blind child is unfathomable. I could not even imagine what prospects in life she might have.
I returned home to my light-filled rooms overflowing with happy family photos. I took in my refrigerator filled with food, my faucets flowing with hot and cold water, my electric lights, my comfortable bed, my closets filled with clothes and my sanitary bathrooms. I called my children to let them know I arrived home safely and to ask how they were. There were the usual complaints about jobs and lack of jobs, about colds and minor workout injuries. But all were safe, sheltered, healthy, nourished and loved.
This Mother’s Day, I know I will be counting my blessings, merely for having the serendipitous good fortune to be born into a land of opportunity and a life of privilege, where I could shield my children from real deprivation, and not just their longings for the latest fashions, the newest technology or the coolest cars. It is because of my children and my motherhood that I know I must return to Haiti – for the mothers and for their children.
Andi Klausner has resided in Chappaqua for 26 years. She currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director for Westchester Residential Opportunities, Inc. (WRO), a 44-year old not-for-profit organization based in White Plains that is dedicated to enhancing housing opportunities for all Westchester residents.
Hands Up for Haiti is a medical humanitarian not-for-profit organization founded in 2010 and based in Mount Kisco. It is committed to improving the quality of health care in northern Haiti through community medical care, education and training programs.
Founded by a group of individuals from Northern Westchester who traveled to Haiti to provide assistance after the earthquake, Hands Up for Haiti welcomes volunteers who have a variety of backgrounds, skills and experiences, including those with no medical background at all. For more information, or to volunteer for a mission, visit the agency’s website at
www.handsupforhaiti.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.