At the end of the third class, a quiet, solemn boy asks if he can speak with me. “What,” he had wondered during class, “about memories of the lost person that come back again and again?”
While Kathy and Lynda teach the fourth class, Laurent, Cassidy and I sit with – I’ll call him “Andre” – in the only quiet, moderately private spot we can find: our vehicle.
Andre says that he has great difficulty falling asleep, and when he finally does, nightmares always come. “I feel so helpless. I cannot talk to anyone.” He grabs his throat with every other sentence. When I mention the gesture, he tells me that his “words are stuck in my throat. And I am afraid to cry. It is not manly.”
Andre tells us that on January 12th, he was supposed to pick up “my cousins who I love very much, at the University.” He called to them that he couldn’t. They stayed late, and died when the building collapsed.
These cousins, “my best friends,” lived with him and were more like sisters—“one light skinned, one dark,” he smiles with the memory. “I feel so guilty. I want to go back to the time and save them, but it is not possible. I have concluded,” he lowers his voice here, “I do not want to be left behind.”
I recognize the self-annihilating weight of this guilt, have seen it burden young and old in Kosovo, Israel, Gaza, have heard how it torments the nights of soldiers and marines returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Would you,” I ask him, “be willing to meet your cousins in your imagination to talk with them and ask for their advice?”
“I have them always in my heart, but when I talk with them, it makes me cry.”
I tell him that he needs to cry—that releasing his emotions will open his throat, that perhaps his cousins have something to say to him that will help him with his guilt. He nods in agreement.
I ask him to close his eyes and breathe deeply with his belly soft, as we did in class. “Imagine that you are in a safe and comfortable place—a place where you feel good.” He does and I ask him to imagine that his cousins are there with him.
“Would you be willing,” I say, “to ask them for their advice?”
He nods his head.
After a while, his face softens and small tears appear at the outer edge of his eyes.
“Did they come?” I ask.
“What was it like? What did they say?”
“I was so happy to see them. They told me to keep living my life and that I was not responsible for their death.”
“Write it down,” I say to him, after he has opened his eyes “and look at it every day. “Keep living your life. You are not responsible.”
I notice that he is breathing more deeply and no longer clutching at his throat.
Making our way back to the classroom, I feel how urgent it is to train hundreds of people to do this tender, powerful, necessary work.
We’ve just returned from our visit to Haiti today. I look forward to taking a look at what you’ve got to say on this and other posts from Haiti soon.
We keep our sessions as simple and clear as we can: an introduction to fight-or-flight, stress, and trauma, answers to their questions, and three lessons.
Here they are:
1. Slow deep breathing with the belly soft. This, we explain, is the antidote to the flight or flight and stress response that the earthquake has inscribed in the kids’ minds and bodies. Soft belly will quiet their physiology, slow their racing thoughts, give them a little perspective on the flashbacks of dead bodies, the horror of loss and the ambush of fearful anticipation. Knowing—feeling—that they can breathe deeply and relax, they will have a small but important sense of control in world where so much—whether or not they can concentrate or sleep, where they live and how they will make a living—is, or feels, beyond their power to affect.
You can experience a relaxing guided Soft Belly meditation here, at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s website.
2. Later we do some shaking and dancing so they can let go of fixed patterns of physical tension and mental preoccupation; can feel their bodies moving freely; can raise their energy, lift their mood, and lower their anxiety. They clap and laugh and shout and afterwards, flop happily onto their hard seats.
3. We also explain the value of sharing here in the classroom, at home, or with a friend, the pain they feel and the fears and concerns that arise.
Many of the kids would like us to do more, to tell them where they can go to practice the techniques and talk to others. For now, I say, “you have each other and your families. We are giving you these techniques, written in French. Practice them at home and we will come back to your school. Soon we will be training many people, including some of your teachers, to do this with you.”
The story of how CMBM’s model helped Andre, a Haitian boy, overcome feelings of grief and guilt, coming soon . . .
The school is the College Canado Haitien, one of the best in Port-Au-Prince, we are told, before the earthquake and afterwards, too. The students, a few weeks after the school has reopened, are sharp in well-pressed maroon and khaki uniforms—the girls’ hair pulled through berets, the boys sideburns neatly trimmed, tout propre, I think.
Instead of the pre-earthquake concrete buildings, there are open sided wood and metal sheds. Sounds flow from one classroom to another, overlapping in a kind of reverberating clamor. Toward the end of one of our classes, when time of dancing is kept by nimble palms on desktops, the whole campus rocks.
Our equipe, our “team,” –the French is beginning to emerge from deep layers of my unconscious—includes six of us: Lee-Ann juggling logistics as before, with Cassidy, my assistant back home, here to help her and me; Amy, the social worker who is our clinical director, will come tomorrow. Today, Lynda and Kathy, psychologist and family physician, are with me. They are CMBM senior faculty who are adventurous enough to come and to commit to coming again and again. They and Amy will teach our Haitian colleagues and provide consulting and supervision as we build our program.
Today we have been invited by Frere Jacques Anthony Germeil, the principal, to College Canado Haitien. We will have an hour in each of four classrooms with eleventh and twelfth graders who have been told they will learn “lessons in dealing with stress.”
I lead the first class and the third, forty twelfth graders in each, sitting shoulder to shoulder at their desks. Lynda and Kathy, experienced with kids, but new to Haiti and to the trauma and loss that overwhelms the population, will lead the second and fourth classes.
We begin our classes lightly—a little goofily—“How do you breathe?”, I ask to general puzzlement, and then talk about babies doing it easily—naturally—their bellies rising and falling, while adults, and even high school students, cramped in chairs and on benches, barely move their chests. Laurent, my interpreter, and I act out the roles of cats in full fight or flight mode—hissing and growling at each other, and then stepping back to breathe easily. Lynda has her all-boys class—a surprise—consider Kobe Bryant, cool and relaxed, imagining his shots, inspiring the boys to imagine theirs swishing the net.
When we turn the topic to relaxation’s antipode, stress, the bravado of a few—“I’m fine, we’re all fine,” claims one boy; “it was simply a natural disaster” intones another—contends with the more complex memories of their classmates.
Soon, in each and every class, there is a rush of sharing of what happened on January 12th, of how surprise and relief yielded to horror. “I thought the shaking would be eternal. Then, it stopped, and I thought, ‘that’s not so bad, I am ok,’ and I laughed, then I saw my sister covered in dust like a ghost, and I was afraid. And then, underneath my neighbor’s house, there were twisted bodies.”
And the stories come—many, we learn, shared for the first time—and the classmates’ losses pile up: a mother gone, an older brother, “my best friend,” “almost my whole family,” We hear of bodies discovered under rubble and strewn on sidewalk, of dogs chewing on corpses.
When we ask if there are questions, a small forest of hands rises: “How do you go to sleep when these memories keep coming in nightmares?” “How can you breathe deeply to relax when the air is so bad?” “How do you deal with family members who now are arguing all the time?” “What do you do with your belief that another earthquake is coming, or as some say, ‘a tsunami’?”
More about the techniques we use to address these questions coming soon . . . .
Our last full day in Haiti brought us another unexpected and auspicious meeting. On our first visit to Haiti the month before, Rosemary and I had met with Dr. Claude Surena, an internist who is head of the Haitian Medical Association and principal advisor to the Ministry of Health. Dr. Surena was extremely enthusiastic about working with us. This time Dr. Surena was out of the country, and he suggested we meet with his colleague, Dr Jean Hugues Henrys.
The problem was that we could no more find Dr. Henrys — housed in temporary quarters and mostly out working in the clinics and hospitals — than we could Drs. Guiteau and Amedee-Gedeon. Lee-Ann called and called, and finally—“just one more time.” We reached him, and set an appointment for the last hour of our last day in Port-au-Prince.
It turned out Dr. Henrys, a genial host, was as happy to see us as we him, and was particularly eager for us to work with Ministry of Health employees. Their building had been destroyed, many of their colleagues were dead, and the ones who remained were carrying grief for lost friends as they dealt with the enormous needs of the population.
And then, as the meeting was winding down, another man entered the room. It turned out to be the Minister of Health, Dr. Alex Larsen. Dr. Henrys filled him in on our work and what we had been talking about and went on to make a suggestion. “It says in your proposal,” Dr. Henrys–a quick study– reminded us, “that you want to have a ‘Haitian leadership team.’ It is important that you work with the future leaders too, with medical students, and others concerned with the social sciences.”
“Yes,” I say, “we do that in the US. That would make me very happy.”
“Perhaps he has not told you,” Dr. Larsen interjected, smiling, “but Dr. Henrys is the Dean of our Medical School.”
Next post: the very successful workshop we offered to American Red Cross workers during our visit.
One of the sure but less obvious signs that our work is going well, and that it is meant to go well, is the increased incidence of synchronistic experiences– of happy, unexpected, unpredictable coincidences –that forward what we are doing.
These events don’t arise without effort; in fact, they often come only after we have worked very hard, and when the desired result — in this case, meetings with key figures in Haitian healthcare — seems altogether unattainable. We had two such unexpected happy events – meeting with four more remarkable people on the last two days of our visit.
On our fourth day, April 9th, I led a workshop for American Red Cross staff — it went very well, and I’ll tell you about it later. For some days prior to it, however, we had tried unsuccessfully—by phone and email—to reach the leadership of the Haitian Red Cross, an organization that is central not only to emergency recovery, but to providing long-term services and education to the Haitian population. Everyone wanted to help but nothing seemed to work. We encountered unanswered phones, voicemail messages that languished, outdated e-mail addresses. We did hear that the Red Cross leaders were busy developing and supervising projects all over Port-au-Prince so we thought we might be able to follow leaders and track them down.
As we drove from one destroyed neighborhood to another, I remembered these “personal searches” were what we’d done in Kosovo after the war when the land lines weren’t functioning and cell phones were rare. Finally, hot and seat-sore from riding over Port-au-Prince’s pothole-punctuated, rubble-strewn roads, we accepted what seemed inevitable: we would have to wait till next trip to meet the Haitian Red Cross leadership.
However, since it wasn’t yet dark, I—ever optimistic– thought we might pay a visit to the University of Miami Medishare hospital, where I had spent so much time on my first visit to Haiti. It turned out we couldn’t find that either.
“Maybe,” our driver opined, “someone at the Red Cross installation nearby”—he gestured to one we had not yet visited—“would know where it is.”
“Okay,” I thought as we arrived, “let’s ask about Medishare. But let’s also try just once more to see if anyone knows where we can find the Red Cross president, Dr. Michael Amedee-Gedeon and Dr. Jean-Pierre Guiteau, the Executive Officer.
When I mentioned their names, the guard looked uncomprehending. Still, I handed him my card. Ten minutes later he returned with instructions to bring us ahead. As we walked over the crushed stone toward a newly constructed building, a man as puzzled to see us as we would be surprised and delighted to see him, approached.
He was, it turned out, Dr. Guiteau, a long-time leader in public health with a particular expertise in and concern for Haiti’s children. Still a bit puzzled but exceedingly gracious, he invited us to the conference room and offered us coffee. Soon we were soon joined by Dr. Amedee-Gedeon, who made us feel as if we were not only most welcome but long expected. She said she specialized in nutrition, as well as public health. She had previously been, Dr. Guiteau told us, Haiti’s Health Minister.
I described our work, stumbling a little at first even in English, because I was still amazed that we were actually talking with them. When I finished, they asked a few questions about the length and scope of our training and the research we had done on our work with professionals and with traumatized kids. They told us how concerned they were about the stress their staff and volunteers were experiencing—“So many have lost family and friends themselves.” They appreciated that the skills that we had to teach could be helpful to these burdened men and women as well as to their many thousands of “beneficiaries.” They were particularly interested, given our experiences in Kosovo and Gaza, in how we might help the large number of amputees whom, they feared, “would never live up to their potential.”
Next post: Meet the Minister of Health Dr. Alex Larsen, and Dr. Jean-Hugues Henrys
Dr. Emmanuel Justima
I originally met Justima (it’s his last name; as he said, he likes to be called that to distinguish him from “other Emmanuels”) at a “psychosocial cluster” meeting to which Lee-Ann and I had been invited. Perhaps 30 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were present. All are working with “psychosocial” issues: the emotional challenges, psychological, and social needs of the close to 2 million people who have lost family members and/or been displaced by the earthquake.
Justima, tall, broad shouldered, slim, in black pants and a crisp checked shirt, entered the room halfway through the meeting and shook hands with the UN coordinators. He stood tall and at ease at the front. When his turn came, he spoke in a voice loud and clear enough that even I– aurally challenged, and still scrambling to recover my French–could understand. And just in case I or anyone else had missed his meticulous instructions on prompt program registration with the Haiti Ministry of Health, he repeated it in flawless English.
Afterwards, Justima began our hour-long private meeting by announcing that PNI (psychoneuroimmunology– the scientific foundation of mind-body medicine), was his “passion as well as [my] professional field of expertise.” For a moment I thought he was putting me on. Another Emmanuel (last name Streel), the psychologist who coordinates the NGO psychosocial programs, had just told me about his own interest in mind-body medicine. “Vraiment?” (“Really?”) I said to Justima in my best, quizzical French.
“Yes,” he replied. “And, of course, we have to teach people to help themselves. There are only 10 psychiatrists in all of Haiti, and not many more psychologists.”
It has long been clear to me, after work with many other traumatized populations, that self-care and mutual help are logical centerpieces of a population-wide mental health program. But how surprising, and how wonderful, that someone so central to the Haitian mental health plan not only welcomes our way of working, but is steeped in the science that supports it.
Justima sits across from me at a narrow table in a prefab corrugated metal UN building, flanked by internationals concerned with similar issues. He takes care of business carefully but briskly, reminding us again of registration requirements, offering to find the most competent translators to put our materials into French and Creole. He carefully repeats phrases I don’t understand.
Around his mouth and in Justima’s eyes, amidst striking efficiency and intelligence, I see the smile of a man who, with all the weight the world has put on him, still enjoys life. I look forward to working with him, and to spending more time with him.
I regret that we didn’t get any pics of Justima. More pics next installment, when we meet Drs. Guiteau & Amedee-Gedeon of the Haitian Red Cross . . .
Haiti is often criticized, even derided for its lack of leadership, or alternately or in addition, for the corruption and cruelty of its leaders. And there is, no question, a long legacy, during and after slavery, of oppression; and of political, social, economic, and spiritual hopes raised and devastatingly betrayed.
On the other hand — and there is definitely another hand — the Haitian people are blessed, at least within the fields I’m coming to know best (medicine, mental health, and public health) by a leadership group that is knowledgeable, thoughtful, and skillful, as deeply committed to the welfare of its people and as open-minded as any I’ve found anywhere in the world. These Haitian leaders seem at this crucial moment in history far less encumbered with the self-importance and pride that afflicts many national and, indeed, professional leaders I have known. Their commitment to the welfare of their people and their compassion trump received truths and narrow professional prerogatives.
Already you’ve met two of these remarkable people: Alix Lassegue, the physician who directs the University Hospital, and Marlaine Thompson, the nurse who works closely with him. Together, they embrace the flood of people who overwhelm the hospital. They shape the comprehensive services for the complex problems that their patients, overwhelmed by the earthquake as well as the ordinary calamities of Port-au-Prince daily life, bring to them. In the next few blog entries I’ll introduce you to several other of these remarkable men and women, the welcoming leaders and kind teachers with whom we hope to be working closely in the months and years ahead.
Monseigneur Pierre Andre DuMas
There are certain people, who upon entering a room, fill and light it up. Monseigneur Pierre Andre Dumas, bishop of the Diocese Anse-a-veau/Miragoane and president of the Catholic Church’s service arm, Caritas, and Dr. Emmanuel Justima, a psychologist who is a leader in shaping the Haitian national mental health plan (whom you’ll meet next installment) are two.
Pierre Andre DuMas is tall, supple, gray-haired, and dressed in gray vestments. Sitting with him I feel myself warmed by his abundant energy and his generous sweet nature. Though I have never met him before, I somehow feel that I know him. Like my old close friends, we simply share what is most important to us, find ourselves embellishing each others’ narratives, and quickly invite each other into our unfolding lives.
I tell Pierre Andre a little bit about our work and where we have done it, and he smiles with recognition. He invites me to present our way of healing trauma to Haiti’s religious leaders, “as soon as we can arrange it.” It is part of his job, he tells us, to bring together Protestants as well as Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Voudoun practitioners.
He tells us about the thousands who have returned from Port-au-Prince to his rural diocese and the dislocation and suffering they bring with them. On Good Friday, he hiked up a nearby mountain with 6000 people from his diocese. “We sat by a waterfall and breathed deeply, relaxed — Like your work, no? Some of us swam. All of us needed a catharsis.”
When I give him a copy of my book Unstuck, I assure him that he will enjoy it even though he’s not depressed. “I know that you know that I am not,” he says. “If you are still alive,” he adds, opening his hands, “you have to stand up and give hope.”
Next installment, meet Emmanuel Justima, a psychologist working on Haiti’s National Mental Health Plan
We talk in today’s workshop, do drawings, and talk more about what they’ve drawn. My French is emerging from the caves of my unconscious and I seem to be speaking comprehensibly, but I very much need Star to translate the kids’ replies and descriptions.
It takes the kids some time to do their drawings. Several had asked for pencils to outline what they will later crayon – this is a first in my experience — and Lee Ann fortunately found both pencils and a sharpener. But all of them are measured and methodical, controlling, it seems to me, the little in a dangerous and chaotic world that they can control. When I ask 13-year-old Remy why he is hesitant to begin, he tells me that he fears “it will not be good.” I show him my decidedly childlike effort. “This is not,” I assure him, “about being ‘good,’ just about drawing;” he laughs and starts to sketch.
I’ve told them to draw themselves, or friends, or something they like to do, or a house. The majority draw houses – several are many-colored and splendid; one is elegant, spare, as carefully ruled as a blueprint. Every child who has drawn a house tells me when we ask – Star now translating in Creole -that his or her house has been “kraze,” “destroyed;” when she follows up – “kraze completement?” – they nod solemnly. The drawn houses are memory and hope.
We ask thirteen year old Jime, the architect of the elegant house, where he is now staying. “Dans la rue,” he tells us. This is surprising. He is well groomed, tall and handsome and wears a blue button down shirt that is clean and has sharp creases in its arms. Katie Couric, who is interviewing me and the kids, asks him again, “Really? In the street?” “Oui,” Jime says as if his two month residence there were ordinary. I ask him, “How do you keep your shirt so neat?” “I iron it,” he says.
I’m back in Haiti, with Lee Ann, who manages our programs for population-wide psychological healing and Star who translated for us last time; Rosemary is in DC taking care of business. We are exploring partnerships, doing workshops for kids and caregivers. In Port-au-Prince there are no fewer people living in tents or on the streets, but more of them seem out and about, vertical even animated – selling and shopping, crowding toward tanks to fill bottles of drinking water (lots of small kids have been designated for this job) talking and moving with volume and even grace.
Last night and today we spend time at the University Hospital, where we are received with great courtesy by the Director Dr. Alix Lassegue and Marlaine Thompson, the nurse who acts as his deputy. Everyone there is working heroically, at and beyond maximum capacity: only 30% of the physicians have returned to work and 50% of the nurses: “Some, Dr. Lassegue says, have died, some have left the country, and some….” His voice trails off. Most of the work of the hospital, which is Haiti’s largest and most important, is still conducted in the tents which fill its grounds. This is slowly changing, Dr. Lassegue tells us, as engineers ensure, department by department, that the structure is safe; soon the emergency room will once again be indoors.
Today we do a mini-workshop for kids at the Hospital, gathering them from the tents where they have been staying, and from the line outside the pediatric out-patient department. A sweet shadow-thin teenage girl, Vania, has insulin dependent diabetes; Ruth a tiny six-year old girl and seven-year old Roberto have infections that resist all antibiotic assaults; Ruth’s mother walks beside her holding her IV bottle. Almost every child, we learn, has lost a family member or someone close to them.
To be continued tomorrow . . . .
I’ll be on NPR’s Talk of the Nation this coming week, either Monday or Tuesday, for a show tentatively titled