By Anne Pawlak
When Anita Ahlborn graduated from Mid-State Technical College in 2010, she was thrilled to accept a job as a respiratory therapist at Langlade Hospital in Antigo. Finally, the single mother of three boys thought, I can settle down, make a living, and give my boys everything they had been lacking while I was in school.
What she could not have foreseen was that four years later, her degree would take her to the mountains of a distant country where she would drink rain water and live off rice and beans. But when a Chicago pediatrician told her, “You need to go to Haiti,” she gave it some thought. And then she started packing.
“The moment the plane landed, my heart caught fire,” Ahlborn said. “I felt immediately at home and free to be myself.” After landing in Port Au Prince, she and a team of medical professionals – including a pediatrician, a dentist, nurses, and internal medicine physicians – made the seven-hour journey by bus and truck to the village of Duchity to volunteer at the Medical Clinic. Along the way, she witnessed the devastation and staggering poverty made even worse by the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 220,000 people and left the country in ruins. Rarely does the aid sent to Haiti by well-meaning countries make it to those who need it the most, so if a person wants to make a difference, according to Ahlborn, you almost have to bring the aid to the people in person.
Even today, electricity is scarce, sanitation is almost non-existent, and running water is a luxury. Dust, rocks, and the rubble of crumbling buildings clog many of the streets. Tarp- and sheet-metal shacks and grass-thatched mud huts serve as homes. Mules, donkeys, trucks, and bicycles all share the same roads and paths, which makes getting anywhere an interesting experience. Cell phones are charged off of car batteries, and what little electric power there is comes from diesel generators. Fueling stations in the city are staffed by armed men with whom you must negotiate a price, and under no circumstances do you ever touch a gas pump.
“For some reason, though, the cell phone reception was excellent,” Ahlborn claimed. “You’d be driving up the side of a mountain, with people leading goats along the side of the road, and the reception would be better than it was on my commute to Antigo.” Periodically, boulders tumbled down the sides of the cliffs, and on one trip, she witnessed a close call when the vehicle ahead of her had to swerve to avoid a collision and came within inches of going over a sheer cliff. Still, when I asked Anita about her initial impression of the country, and of its people, fear never came up. Neither did she suffer a drop of trepidation when it came to living without running water or electricity. “My first thought was, ‘How can I help?’” she told me. And what do the Haitian people think when they see her walking down the street? Does she ever feel unsafe? Her answer was no. “When they look at us, they think, ‘You are hope.’”
Most of the help Ahlborn was able to give was offered at the Duchity Medical Clinic. As a respiratory therapist, she saw a lot of respiratory ailments in the residents, mainly because they cook indoors over open fires, without proper ventilation or chimneys. But the medical concerns of the people of Haiti don’t end there. As you would expect in a country without sanitation and water sources, the residents are afflicted with cholera, parasites, infections, birth defects, dental issues, and recently, an epidemic of the chikungunya virus, an illness transmitted by mosquitoes and characterized by a high fever and malaria-like symptoms.
While at the clinic, Ahlborn worked with a little boy who presented with digital clubbing, a condition where the lack of oxygen results in the swelling of the area under the fingernails. In this boy’s case, a congenital heart defect that went undetected at birth was the underlying cause. As she showed me this boy’s picture, her voice broke. “There is nothing I can do to help him. All I can do is just watch him die.”
Another patient at her clinic was a young mother who had just given birth to her fourth child, a little boy. Her husband brought her for treatment but likely had no idea how ill she really was. Ahlborn examined the mother and determined she was most likely suffering from post-partum cardiomyopathy and told the distraught man to get her to a hospital immediately.
“We were told there was a hospital in Les Cayes, and we made the 2-1/2-hour trip, only to find the ‘hospital’ was a tent tended by a handful of doctors, with a line of people waiting to see them. We brought her there on a Monday, and she died on Friday,” Ahlborn said. When the father showed up at her clinic later, they were able to supply him with some formula for the baby and a little money, but it didn’t ease the heartache of losing this young mother. It was hard seeing the father cope with the loss and the new challenge of raising his four children alone. “I spent a lot of time on the roof of the clinic at night, watching the stars,” Ahlborn said.
A Home for the Orphans
As much time as the clinic and her duties took, Anita still found time to volunteer at the MABE orphanage in Port Au Prince. Staffed by the Lisius family and funded by private donations, the orphanage is perhaps the only hope for the 35-plus children who call it home. Upon arriving at MABE when she returned to Haiti in April, Ahlborn was greeted by the children, who sang a welcome song in English and gathered around her. She described opening her suitcase and allowing each child to choose a gift of clothing or shoes. “Everyone got to pick out what they thought would fit them,” she explained. “The little girls looked so adorable in their dresses and flip flops.”
One little girl in particular touched Anita’s heart. She had a chronic cough and symptoms associated with cystic fibrosis. As she snuggled in close with her head on Ahlborn’s shoulder, Ahlborn rocked her back and forth and sang to her. “She seemed to melt my heart,” she said.
The Lisius family – mom, dad, and nine siblings (including three sets of twins) – operates the MABE orphanage. One of the Lisius sons, Orel, typically gets up at 3:30 am and drives from his home to the orphanage in Port Au Prince. He picks up the children, who all sit in the back of his pick-up truck, and drives them to school. He spends the day working with his family, returns the children to the orphanage in the afternoon, and then attends law school at night. To fund the children’s care, education, and job training, Orel raises the money himself. Orel’s sister, Mirlande, who suffered a bone infection that left her partly disabled, has a vision to create an organization to help the disabled people of Haiti. Clearly this family’s generosity and dedication illustrates the spirit of the Haitian people that has captured Ahlborn’s heart. In a journal entry from her time spent there, Ahlborn wrote:
When you look around you see a completely different world than that of the U.S. When I look at it, I see extreme poverty, starving people, hardworking people, houses destroyed, and tents made of tarps replacing them, garbage everywhere, men and women selling goods all along the streets. And for most people who come here to help, this is all they see. But I see so much more. I see beauty all around me! I see families close and their love for one another. I see children laughing and playful despite their poverty. I see men and women working so close to each other that they are practically standing on one another, but they are happy just to be working, selling their goods on the street. I see beautiful, hopeful faces and attitudes of, ‘If I just work hard enough today, my family will eat tonight.’ The landscape is so beautiful it looks as if God took a paintbrush and painted a beautiful picture to open my eyes. We as a society have everything, yet no one is happy. We always find something to complain about, and we think we never have enough.
Now back in the U.S., Ahlborn is back at work at Langlade Hospital, working long hours and saving money to return to Haiti to continue her mission in July. Her three boys – Dominick, 16; Drew, 12; and Gavin, 9 – are doing their part to raise money for the orphanage, including collecting aluminum cans.
“I wonder how I can be in Haiti full time with my children every day to share my love with this country and the people,” Ahlborn wrote in her journal. Given the obstacles she has overcome, and her passion for this country and its people, it is clear she will find a way to continue to bring hope and healing to the people of Haiti.
To sponsor Anita Ahlborn’s return to Haiti, or to donate aluminum cans, please contact her at Ahlborn2483@hotmail.com.