Monday, June 6, 2011

Attention! Looking at Cholera in Haiti with photojournalist Martha Rial

We are seeing an upsurge in cholera patients at HAS Haiti. Today there were fifty new cases, which is back to the peak levels of the November 2010 outbreak.

The following is a guest entry by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Martha Rial, who journeyed to Haiti earlier this year to document the effects of the cholera outbreak on HAS and the people of the Artibonite Valley region. Her audio slideshow brings both her words, and the problem of cholera in Haiti to life.

I was not sure what I was going to find when I arrived at the cholera unit at Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Haiti (HAS) in January. It was Sunday morning in Deschapelles and I could hear voices singing praise in the distance. My assignment was to tell the story of cholera’s impact. Within seconds a young man arrived carrying an elderly man in his arms. As the nurse struggled to find a vein on his bony arm, my 16-year-old translator, Stephanie, murmured “Kolera. He may not make it.” His eyes were vacant. It was as if he was already gone.

This was a typical morning at the HAS cholera unit. Although dry season had settled in the valley, patients with diarrhea continued to arrive from all over including the nearby mountains. Paul, the elderly man who had just arrived, was lucky. He lived in the nearby village of Bellanger and had the means to get to the hospital quickly. Cholera victims can die within hours of contracting the disease because they lose body fluids so quickly. HAS staffers are especially concerned about villagers living in the mountains. They have the least access to clean water and sanitation and the journey to the hospital can take hours.

Several hours later, I walked over to Paul’s cot debating whether or not to take more photographs of him. Although I have been a photojournalist for many years, I still worry at times if my presence is intrusive. My concern quickly dissolved when he opened his eyes and smiled. Amazing. His recovery had begun. When I told Stephanie about my surprise, her eyes sparkled with pride and she replied, “That’s what we do here.”

The children’s cholera unit was also a busy place. There was one little boy that had Stephanie especially worried. He was alone and not getting any better. Where was his mother? Family members play a big role in a patient’s recovery at HAS. They are responsible for feeding, bathing and doing the patient’s laundry. Later we found out that his mother had cholera too. This scenario has become too common in the Artibonite Valley.

On my last day in Deschapelles, Stephanie and I traveled to Bellanger to visit Paul. After five days, he had recovered enough to be released. After we were dropped off along the main highway, we followed a dusty road past bean fields into his village. Stephanie knew the area well because she had spent time there as a child. We found Paul sitting in front of his home taking a break from sweeping the yard with a broom made from palm fronds. His daughter Idele fussed over him and children seemed to suddenly appear from everywhere to watch the blanc (white) photographer in action. One of my favorite things about collaborating with HAS is visiting former patients at home. I believe the best way to understand the hospital’s role in the region is to explore the countryside and talk to people. In Haiti, the art of conversation is very much alive.

People always ask me why I keep returning to Haiti to photograph. Why not go someplace new? It is a fair question, but not easy to answer quickly. There are so many reasons I am drawn to this spiritual and complicated land. It is the Haitian people who have made my visits so memorable. People like Paul continue to inspire me with their perseverance and joie de vivre despite the many hardships they face on a daily basis. I can’t wait to go back!

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