Have you heard the starfish story? I won’t tell it again here, but you can read up on it all around the world and the web. Here’s a link.
I live that story. I live it so hard that I have a starfish tattooed on my arm so that I never forget it. My arm has been strong and sure and it’s thrown almost every little starfish I’ve picked up back to safety, either with his first family or a new one.
Today, our efforts fell short.
If you are a sensitive person, you might want to stop reading here. I sure wish I could stop writing here. I wish I knew less about failure, and who pays for our failures.
Tonight I watched a child die. From six feet away, I watched his soul leave his body while a frenzy of people coaxed and begged it to remain. Do you know what a dead child looks like? Small. Very small, and empty.
After our IBESR meeting, we all turned our phones back on. Immediately Margarette got a call from Franck that one of our toddlers was in the hospital. I had seen K. the day before, and knew that he was sick. He had some sort of intestinal virus. Just to be cautious, Margarette had taken him to the doctor and our nurse had him on IV fluids. We weren’t worried about him. He looked uncomfortable, but still alert and ready to get out of his crib.
The crèches I work with all have a ‘safe rather than sorry’ policy about medical care. If the staff think a child is sick, they are to go to the doctor or the hospital first and check with someone about it later. Far better an unnecessary bill than a really sick kiddo.
We stopped by the guesthouse to let Marg off, and I decided to come with Margarette to the hospital mostly out of curiosity. I had not been to the General Hospital before. It’s about five minutes walk from BRESMA, but we so rarely have children admitted (because of all of the preventative care we do) that I hadn’t visited.
I remember that we were still talking about the IBESR meeting in the car, focused on the business of the day as we made what we thought was going to be a routine check in on a child having his IV line reinserted. We were so wrong.
Our first clue as to the seriousness of the situation was Wislande, a very young nanny who has been working at BRESMA since before the earthquake. It was Wislande who carried the little boy to the hospital in her arms. She is a very empathetic, loving young woman who adores the children she cares for. Wislande is beside herself. I’ve never seen her like this before. I feel an itchy tingle of fear, but she is young and emotional.
In the hospital room, K. looks tinier than ever in the stark white bed. A doctor is instructing a nurse who seems to be having a terrible time getting an IV needle into him. I’m not surprised. K. came to us severely malnourished – emaciated with dry, fine red hair. There’s so little of him there, even after months of nutrition. Starvation takes a long time to reverse.
The nurse is endlessly patient, trying his arms and even his legs to find a vein. K. calls out, and Wislande moves into his field of vision to soothe and comfort him. The hospital staff chatter in the background, relaxed. Just another day at work. Finally, the nurse finds a vein and hooks in the IV. All is peaceful. For about three minutes.
The hospital room blurs into action and my brain freezes up. I can’t digest the rapid fire Kreyol whirling around me, but I do know what chest compressions and an oxygen mask look like. Margarette and I look at each other. She looks like a deer in the headlights - eyes huge and panicked. I imagine I look just the same. This cannot be happening. K. was doing just fine less than thirty hours ago!
Wislande rushes out of the room in tears. I am still paralyzed. I watch, stunned as the doctor and a whole team of nurses labor feverishly over a child that weighs less than thirty pounds, with legs like a fragile cricket and the soul of a human being in his fragile and failing body. And then it’s gone. Just like that. The staff keep trying, but I can tell by looking at their faces that they know he’s gone. His little heart, no doubt just as wasted from his early starvation as his tiny arms and legs, simply gave out.
Six children have died in BRESMA’s care over the past ten years. Dixie Bickel at God’s Littlest Angels has lost many, many more as she uses her in-house NICU to battle death for the frailest of the frail. You’d think that living in Haiti, surrounded by so much death and human misery, these women would have grown shells around their hearts. But they have not.
Margarette is beside herself, crying hysterically in a chair in the hallway when at last I am able to move and stumble from the now silent hospital room. K.’s body is so tiny without him in it anymore. I still feel complete disbelief. This couldn’t have happened. Not really. Could it? He was just fine yesterday. We were talking about taking him off the IV because he wanted to get up and play with the other children. Can we rewind time, go back to yesterday, change something so that today never comes?
Of course not. What’s done is done. We have failed this tiny boy in the most unforgivable way possible. We have failed to save his very life.
Margarette and I each have a family to contact to let them know that they have lost a son.
It should never have happened. No child should die of starvation on a planet of such bounty and excess. I know that it happens every day in Haiti, but today, it happened to K. God rest your sweet soul, baby boy.