I’m 35 years old and prior to my January 2011 mission trip to Haiti, I felt I had accomplished most of my goals in life. I’m a 12 year attorney and an owner of my law firm. I lived a dream as a NFL cheerleader for the Buccaneers and received a Super Bowl ring. I am continually surrounded by loving friends and family, and I devote a large amount of time to working with charitable organizations in the Tampa Bay area. I thought I had just about all I ever wanted in life; knew exactly who I was and was fulfilling my purpose in life. However, after just returning from spending five of the most eye-opening, life-changing days in Haiti, suddenly, much has changed. I feel different. I think different. I now have a new perspective and a love and respect for what some would call “strangers” but whom I now call “friends”. Though we barely exchanged words, words weren’t needed to create the bond that I now have with the people of Haiti. Looking in their eyes, I could see they needed me and I instantly knew I needed them. If only they knew…
I wish that time and space permitted me to share all of my experiences in Haiti and that my words could truly portray the emotional experiences we all encountered. I struggled to find any words that could accurately portray the experience that will remain in the forefront of my heart and mind, but I would like to give you a glimpse through a new window within which I now see this world. Allow me to take your hand, and walk you through part of my journey that now has me re-evaluating every aspect of my life and has me yearning to again leave the comforts of home and bring love and hope to people that so desperately need and deserve it.
Upon landing in Haiti, I felt a rush of excitement and also uncertainty. I had no idea what to expect, but I didn’t care. I was walking blindly, trusting in my friends that had gone on the missions before me. All I could think about was getting to the orphanage and scooping up as many children as my arms could hold…and that’s just what I did. We were greeted by about 50 adorable little smiling faces that couldn’t wait for us to get out of the van. They instantly clung to us, wanting to be hugged and held. My eyes instantly filled with tears as I saw some of my team members reunite with children they bonded with on prior missions. Within those first few moments of standing in the soil of the orphanage, I already knew that this would not be my only trip to Haiti. I didn’t need to see anything else to know this was a mission I would continue to support. What I experienced in the days that followed solidified that instant decision.
We spent much time playing with the children at the orphanage that first day in Haiti. The goal was to become “acquainted” with the children. “Acquainted” in the States typically starts with a hand shake followed by casual conversation. Not in Haiti. These children (and many of the adults we later met) immediately looked at you with love in their eyes and their little hearts longed for you to love them back. And I did. I never knew I could love so fast, but I did. I remember looking over at my dear friend Cathy that joined me on the mission and I knew she too instantly learned to love in a very different way.
Cathy and I have been friends for 10 years and while cheering for the Bucs, we shared several “once in a lifetime” experiences together, but none so great as this. That day, Cathy and I unpacked a large Buccaneers duffle bag filled with gifts donated by the Bucs. As we handed out the gifts to the children, their energy level quickly erupted as they threw on their new shirts and learned how to dance and play with cheerleading poms. Most of the children had no idea who the Buccaneers were, yet they were more energetic and excited than even the biggest Bucs fans. Seeing the children covered in Buccaneers colors and logos suddenly made me feel like I was at home. Strangely, I felt these children were now somehow sharing in another love of my life, my experience with the Buccaneers. Though the kids were ecstatic and beaming with smiles, no smile was bigger than the smile in my heart.
I gained a great deal of perspective by seeing how the children reacted to receiving items that in the States we likely would have simply discarded. These children truly treasure everything… clothes, shoes, school supplies… I wished I had brought more to give them during the trip, but I learned that the best gift I had was just spending time with them, playing with them, laughing with them and loving them. I always believed that love is the best gift we can give a person. But I had no idea that, even to children with next to nothing, love was still the best gift of all.
When we left the orphanage each day to treat patients, we took the warm thoughts of those little smiling faces with us and we were eager to return to see them again each evening. And, no, I never once felt unsafe or even uncomfortable when we traveled around Haiti to the local villages. Those that went before me were right. The people of Haiti needed us and were so gentle and respectful. They trusted us. We brought them hope and they were nothing but appreciative. We did not experience anything even close to violence like we are so accustomed to reading about in the headlines about Haiti. Even though we all had read those stories before we left Tampa, it didn’t matter. When you are called to do something, it’s easy to trust in that calling and walk in faith, even when much of the rest of the world questions what you are doing.
While outside the orphanage during the day, we set up medical clinics where our doctors treated entire villages and anyone else that journeyed on foot to find us. It was obvious that many of the patients, both young and old, walked great distances to seek treatment. For one of our clinics, we traveled into a mountain where there was a village called Terre Noire. Imagine 13 people and large duffle bags of medicine and supplies stuffed into a 10 person cargo van. Now, imagine that van driving up a curvy, narrow, unpathed, rocky, trench-ridden hiking trail up a mountain. We took the van as far as we could and then hiked on foot the rest of the way up. Mules carried our bags of supplies. There was something so surreal, yet so symbolic about seeing a mule arrive at the top of the mountain with Buccaneers bags full of medicine strapped to its side. I realized that I had arrived. Not just at the top of the mountain, but in life. I had finally combined many loves in my life and they were all working together to bring about a greater good in ways I never imagined.
We unpacked the bags and setup that days clinic. Housed in a simple and fragile structure of a few pieces of wood with plastic tarps for sidewalls and dirt and rocks as a floor,we treated 350 people that lived on the mountain. I took on the role of a pharmacist, something I knew very little about, but quickly learned. I wanted the doctors to use me in whatever role they needed me and they did just that with all of us.
That day, a 10 year old boy arrived at the clinic lethargic and barely responsive. The doctors quickly diagnosed him with possible Meningitis, a very contagious illness. In the States, if someone merely has a cold, people scatter for fear of getting sick and here we were, crammed into a small structure with this very sick boy. Contagion didn’t matter. This boy needed us and he would not be turned away. Instead, we brought him back to the orphanage with us. Throughout the next few days, one of our non-medical team members, Karen, and the doctors took turns caring for this boy. By the end of our trip, a boy that a few days prior was thought to be only a couple of days away from death, had regained strength, was eating and returned home with his parents.
Let me take you back to the clinic on the mountain. After seeing the last patient that day, our makeshift clinic was converted into a church. Picture this… many of the patients we treated throughout the day stood outside the clinic and waited for hours until every patient was seen so they could attend church with us. They gathered all around us and treated us like their guests of honor. Though many were struggling with their health and struggling just to find the means to survive, there was a calming peace in the air. A gentle breeze was blowing and we were staring at a beautiful mountaintop landscape. I realized just how beautiful “simple” can be. Nothing was more beautiful, though, than being surrounded by so many that were so appreciative of the gift of healing the doctors gave them that day.
During the service, the Pastor thanked our mission team for leaving behind our comforts and lives at home in order to come to Haiti to help them. Then, one of the most touching moments occurred for me. The Pastor used us an example to his local congregation. He encouraged each of them to find their mission in life and to take a chance and do whatever it was they were being called to do, even if it didn’t make sense at the time. He encouraged them to make a difference in the lives of others the way we had in theirs. At this point, my eyes were again filling. In addition to wanting to help the people of Haiti medically, I wanted this mission to serve as an example to others of how each of us can help in ways we never thought possible. If we just open our hearts, listen to what we are called to do and act upon it without hesitation. My goal was to open the hearts of my friends back home. Never did I imagine that, the very people we were there helping, who had next to nothing would be challenged to also do their part in the grand scheme of giving.
The Pastor went on to thank us for coming to Haiti and helping when they felt they had nothing to give us in return. I could no longer hold back the tears because I knew they had already given me more than I could ever attain on my own, a gift that money can’t buy. At that moment, the entire Haitian congregation bowed their heads and prayed individual prayers aloud for our mission team. Surrounded by the rumbling of many emotional and powerful voices that were passionately praying for us, my heart was again warmed. Though their prayers were in Creole, I still somehow knew what was being said. I looked around and saw the relief and thanks on their faces and I felt the sincere appreciation in their voices. I will never forget that moment when I was touched and moved by people many would call “strangers”. They weren’t strangers to me anymore. If you have ever wondered if you as an individual can truly make a difference in this world, without hesitation I tell you, yes you can!
My story would not be complete without telling you about the three extraordinary doctors on our mission. Robert, Vakesh and Mark. A family doctor, a hospitalist and a pain management doctor. These doctors had never practiced medicine together, yet they worked flawlessly together as a team. On our last day at the orphanage, we were just starting to unpack and unwind from treating 1075 patients in three days, when patient number 1076 was unexpectedly assisted into the orphanage by her friends while she was screaming in pain. She was six months pregnant and in early labor. I get chills each time I think of how these doctors snapped into action and helped this scared young girl. Very few words were spoken as the mother sadly gave birth to a child that had passed away prior to her going into premature labor. This was yet another moment where no words were needed. I will never forget how the doctors just looked at each other and knew what each needed to do. During this moment, each of them were way outside of their comfort zones, but you would never know it. Robert’s mother, Lydia, is a surgical nurse and she joined Robert on this mission. It was priceless to see the way a mother and son interacted and supported each other during this unexpected and tense situation. They, somehow, seemed to find peace in each others glances and seeing the way these four worked together, I was at peace too, though experiencing something I never thought I would experience. I commend the four of them, and given what the doctors explained to us, I know they likely saved yet another life and this young mother very well may have passed away from complications. Instead, within minutes of giving birth, she quietly walked home. Most people may never meet people that they truly consider heroic, and I am blessed to call these four “heroes” my friends. In fact, each person that was on our mission team now holds a special place in my heart, even those I have only known for a matter of days. The experiences we shared will forever bond us and I will never forget how each of my teammates touched my life.
Speaking of heroes. My story would not be complete without mentioning Guiga Vieira, for without Guiga I would have no story to tell at all. Guiga, along with her physician husband, Leo Vieira and Robert Ferreira started People for Haiti immediately following the January of 2010 earthquake. Guiga is my unsung hero because without her daily devotion, altruism and passion, People for Haiti would not exist and thousands of lives in Haiti would not have been touched through its medical missions. It is because of Guiga that I, and many others, have had this incredible opportunity to show the true spirit of American giving to the people of Haiti.
Let me close with these thoughts. While on our mission trip and upon my return, I thought about my grandfather who served in the US Navy and retired as a Rear Admiral. He was awarded the Naval Cross and Bronze Star for his bravery and heroism during World War II in saving the lives of many American soldiers. I always held my grandfather in the highest esteem for living his life for others and I always wondered if I would ever be able to make a difference the way he did. I now have my answer. I learned that we don’t have to be war heroes to make a difference like my grandfather made. I learned that individual people can do great things and can make a large impact on others when we step outside of our comfort zones and take chances. Look at me… When you first read that I am a lawyer and former NFL cheerleader, you probably wondered what I could possibly bring to Haiti during a medical mission, but you now know I played a role in 1076 patients receiving medical care. My hope is that you now share in my understanding that each of us have special gifts to share with this world, gifts you may not even recognize until you take a leap of faith, put yourself out there and take a chance. When you feel a calling to help, though you may not understand why or how you can possibly help, go with it and just do it… That opportunity, that calling may not come around again, so I urge you to not miss your chance. You may think you know exactly who you are, what your future holds, and what is most important in your life… until you set foot on new ground. Walking a mile in the footsteps of the people for Haiti, hand in hand with children whose only hope and expectation from me was to love them, forever changed my life and I hope reading about it will somehow change yours…