Treating COVID 19 in Haiti

Dear family and friends,

I was as frozen as a deer in a headlight when she called me a killer. She screamed it repeatedly at me with all her might, her neck veins and eyes bulging and deforming her face. She spit at me and missed, and spit again, right in Raphael’s face.

I thought to myself, this doesn’t feel anything like Easter.  

Her 18-year-old sister, Sonja, had just died in our COVID 19 wing at the St. Luke Hospital. I had just finished my nightly visits with the patients there. 

We are dealing with some very powerful forces these days:

  • the deadly nature of this new, unknown and changing virus
  • the severe, panic-generated “psychosis” the illness is causing at all levels
  • the explosive encounter between evidence based medicine and traditional beliefs in the spirit world
  • the fierce distrust of the government, of news media, of the Health Ministry
  • and the serious detriments caused by politicizing the Coronavirus tragedy over and over again

Given all of the above, I totally understood this woman’s rage.

She, her sister, her family, were victims of the limits of what we could do medically for Sonja because of tight isolation restrictions, and at the same time, the family was not allowed to break the quarantine, and seek a mystical cure for Sonja’s illness, which they desperately wanted to do.

She was very sick with what is called comorbid (sick with more than one illness).

Now Sonja was dead. 

Worse still, her COVID test came back negative, after a delay of four days between test request and result, finally arriving five hours after her death. The timing felt like hell, mocking us and jeering at us. It was a fist full of salt being thrown into all our open wounds.

The hatred rolled over me in painful waves.

I understood immediately that the only possible response was silence, which would not give the hatred any chance to multiply or spread, by engaging in arguments, self defenses or excuses.

The Risen Jesus first word, whenever he appears to his disciples, is always “peace.” What a beautiful wish, and what a heavy burden must be born to achieve it.

The human refusal of the burden (of the work) of peace, is what makes peace so elusive.

I thought of the Reverend portrayed in Elizabeth Goudge’s novel called The Dean’s Watch. 

She describes his way of dealing with evil as staring it down, and absorbing it in unflinching gaze of meditation, until all the evil is totally knocked out, and tightly fastens itself upon him. He becomes the sponge to absorb it.

(Jesus warned that expelled evil energy jumps into the closest clueless bystander, unless there is a spiritual showdown waged by those fully prepared to wage it.)

Having absorbed the venom which is the very life of evil, the Reverend offers the carcass of evil to God, and by grace, he becomes freed and healed, and a closer friend of God (a saint).

We seem estranged from Easter. Certainly, for none of our COVID patients, does this feel like Easter.

Dormond is 20-years-old and is ghastly sick, He is confirmed positive for the dread virus. He knows this, but he is convinced he is possessed by the zombi of someone who died of the virus. (This is his own description.)

He is really personable. You can’t help but like what is left of him. 
You can’t help but want to help, and cheer him on.

Whenever anyone approaches, even thought it smothers him to do so, he scrambles for his mask so that WE won’t get his illness.

His lungs on XRAY are nearly whited out, he has full body swelling (anasarca). He is seeing devils and menacing spirits approach him to take his life, and he begs me to chase them off.

So, among the other ways that we are taking the best possible critical care for Dormond (as our setting allows), I raise my arms and invoke the power of God, the angels and saints, as I chase away creatures invisible to me yet all too real to him, with the sign of the cross.

“May the precious blood of Jesus stand between you and all harm!”

My role to to try to tip the balance in his favor, in any way I can. (From the Catholic Creed. “I believe in all things visible and invisible.”)

It also doesn’t feel like Easter for Claire. Her “house” in Cite Soleil was burned recently in the gang wars. She is a skin and bones fugitive with her four children. The oldest is 13. He is sitting right now, faithfully, in front of the St Luke Hospital as isolation will allow. Whenever we offer the skeletal Claire something to eat, she insists on sending the food first to her son, and she will eat what is left. 

I just fried them some chicken, and gave her son a heavy bathrobe to keep him warm tonight, and some cardboard to sleep on (it’s all we have).

And so it is, for many people around the world, that Easter and Life don’t match.

It happens often enough in life that the two kinds of time that mark our lives, chronos and kairos, don’t line up.

Chronos is the ticking of the clock and the turning of the calendar page, as the earth revolves around the sun, and around itself, and as the moon revolves around the earth.

These three spins and two lights (one real and one borrowed) give birth to chronos.

Kairos is God’s time. It is about ripeness, and recognizing the decisive moments that require decisive action that shape destiny. Salvation or destruction. 

Kairos is about “getting it” when you never thought you would, and “getting it” at the very moment you most need to “get it”, and being surprised at that WHAT you need to do becomes crystal clear WHEN you most need to do it.

The alignment of chronos and kairos is how the mysterious and the monumental become present within a few ticks of the clock, or a few spins of the earth.

Pope Francis gave some meditations on how painful is the celebration of Easter this year.

He said that maybe for the first time since apostolic times, we Christians are in a condition to fully understand the mystery of Holy Saturday: The earthy Jesus is dead. The glorified Jesus is not manifest, believers are sad, confused, afraid and don’t know where to turn or what happens next.

He goes on to say that the treasure of Easter is the hope born in the face of seeming emptiness. The hope of Easter, for better times and better life, is a treasure.

In the daily mass readings for Easter season, there is a pattern that is very precise and instructive. No one to who Jesus appears, even the closest, knows who he is.

They are afraid, then attracted, then converse with him (prayer), they ask him to stay with them, and then he does something, like share a fish or a piece of bread, and they recognize him.

Old eyes of habit will never see him. New eyes will. And yet it seems the new vision starts with a strange kind of heartburn:

“Weren’t our hearts burning within us, while he spoke to us along the way, and explained the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Times are tough. Tougher than many have ever known. 

Faith is a gift. Hope is a gift. They are gifts for us. They are gifts for our time.

My heart burns within me when I see how Dormond fights to live.

My heart burns within me when he smothers himself with a mask to save me from his illness.

My heart burns within me, when Claire sends the food I just bought for her, to her son to eat first.

There are no end to the things I see that give me this kind of heartburn. I hope you are as lucky.

I know you know the feeling. From nature, from music, from art, from holy books, from human greatness (which is often anonymous).

I wish you a blessed Easter, and the grace of these holy days.

I offer my condolences for the sufferings of the present, in your part of the work, under your very roof.

I wish for you courage and peace.

And I thank you, as always, for your generous help as we continue our work, in season and out.

Fr. Richard Frechette CP, DO