The next day, before we leave, we spend time at the Foyer des Orphelins d’Haiti, an orphanage not far from the airport. The cramped gray-walled quarters, beds without mattresses, and, especially, the kids’ desperate need for attention and touch and anything else we might give, bring us all to tears or to that state in which we knew if we would but let them, they would come. There are 70 kids who live in the orphanage and 100 more who go to school there each day. Already, the principal tells us, 60% of the older kids who have participated in our groups, are calmer, more focused. We will, over the next few months, have 10-week-long small groups for all 170, and do whatever we can to help the orphanage’s caring, committed, and overwhelmed staff provide enough food and guidance so that these kids will have the best possible chance at life.
In Port-au-Prince the next day, Kathleen and Catherine have the opportunity to see the small groups—with kids, teenagers, and adults—in action, to hear which technique has been most helpful to each person, to feel the closeness that develops over the weeks of regular meetings.
Jacmel, a seaside town famous for its crafts, is a three hour drive south across the mountains. At the side of the road are chickens, donkeys and the occasional stray dog, behind them banks of vegetables in stalls; overhead, blue, purple, pink, and orange flowers, and, beyond, ranks of mountains marching off toward the horizon.
Before we leave for the countryside we visit classrooms at Notre Dame de la Guadeloupe where our Haitian team is currently leading workshops. After workshops, which take place in classrooms, have been offered to all 700 students, we’ll begin 10-week-long small mind-body groups for all the kids, and the teachers and administrators as well.
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With me in Haiti is Kathleen deLaski, a former journalist and AOL executive, whose father Don has made possible everything we’ve done in Haiti. Since Don’s death a year ago, she has headed up the family foundation, and now wants to experience firsthand the program that Don so generously and lovingly funded. Her daughter, Catherine Grubb, who is studying neuroscience, is with us, as are Lee-Ann Gallarano, who manages our Global Trauma Relief program, and Laura Milstein, our Development Director. It’s Laura’s first trip to Haiti, as well as Kathleen and Catherine’s. Linda Metayer, the psychologist who leads our Haiti program, has organized our visit.
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We did a workshop for our team while we were in Haiti last week– at a church retreat center, a little, open, green place at the bottom of a hill in the middle of Petionville, bird-filled flowering trees, some fresh, if very warm air—an oasis.
More than 60 of those who completed our Advanced Training in Mind-Body Medicine came for the day—from Port-au-Prince, Petionville, Leogane, and even from further out in the countryside.
They were quiet at first, then fairly bursting with stories about the work they’d done, with children in schools; with patients in hospitals; with Catholic, Protestant, and Voudoun parishioners; with students and colleagues at universities and professional schools; and family members, friends, and neighbors.
Many people who have come to these groups are, we hear, sleeping well for the first time; chronic pains are receding; kids who’ve lost parents and homes are able to focus. The need to talk about what has happened, to share the feelings that continue to well up, is everywhere. The groups have become a place to go—to get relief, to “be at home,” to learn “something that works”.
Amy, Linda, JJ, and I all teach and answer questions–stretching mind and body; how to deal with someone who is, or may be suicidal; how to stay “present” and empathetic without being overwhelmed by needs that cannot be met.
Linda Metayer presides with grace and clarity, gives a lecture on biofeedback and autogenic training that is a model of economy. It’s a pleasure to watch her and to listen as she explains the next steps we will take together—the ongoing supervision, the site visits that we’ll make to our trainees’ groups, the workshops we’ll all be offering in the community.
We also outline our plans to develop a leadership team that will work closely with our international faculty in providing supervision and in training hundreds, perhaps thousands, more Haitians to use our work with hundreds of thousands.
The next morning, we meet with the first nine members of that leadership team: highly energetic, talented people who have deeply been moved by our approach and have begun to lead groups in hospitals, churches, school, and tent camps. Among them are a child psychiatrist, a pediatrician and neonatologist, and a medical student; several psychologists, a consultant to the Ministry of Health who is a professor as well; and an accountant who has left his practice for the more-than-full-time job of leading a tent camp and teaching mind-body medicine. I’ll tell you much more about them in future entries.
In the meantime, here’s a picture of our crew—Haitians and Americans together.
We spend the morning at the Cardinal Leger Hospital, destroyed in the earthquake and quickly rebuilt. Haiti’s lepers come here, older people without legs , or with fingers and toes amputated by the disease; brothers 8 and 12 years old whose noses have collapsed and whose faces and hands already bear the scars of the condition.
The kindly and concerned Sisters and lay nurses who are in charge have been overwhelmed by the suffering around them—staff, friends and family killed in the earthquake, as well as by the weight of sadness their patients bring. Out in the country, living with people whose illness has wasted them, meeting acute care needs, they are clearly stretched thin.
Little by little, they brighten during our workshop, appreciating the relaxation of Soft Belly, laughing with the shaking and dancing—“The first time laughing since last January 12th,” notes one sister.
Here’s a quick video we took of participants dancing at a Port-au-Prince workshop—
Sharing their drawings, One sister notes how rigid her body is in the drawing of her “biggest problem”, and how the flower that she draws in the third picture (“the solution to the problem”), bending gracefully toward the sun, is a “lesson to remember.” Before we close, JJ teaches us all to stretch in our chairs.
Afterwards, outside, the Sisters show us the bushes blooming red, yellow, white, and orange, and reach up with a net to fetch us mangos for the road. “We will use what you have taught us, ourselves,” says Sister Yolande, the Director, “and we will teach our patients too.”
Visiting Leogane the day after the inauguration, we are plunged into the canyon between the promise and its fulfillment. The city, which was the epicenter of the earthquake, is desolate, a combination of “the hour before the shootout” in the Westerns, and a scene from after the Apocalypse. There are empty lots where once there were buildings; rubbish is thrown on top of rubble; motorcycles buzz around, but their riders are solemn.
We stop to buy Haitian CD’s and talk with a 30-ish man whose face looks frozen, who is standing near the rack. “Is this your store?” I ask, of the tiny cabin.
“It is not mine,” he says, “but I built it.”
“What about your house?” I ask.
“My house was destroyed,” he replies.
“Did you lose family?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, and slowly, deliberately, names them. “My brother, my other brother, my sister, my mother.”
Around us, other young men stand like statues. Only when the music from the CD begins does anyone move. The young man who actually owns the store shuffles his feet and smiles a little. A couple of the other guys sing along with Belo.
We know we will be coming back to Leogane and working there.
To be continued tomorrow . . .
In one of those happy coincidences—psychiatrist Carl Jung called them “synchronicities”—we found ourselves in Haiti on Inauguration Day and in the precise hotel at which the post-Inauguration reception was taking place. All of our US team—Amy Shinal, our Clinical Director; Lynda Richtsmeier-Cyr, our Senior Supervisor; Lee-Ann Gallarano, our Global Trauma Program Manager; Jesse Harding, our Program Coordinator; JJ Biasucci, our yoga instructor; and I—were amazed that we were where we found ourselves.
As the guests assembled, Linda Métayer and I approached those whom we knew or whom we believed would be interested in our work. Wyclef Jean, whose long time living outside the country had barred him from running for the presidency, was there to celebrate his fellow musician’s election. He gave us his cell phone number and assured us of his support.
Michaelle Jean, the Haitian-born, former Canadian Governor General, lit up the room with her cloud of red hair and her smile. We spent some time with her and arranged to meet again.
There were officials of the Preval government, including Prime Minister Max Bellerive, and some of the clerics who led the inauguration ceremony. Other leading figures from the Haitian diaspora were there, filled with wonder at the hope, after so many years of disappointment, that Michel Martelly’s election had brought to them. As we spoke, all of them recognized the central importance of dealing with psychological trauma to the rebuilding of the country.
President Martelly arrived with his wife and four children, each one energetic and very much an individual: the oldest boy inclined toward his cell phone; the second-oldest boy with a mohawk, gracious and at ease; the youngest boy smiling and well behaved, a beaming little girl. Here too, we are reminded of the Obama family, and of the future for which we all hope.
On the night before his inauguration, Haitian president-elect Michel Martelly came to the Hotel Karibe, where our US team and our Haitian program director Linda Metayer were staying. He sat outdoors among us as the band began to play. There were watchful bodyguards, but also a feeling of welcome, of fraternity.
The people I spoke with were happy, excited; not just the tent-camp organizers who had always been solidly behind “Sweet Micky”, the popular singer, as President Martelly was known, but also wealthy people and the intelligentsia. There had been a shift in the weeks since the election, a sense of possibility that, freed from narrow, self-serving needs—he’d already had plenty of fame, adulation, and devotion, and had made plenty of money—he might really mean what he’d said: about rebuilding the infrastructure and making, for the first time, education available to all.
It felt important to talk to him, to tell him how hopeful we were as well as what we were doing. And so, Linda and I arrived at his table. She explained in Creole—the people’s language here in Haiti—about the Center’s work and our hopes for establishing a National Program of Self-Care and Mutual Help. “Thank you,” he said to us in English, “for everything you are doing for Haiti.” He gave us names and contact information for key advisors and the next Minister of Health, embraced us with a kind of warmth and ease that is rare in politicians.
In the background, the guitarist, Belo, was joined by backup singers and other musicians—two, three, five, ten of them. The music, a kind of joyful Haitian reggae, had us smiling and dancing. I wish you all could’ve been there. The president stayed at his table for awhile, happily greeting supporters, many of whom had returned from the Haitian diaspora, enjoying his evening and everyone’s music.