During my second year of service in the Peace Corps I volunteered to translate and assist for a medical mission that was performing free surgeries to the people in the Dominican Republic. They were doing everything from removing cysts and hernias to correcting clef palates on infants. It was amazing to see the dedication the doctors had to their patients. It was heartwarming to see individuals finally have an opportunity to a live life a little more comfortably. I was inspired. I knew that I wanted to have a positive impact on the lives of others; that I too, wanted to improve the quality of life of those around me. I knew the medical profession was not my path, but that I would also dedicate my life to serving others.
On my second day on the job, there were rumors that a patient had a reaction to the anesthesia. The patient was a 6-month-old Haitian girl who had come in for a clef palate reconstruction. I had checked in the baby; held her in my arms and spoke Creole with her mother. When I saw the doctor walk out of the operating room to update the mother on the status of her baby, I volunteered to translate for him. He looked at me with eyes filled with sadness and asked if I was sure. I was. I knew I would be good at the job. That I could keep the mother calm until the doctors fixed whatever the problem was and she could hold her most precious possession in the world once again. I knew I was the best one for the job. I did not know that the baby had already passed away.
I sat down with the doctor and the mother and began translating. Telling the mother that her daughter had a reaction to the anesthesia and was in critical condition. I was speaking a mix of Creole and Spanish and holding the crying mother’s hand as she searched my eyes for more answers. Will her baby live? Can she go in and see her? When we know more, you will know more, I told her.
Over the next 45 minutes, I continued to translate for the doctor. Updating the mother on the status of her baby; her condition moving from critical to grave, to “may not surivive”. I was no longer translating words, but cultures. I wasn’t there to only give the mother the most tragic news she would ever hear in her life, but was also there to support her and hold her as she cried, to understand her and make her feel comfortable. Being a poor Haitian woman living in the Dominican Republic, she had a very different life then any of the doctors who worked in the hospital. I had the ability to bridge the gap and make her feel as though she had an ally.
Then the doctor looked at me and said “Can you please tell her that her daughter has passed”, I looked at him with pleading eyes. Those are words that one hopes they never have to utter. I was 26 years old. I wasn’t a doctor. What right do I have to tell this woman that her baby, her most loved and cherished possession, had passed away? I looked at her and said the words, but she already knew by the sadness that filled my eyes. I embraced her as she sobbed and asked god for the answers that I could not give her. Why my baby?
The next few hours were a whirlwind of translating words and cultures. I found my self not only supporting the mother, hugging and holding her as she rocked her baby’s body, but also reassuring the doctors that they did all they could. I was explaining customs of the Haitian poor, of what the mother would want to do with the body and what would happen next. I was advocating for the mother with the hospital officials, who did not want to release the corps from the hospital without proper documentation. The baby was of Haitian decent but born on Dominican land, therefore, due to Dominican law, was denied a birth certificate. How, they asked me, do we write a death certificate for a human that never legally existed? Just do it, I pleaded. I knew they could, they just didn’t want to. Prejudice does strange things to people, even in times of great tragedy.
I was able to stay calm and support those around me. I, of course, was affected by the death, but also knew that I had the ability to make the proper arrangements and help everyone move forward. I was the only person who could speak fluently to everyone in the room; I was the only person who understood what grieving looked like to Americans and what grieving looked like to impoverished Haitians.
When the day was done, I was commended for my ability to handle the stressful situation. I was thanked for making the mother as comfortable as possible. It was an emotionally draining day. A day that I would rather never have experienced, but, at the same time, I am glad that I was able to be there to support that mother and those doctors during that time. I do not regret offering to translate for the doctor.