Everything started out as planned: We arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and our trustee driver Aristace was there to pick us up—with his usual wide grin.
Since the Community Builders house in McDonald was damaged by the recent Hurricane Matthew, we (myself, the president of Community Builders and my good friend Julie Roberts, and her two 9-year-old children) booked a resort 20 minutes away. This resort wasn’t open the first time I was in Haiti three-and-a-half years ago, so it was hopeful to see that economic progress is happening to a certain degree, albeit very slowly.
As spoiled as we felt having air conditioning in our rooms, somewhat reliable internet, and endless authentic Haitian food at our fingertips in a country that has so little, we justified it by knowing tourism will help stimulate the Haitian economy.
We woke up the next morning and went for a tour of the town of McDonald to meet all the recipients who would be receiving funding to start a business—a micro-credit, pay-it-forward loan. Our friend Gabriel Nixon, the principal of the school and our Haitian connection to McDonald, also gave us updates on all the micro-credit loans we funded the last time we were in Haiti in May.
We met Mme. Gesse, a mother of 7 children, who is planning on using the micro-credit loan to start a second-hand clothing business. Then we walked to Mme. Jeannine's small concrete home, a widow with 8 children and 4 grandchildren, who all live in the same one-bedroom home. She already runs a little store, so the loan she is receiving will help her continue to build her small business selling things like charcoal, wood and soap. We walked another 800-meters or so and stopped at Mme. Carol Fortune's home, a mother of 6 children. Her plan is to begin a homemade bread business, which she hopes to sell in the nearby public market. Finally, we met Mme Loucila, a woman Nixon called "very good in business." She intends to begin a business selling umbrellas, to protect people from the powerful Haitian sun. (Each of the latter four women have now received US$200 to kick start their business). I took pictures with each of them to show all the generous donors—people who gave money to my GoFundMe campaign—exactly who received money, and how it would be used.
My personal highlight of the morning was when Tifi—the single mother of 4 children that I sponsored to start a mango business the last time I was in McDonald—ran up to me and gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, an oddly emotional gesture from a Haitian (in my limited experience). I couldn't help but tear up.
The last time I saw Tifi, she looked so frail and unhealthy. This time, she was full of life. I brought some gifts for her children—school supplies, a basketball, and a ton of clothing donated by many people at my CrossFit gym (thank you)—and she looked so incredibly thankful. In that moment, I felt so inspired. Inspired by how donating just a little bit of money can provide people with such a life changing opportunity to empower themselves to build something to be proud of. My heart was warm.
Me, Tifi and her youngest child
Our last stop was the local school on top of the big hill in McDonald to see the solar panels they recently put on the roof to electrify the school.
As we were leaving, we hopped into our Pathfinder, which had allegedly just received four new wheels and had been inspected by a mechanic in Haiti. Julie got it started, and we rolled back a bit. A look of fear came over her face. Then we rolled a bit more. She broke hard, and then pulled the emergency break. We slowed momentarily, but then continued to roll and began to pick up speed. She tried to turn the wheel. No dice; it had locked up.
“No, no, no…NO,” she cried, each NO a little louder and more concerned than the last.
I looked behind me and saw that if we continued to roll backwards, we would eventually get to the edge of the cliff, where we would drop about 100 feet onto the row of houses below.
Seeing a realistic death 400-meters away, fight or flight took over my body. I don’t even remember doing it, but I opened the car door and jumped out.
Apparently we need to add long jump to the list of CrossFit skills because as I jumped, I somehow managed to get my foot run over by the front wheel of the car before tumbling to the ground.
Suddenly, I was standing up.
I don’t remember standing up, but I do remember that I was standing on one foot when I watched the Pathfinder with my very good friend and her two children pick up speed as they barrelled backwards down the hill toward the cliff.
Some thoughts that I remember running through my head in that moment:
“Oh my God, Julie’s going to die. How is this happening?”
“I must be dreaming. Wake up, wake up, wake up!”
“Why did I abandon them? I’m going to survive and they’re not. How could I bail like that?”
“Fuck, my foot hurts. Why are you worried about your foot, Emily? Julie’s in that car with her two kids!!”
"They have to be going 60-km an hour. This can't be happening."
And I remember hopping around on one foot horrified as I watched them slam into a giant rock, which sent their vehicle flying through the air before smashing into a brick house. The house crumbled upon impact.
Though I was relieved the car had finally stopped, and that it hadn’t gone over the cliff, the impact with which they hit had me fearing they hadn’t survived.
Nixon, who had also jumped from the vehicle just after I did (but conquered the long jump and had nothing more than road rash and bruises), ran down to the collision site. Knowing I was injured, he soon raced back up to me and told me the happiest words I think I have ever heard:
“Everyone is OK. Everyone is OK.”
“They’re OK? Are you sure?” I asked, not sure whether I believed him or not.
“Yes, they are OK.”
(In reality, the children are physically doing well, but quite traumatized, while Julie has significant whiplash, a neck injury, and soft tissue bruising etc…, but for the most part, they are doing well).
Then I saw little Shanan hop out of the car appearing unharmed, and relief overtook my body.
Julie and her kids moments before we went to McDonald
Relief was soon replaced by a surge of pain. I looked down at my foot, which was now throbbing. Much of the skin had come off the top of it. It was bleeding quite heavily, as was my chin, and I knew I just needed to get my foot covered with some pressure. The word infection started to travel through my mind.
Twenty meters away, I saw a clothesline with drying clothes. I hopped over, and yanked a towel from the line and covered my foot.
Suddenly a small, wiry Haitian man picked me up and carried me down the hill. I kept saying, “I’m too heavy. It’s OK. I’m too big for you to carry,” but he didn’t listen (most likely because he didn't speak a word of English). He was breathing heavily, and I worried his small legs would buckle beneath him, but he persevered and carried me a good 300-meters to the bottom of the hill without stopping once.
The journey home to Vancouver to receive medical attention took exactly 40 hours from that moment
As you would imagine, healthcare in Haiti is slim to none. For the life of us, we couldn’t get our hands on even a bottle of Polysporin (luckily Julie is a paramedic and had a first aid kit with a bottle of iodine, some gauze pads and tensors, and a bit of antiseptic cream).
For the record, I’m in no way blaming Haiti for their lack of medical services or basic medical supplies. When you travel to a developing nation, you’re choosing to go, and you’re choosing to put your life in your own hands to a certain degree.
It does, howerver, make me even more thankful for what we have in Canada. And even more certain the answer in Haiti is education and economic stimulation via empowering Haitians to build their own economy. Tourism will also be helpful.
Back in Canada, while things were certainly not perfect, they certainly took care of me at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH)—doctors and nurses monitoring me for 36 hours, and giving me IV antibiotics, X-rays, blood tests, a tetanus shot, morphine, antibiotic-soaked bandages, etc, and plenty of follow-up visits and wound care to come. I found out today there's a decent chance I will need a skin graft on one of the wounds, and as much as I was hoping I would heal without surgery, I am confident our system will take care of me and nurse me back to a full recovery. And I will forever be thankful for the American doctor I met on my flight from Port-au-Prince to Miami, who gave me antibiotics and calmed down my growing anxiety as I watched my foot swell more with each passing hour.
(The biggest North American frustration was my travel medical insurance company, who said that because I had already been to a “hospital” in Haiti (should it be considered hospital if there’s no Polysporin, let alone any other kind of useful services?) that they would only cover $1,000 if I went to the hospital in Miami. This is why I made it all the way back to VGH). Don’t get me started on my anger toward insurance companies).
Back to Haiti and the generous donors:
I took detailed notes about all the families we met on Day 1 in McDonald, and Gabriel is going to send us a list of the other families receiving sponsorship in Cannot (a small village 20 minutes from McDonald) and never got the chance to meet on this trip.
My phone was lost in the accident—it flew out of the car with me and nobody was able to find it—so the pictures I took of the four families from McDonald were also lost. Julie took a bunch, so there will be some coming, and Gabriel promises to retrace our steps and snap some shots of the happy and hopeful recipients that we did get the chance to meet.
It was obviously not the trip we had envisioned, and I’m sad I won’t be able to tell all the great stories I was hoping to for the sake of all those who donated money to the cause, but I'm so relieved to be back in Canada with Julie and her two children. So thankful we live in such an amazing country, yet continue to be heartbroken knowing that if what happened to me happened to a Haitian, her story would very different.