From earthquake, a series of miracles

Two girls walk through the Caracol-EKAM housing development built by U.S. Agency for International Development.
Two girls walk through the Caracol-EKAM housing development built by U.S. Agency for International Development. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

In Haitian Creole, the word miwak — similar to the word “miracle” — is used to explain an event so extraordinary that, fortuitous or disastrous, it can only be explained as an act of God. In this way of thinking, good must be found in the earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010. This explains why there was singing and praying not only in the rubble-strewn streets of Port-au-Prince soon after the quake, but also in the field hospital established by faculty of the University Of Miami Miller School of Medicine inside the U.N. compound the next day.

Of course, to call it a field hospital in the days immediately after the quake was an extreme euphemism —tables served as operating rooms, surgery was performed with flashlights, instruments needed to be flown in from Miami and morphine did not arrive until Day 3.

What followed over the next few months were a sequence of miwaks, some good, others awful but all improbable. Five years later, I’m still exhilarated by the good we accomplished after the earthquake and haunted by the horrors it created. I am not going to dwell on the calamities, although they were legion, and more likely to be acts of men and not of God — the mass burials in Titanyen; the order to shoot “looters” (They weren’t looters — they were survivors scavenging for food and water); or the incompetence of so many agencies that tried to respond from the “top down,” rather than engaging the people they were trying to help.

Better today that we look at the miwaks that give Haitians hope.

On a grand scale, the response of South Floridians was nothing short of miraculous. Often maligned for their fractiousness and materialism, rich, poor and everyone in between gave what they could, from private airplanes to volunteers to donations large and small. There was even a story of a homeless man who donated $10 to earthquake relief at Notre Dame D’Ayiti church. “The Haitians here are always kind to me” he is reported to have said.

Equally miraculous was the patience and endurance of the Haitian people. Riots were predicted. There were no riots. Looting was predicted. There was no looting. Instead, they worked day and night clawing with their bare hands through the debris to find their families, neighbors and total strangers. Not only did they endure months, if not years in tents and encampments, they organized themselves in these camps for governance, sanitation, food, water and education.

On a human scale, there were more than 3,000 miracles performed at our field hospital alone, and we were only one of many agencies engaged in relief efforts.

None, however, were more dramatic than the miracle of the child later named “Baby Jenny.” Eight weeks old at the time, she was found in the rubble of her home wrapped in the arms of her dead baby sitter. She had gone five days without sustenance, suffered a skull fracture and broken ribs, had no blood pressure and a blood-sugar level of 30. Miraculously, she survived, thanks to a series of improbable circumstances — the presence in our hospital of pediatric intensivists, a plane on the runway about to return to Miami and a bed available in Jackson Memorial Hospital’s pediatric intensive-care unit. Later, lawyers in Miami were able to fight through the bureaucracy and reunite her with her parents. Today, she is a healthy preschooler, living in Miami.

Why did this child live and so many others die? This is the ultimate question, what the philosophers call “theodicy.” Why, if there is a loving God, do bad things happen to good people? The earthquake was theodicy writ large. Haitians have taught me a lesson that had been difficult to learn — simply put, it’s a miwak.

Dr. Arthur Fournier is a professor emeritus of the Miller School of Medicine and co-founder of Project Medicine. His book, “Vodou Saints: Lessons of life, death and resurrection in Haiti” tells of his 20 years of work in that country.