Gislene on a good day. She loves Ody.
Many of you have been following the story of Gislene, one of the precious Haitian women that works at Hope Center with us. She has been struggling with problems swallowing, and it prevents her from being able to eat and drink. She has had very little to eat or drink for over three months and has wasted away to about 60 pounds. Back in May she went to a doctor in Port au Prince that performed a painful scope on her and reported to have found what seemed to be a blockage behind her epiglottis. She was instructed to return for an endoscopy. From that point, after a series of several disappointing and pointless visits back to the General Hospital, I consulted a Haiti Medical Facebook group, and heard back from multiple people with very helpful advice. An email group was formed, and suddenly, there were no less than 5 professionals communicating on how to get help for Gislene. The next thing we knew, we were scheduled for an evaluation and CT scan at Hopital Universitaire de Mirebalais, one of the finest hospitals in Haiti, and the ball was finally rolling. We sent in Gislene’s personal information ahead of time so that a card could be made for her first thing that Monday morning, and she could be rushed through without much delay.
Early morning drive to Mirebalais…Just beyond the mountains ahead.
When we arrived at Mirebalais at 7:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, which is no small feat since it is two mountain ranges away from Galette Chambon. Our driver, Meresse, got us there safely, parked, and Odlin and I helped Gislene out of the truck. We had no idea where to go at first, so I went to the email group and found the thread of emails from Marc Julmisse, MPH, BSN, RN, Chief Nursing Officer at Hopital Universitaire de Mirebalais.
Side view of the hospital. Partners in Health built this hospital under the leadership of Dr. Paul Farmer several years ago.
After a couple of immediate replies, I knew just where to go to wait for the next step. As we waited in the already congested waiting room, I took in the faces of many, many Haitians, going through the motions preparing for a long day of waiting. Imagine my surprise when this tiny, young lady approached me and said, “Are you Mickie West?” After I nodded with a giant smile because someone there knew my name, she said, “Hi! I’m Marc Julmisse. Is this Gislene? Let me get her a wheelchair and take you where you need to go.” I thanked her and, quick as a wink, off she went to get the chair. She quickly returned, and it was obvious that Marc needed to push because it was going to be hard for me to keep up with her and push the chair too. As I followed, weaving in and out of stares, I praised God for answered prayer and finally…some PROGRESS!!
Marc Julimesse pushing Gislene through the hospital in a wheelchair
Within minutes we were seeing a doctor…an American doctor who spoke English and Creole. It was all I could do to keep from falling on my knees and praising the Lord right there in the exam room. I decided to remain professional. I sat down in the rolling chair, took a deep breath, spun around once, looked him straight in the face, and said, “I thank the Lord God Almighty that we are sitting in this room with you right now. To be honest, I wanna do a happy dance” He just laughed and said, “So you’re from the South? I went to Tulane University and did a rotation of my residency in a little town in Mississippi.” Oh my goodness! God is good! As I explained where we were from and where our mission is, he became completely focused on Gislene. He was kind and gentle with her, looked directly at her face and not down on her, and discussed in Creole what her symptoms were. After a few minutes, we were rolling to CT to have a scan done of her neck and stomach. He would look it over and we were to return on Thursday for an endoscopy. Wow. We had already accomplished more in a couple of hours than had been accomplished in four trips to General Hospital in Port au Prince. The long wait for the scan was typical Haiti medicine, but it wasn’t so bad. We were still swimming in the wave of shock from everything else that had just happened. The only downer, and it was indeed a downer, was that Dr. Ward said that he suspected it might be esophageal cancer. We would just have to wait and see….and pray.
And pray we did! As soon as the update post went out on Facebook, hundreds of people from all of the US as well as Haiti began to inquire about Gislene. My inbox was packed, email flooded, and the comments and likes to the post about her were countless. There’s no doubt Gislene was being covered and lifted in much prayer.
The day of the endoscopy was very long, and most of it was spent in piercing heat. Gislene was extremely weak. She lay on the back seat of the truck and occasionally moaned the words of a song. When they finally called her in for the endoscopy, I literally had to carry her in my arms from the truck all the way to the back of the operation room holding area because they were suddenly in a hurry. They handed us a hospital gown and directed us to the restrooms to change. She was determined to walk beside me, so we clambered along. As I helped her change, I had to fight to contain my tears. I unbuttoned her blouse, and for the first time, saw the frail body that had been hidden beneath her clothes. There was nothing there. There was dark, chocolate skin draped over feeble, knotted bones like velvet curtains over a winged back chair. My heart ached. She avoided my eyes, and I kissed her cheek. It was time.
Gislene having vitals taken before undergoing the endoscopy
Two, three, maybe four hours past. I really have no idea how long it was. In Haiti, sometimes you get caught up in the drone of time like a drop of sap that oozes out of a tree and moves down the trunk at a pace that cannot be measured. Odlin and I were sitting in the outdoor waiting room waiting. We had begun to doze off after being entertained by the familiar wails of a woman in labor, the infantile cry of a goat scavenging on a nearby littered hillside, and the monotonous whirr of the ceiling fans stirring the thick air above us. We almost didn’t check up when the familiar blue scrubs made their way to the decorative, metal wall that enclosed the area. Dr. Ward’s first words were, “No cancer” and a smile covered his face and made his eyes squint together. “Wait, what? No cancer?” I had to hear it again. He confirmed, gave me a prescription for an acid reflux medicine, and discussed the next plan of action. Gislene had no signs of cancer in her throat or down her esophagus, but she would need to continue to take her medicine and find things she could eat. As we made our way back down, up, and down the mountain again, I prayed to God to just help her eat. I knew countless others were praying too. “Lord just help her eat.” We arrived back at Hope Center, and Meresse took Gislene back to her house to rest from what had to be another exhausting day for her.
A few weeks passed, and the next team was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to go see Gislene at her house. We had tried to go that Monday and the day got complicated, so we put it off to Wednesday. By 4:00 Wednesday afternoon, Tony and I were stuck in traffic trying to get back from a trip to Port au Prince, so we told the team to just load up in the ambulance, since the bus was broken down…again. They made arrangements to go back into the village to see her in the ambulance. My fingers tremble like a drum roll as I prepare to type the next paragraph.
When the team arrived at Gislene’s house, there was a neighbor there visiting her, and he was singing hymns to her. Others were gathered around her praying. The team took their places around her tiny body stretched out on the cool, concrete floor and all of them began to worship with her. As the neighbor’s voice rose, a musical offering floated through the air, and Gislene’s hand lifted with the cords in praise as the Sprit of the Lord filled the room.
After what must have been quite an overwhelming time of worship, the team busied themselves trying to see if Gislene could drink one of the cans of Ensure they had brought. She told them she had actually been able to eat a little lately, and she drank down almost every bit of the can of Ensure. Of course, the process was slow, deliberate, and interrupted by occasional pauses of indigestion, but she drank. The team prayed with her one more time, then piled back into the ambulance to head back to Hope Center. We all arrived back at Hope Center at about the same time. After hearing the fantastic news that Gislene was starting to be able to eat and drink again, Tony has decided to continue giving her Ensure and treating her for H.Pylori. He was afraid that a battery of tests would be too hard on her frail body. If she is able to eat, then we would continue to nourish her with calories.
Many people continued to pray for Gislene’s complete healing. We rejoiced in the progress we had seen thus far in the simple miracle of being able to eat and drink. We felt confident Gislene was headed in the right direction and would continue to improve in the days ahead.
As the end of July approached, it was time for our family to return to the states to get Jacob ready for school. We checked on Gislene one more time, and headed off to the airport. We were gone for about three weeks and assumed that Gislene’s progress and recovery would continue. When we returned mid-August, we found that our hopes were dashed. Tony went to Gislene’s house to let her know he was back and found, yet again, a frail, weathered shell of a woman, barely able to speak. He asked her if she was still able to eat, and she slowly moved her head to say no. He asked her if she still had medicine, and she pointed to the bag of medicine that our Haitian doctor had given her in our clinic. She then struggled to explain that she had been waiting for Tony to tell her how she was to take it. Gislene had a two-month supply of medicine sitting on her bedside table and had not taken one pill since we left. Her throat was once again raw with pain and she had not eaten in at least two weeks. Her already thin body had become deathly feeble. Her skin, no longer velvet, had a dry, ashy look that more resembled dark, wrinkled tissue paper. Tony picked her up, put her in the truck, and rushed her back to Hope Center to start an IV and put her in a dorm for constant observation. We wouldn’t have a team here for two weeks, so that would give us time to focus on trying to get her to a place where she could eat again. Every day was a guessing game. I tried giving her jello, grits, apple sauce, oatmeal, Ensure, and Raimen noodles. Nothing worked. She refused each thing with a wave of her hand and a fragile, “Mwen pa kapob” which means “I can’t.” She asked me if I had juice, so I fixed her a cup of room temp water with a hint of peach tea flavor in it. She took that and liked it. An hour later, she had finished the drink. I sat and prayed with her. The silence was a heavy stone on our hearts as we both struggled to resist the temptation of despair. I felt my chest cave under pressure and push tears out without sound. They rolled down my cheeks and dropped to rest on her dark hand resting in mine. She barely opened her eyes and gazed up at me then closed them again.
As the days passed, she began to regain strength, but her eating was still a struggle. The next team was arriving on Saturday, so we would have to take her back home to continue recovering. We talked with her family about the importance of finding things that she could eat or drink without burning her throat. They promised to take good care of her and let us know if her condition worsened.
Team on their way to Gislene’s
After arriving at Hope Center, the next team was eager to see Gislene, so we made the trek deep into the land of mango trees to find her house. Children were playing with sticks in the dusty earth near her house, and the curtain hanging in her doorway was flapping in the mountain breeze. She was laying on a mat on the floor as her father sat on a small, wooden chair near her mat with no emotion on his face, but heavy concern in his eyes. We visited with Gislene, and she actually sat up for photos with us. She seemed to feel better, but she was still very thin. The urgency to pray rushed through our veins, and we prayed with her, crying out to God for His intervention. I couldn’t help but notice the old, rusted bullhorn sitting silently on her table. She had bought that horn months ago with plans to walk through her village proclaiming the way of the Lord to her friends and family. To share the love of Christ has always been her heart’s desire. The bullhorn sits silent. Its silence makes my heart hurt.
For the last two weeks, we have made frequent trips out to Gislene’s. Two teams have now ducked through her doorway, passing through the flapping, pink curtain, feeling the heaviness of sickness creep over us like a vapor encasing every inch of the room. Yesterday, as we approached her house, we could hear many voices crying out to God in prayer as others sang hymns of praise inside the small space. Gislene’s frail fingers rise from the edge of the bed in an attempt to praise with them. The room is full with friends and family, Haitian and American, all searching for words but finding none. We choose to simply listen to the words of song floating through the air. We don’t understand most of the words sung, but we do recognize the spirit of the Lord there, and it is good.
We really don’t know what else to do at this point besides pray. We ask God for guidance in every step with Gislene, and right now He says to pray and let her friends and family minister to her. Something tells me it won’t be long before the Lord calls her home. My struggle is between the desire to fight for her life against the peace of knowing that she is growing closer to a reunion with her Father. My mind becomes desperate with the knowledge that she is only two years younger than me, and I know that there must be a medical response to her illness. At the same time, I sense that she has come to accept her condition and desires to approach her destination with dignity and peace. It’s hard to understand this sometimes. Tony understands because he was once a hospice nurse. I am afraid that some people see our current position as “giving up” on her. However, I know that our God knows where we are. He speaks to our hearts with love and He can heal her or take her at any moment. I do not know what His plan is besides to love Gislene. He knows His plan for her life better than we do. We trust Him with every moment, and we pray that He will be glorified in our lives as well as Gislene’s. He already has been glorified in her life and continues to be. The love in that house of hers is enormous. It echoes through the silent bullhorn on her table.