For several years, Doctor Moreau dressed as Santa Claus to cheer gathered children and listen to their Christmas wishes during his church’s annual fall pageant in Tallahassee. Flushed, with a tendency to overeat, he wore a large Santa suit, a long white beard and the usual thick, white collar. He almost suffocated. But compliments poured in from church goers about his deep, compassionate voice. The faithful wanted him to start a radio talk show about faith and beliefs and to answer their medical questions. And this, almost by accident, is how the weekly show called Ask Doctor Cody Moreau began on Wednesday evenings.
On Tuesday, the 12th of January, the earthquake struck Haiti. The next night, the weekly show’s phone lines were jammed with concerned people asking why God had allowed such a thing to happen. They wondered aloud, why had the disaster spared them? One call came from an old lady from Alabama. Her fragile, cracked voice made Cody sit absolutely still to hear what she was saying:
“If you have God on your side, if He really loves you, He would somehow let you know what was about to happen and give some kind of a warning—don’t you think so?”
The phone still up to his ear, Cody shuffled a few papers, missing the next sentence .She continued:
“Young man, what do you think about that? Don’t you agree that being a good person, staying in God’s grace, is the important thing here? Those people must have drifted away somehow. They need to return to His care, His grace.”
“We need to pray harder,” Cody responded.
Before he could gather himself, he was talking to the next caller:
“Hello. I love your program and the way you help keep us on the correct, moral path.”
“What’s your name?” Cody asked.
“Why this is Sally Pickard and I just wanted to say that I’m not sure that I agree with that lady you just talked with. I mean, we all do things that must displease Him every day and our houses are still standing.”
“Well if He were watching us that closely and saw it all, we would be so punished—I just can’t imagine what would happen. Maybe he gives us another chance unless we do something really bad. Thank you.”
Another chance. Cody thought about that.
For years he had gone on surgical missions to the Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti where long lines of patients waited several days in crowded halls to see doctors in the surgical clinic. Each time he had returned home after working those endless days, physically exhausted and often ill; reminded again that despite lacking almost everything the Haitians seemed very concerned with each other and appeared happy. Family members came with patients to the hospital: they cooked meals, bathed them, then prayed and sang together from Creole hymnals.
He compared his life in Florida to the realities of surgery in the Haitian jungle hospital where he saw patients in the clinic and performed surgery using the available instruments. He took care of his patients after surgery and knew the doctors and nurses who had come there from many countries. Minimal paperwork, no computers or dictations and no medical meetings.
Another caller: “Doctor, they must have had it coming, must have done something really wrong like Pat Roberts said the other night. In Haiti, the slaves rose up against their masters and killed them. How could they have done that without the devil’s help? God’s just getting even. Sometimes it takes a while. The only chance those people have is to believe in Jesus Christ and ask for forgiveness.”
Writing it all down, Cody asked: “What can we do about it? How can we, way up here, help them?”
“We need to take our church to them, show them the right pathway before it’s too late. That’s what you do. I don’t mean all the trimmings, the white robes, the fancy organs and the bells. What we need is to go there, buy some land, put up simple churches and start preaching. We need to come together, raise the money and go there to help. Why don’t we set up a fund drive, call it Save Haiti or something like that? You could help by asking for donations during the show.”
After the show ended, Cody leaned back in his reclining chair, reviewing scribbled notes, straightening some poorly written words, and adding a few comments in the margins. A soft knock; the hollow door opened slowly with the slight rustle from padded slippers and a long fleece nightgown. It was Ellie, his wife, bringing fresh coffee, fried bacon and thickly buttered toast, as she usually did after the broadcasts.
She set the tray down on the table behind him in the middle of the small office. “How’d it go tonight, Sweetie?
“Everyone’s upset about the earthquake in Haiti. That’s all they wanted to talk about. And it wasn’t just talk, they wanted something to happen. They want me to lead the way, to set up a foundation to help spread gospel in Haiti. Damn it, Ellie, I’m no preacher. I’m just a small ̶ time surgeon. You and I go to church and I happen to have a voice that sounds like Santa Claus, but I never thought I would get swept into something like this.”
“Well, you do have that deep voice and a way of persuasion. Surround yourself with good people. Let them do the work, let them organize. Just keep an eye on them and do what you do best. Let them do it. Are you coming to bed?” She asked, as he continued to read notes from the show.
“A while later.”
She gave Cody a little squeeze and a soft kiss on his bald head.
By Friday, many offers had arrived to help build a new church in Port au Prince. The dollars just poured into the Save Haiti fund. Build a new church. Help those people talk with God, the donors said.
Clear away the earthquake debris, the heavy cinder blocks and the shattered concrete. Cody’s back began aching and perspiration dripped.
He turned down the thermostat and dimmed the lights in his study.
Mouth open, wiping his brow, he looked down at his soft-skinned hands, those flimsy sun-spotted forearms, his round belly pressing against the desk edge. He tended not to believe in miracles. Hard work, concentration, and following scientific principles had worked for him. Don’t become a preacher or a carpenter, he thought, others can do that. I can be more helpful as a doctor.
Last year, when working as a physician in Haiti, he had seen the roadside candles, animal sacrifices, doves’ heads falling from dancers’ mouths, and the power of witch doctors who visited hospitals, where they danced, recited Vodou phrases and blew magic dust on infected wounds. The thing that amazed him was that patients often recovered after these visits. And they seemed happy, often happier than patients at home in his own surgical practice. The families of the patients in Haiti gathered together to support those in trouble. Was it psychological?
What the hell was it really? The power of magic, even simulated miracles, had seemed powerful and almost real.
A few days later, he sat in his office after a long day of operations. The sleek Tallahassee office was in a new high rise with many windows facing the Gulf Coast, where the sun was setting in a fiery orange. Piles of unfinished paperwork: forms, patient records, letters to answer, telephone numbers to call, advertisements, new bylaws to review, then evening rounds to check on his patients and write preoperative orders.And then another of those endless medical staff meetings.
He looked up at photos of the Schweitzer Haitian hospital on the wall above his desk. Doctor Exe, Doctor Rousseau, and the head nurse, Miss Petersen. They had worked there for years; at first for short terms, but then for decades. There was Naomi, her hair neatly combed and berretted, her easy smile and shocking white teeth. She had been his interpreter during his most recent mission a year ago. He stared at the photos of the crowded wards, the two tiny operating rooms, and the long lines of patients crowding the hallway to the surgical clinic; those lines extending out the hospital entrance onto a gravel courtyard even after the sun had set. No one complained or became angry. They would have a chance again tomorrow. That’s just the way it was.
He thought about several of his patients from his last mission: The four year old boy with his abdomen torn open during a fall from a tree; the intestine lay on his abdominal wall. His grandfather had wrapped the grey loops with old rags, protecting the boy as best he could and held the child in his arms while riding all night over a mountain on his small burro.
His first C- section at night, the healthy baby, the smiling mother.
Two men injured at night in some sort of accident, both with paraplegia. The hospital’s simple X-Ray machine wouldn’t have shown the spinal injury, and he had no idea of what to do without tests to indicate where exactly along the spine the injuries might be. Bed rest, sedation with a little Valium. Nothing else available. And in the morning they both could move their legs!
A few days later, an elderly man had arrived with a bleeding sore on his chest wall. X-Rays showed a mass pressing against the sternum- an aneurysm eroding the bone of the chest wall. Without cardiac surgery, nothing could be done. He was admitted, kept comfortable with narcotics, and suffered a massive, fatal bleed from the aneurysm a few days later.
You did what you could; sometimes that was nothing. But sometimes you could save a life-almost every day you could do that. Compassion and gratitude were always available. He thought again of Haitians in pain; those dying without medical or surgical care: I will go and see. My God, we have to help them. .
The January earthquake shattered the capital of Haiti, Port au Prince. The airport’s runways and the tower had collapsed and were closed except for delivery of medical supplies. Cody’s airplane landed in the Dominican Republic. He took the long bus ride over the mountains to Haiti, stopping at the border where there was frantic trading for food. Haitians bought feverishly, piling fruit, vegetables, and large, heavy sacks of flour into ancient, fenderless trucks. The worn out bus finally joined a creaking, oily caravan plodding down mountains and through the parched Haitian countryside to Port au Prince.
Still miles from the capital, the hopeful odors of open cooking fires faded; the burning charcoal replaced with the foul, sickening, sweet odor of death. In a few miles, a dusty, gray cloud appeared, hanging over the city, intruding into a clear blue sky.
A few miles closer: shattered buildings; crowds of wandering blank-faced people covered with gray concrete dust, fleeing the city. They crowded broken roads and struggled with heavy loads while walking away from collapsed homes and small markets, carrying the injured and pieces of tin roofing and cardboard for shelter. They moved away just in time as the bus swerved around them. Slow moving dump trucks hauled the dead away for mass burials.
Finally the road was blocked by broken concrete just outside of the city. Nearby, several U.N. tents had medical supplies being prepared for emergency delivery to hospitals. The bus driver twisted in his seat and looked at Cody.
“Where do you want to go?” He asked.
“The Schweitzer hospital.”
“You can’t get there. The road is no longer.”
The driver pointed to a faded blue Russian helicopter parked near the tents. Sagging blades, worn tires, with patches of original camouflage paint still visible.
“Maybe ride in helicopter?” The driver said.
How long had he lain on the sagging box spring and its rusted metal frame? Shaking chills, spiking fever, severe muscle aches, nausea. What had happened to his memory? He tried to sit up, but fell back onto the soggy bed. Fatigue, severe headaches. What was happening? He remembered Naomi, his interpreter, sponging his face and his body. Always forcing him to drink. Her strong arms moving him side to side when he only wanted to remain quiet. Her white teeth, and smooth dark face talking, scolding him as she held small metal cups of liquid to his lips.
“You must drink,” she said. “Drink!”
But water and tea brought more nausea. The filtered drinking water no longer slaked his thirst and despite medicine, the fever continued. No intravenous fluids were available. Live with simple measures or die. Drink or die.
Cody could not see clearly, but thought he was in a corner of a large room filled with injured Haitians, some lay on bedsprings, most on sheets of plastic or lying on the cement floor. Was he going blind?
The fever began a few days ago. He had kept operating and caring for patients. The fever at first was just an inconvenience; then the thundering headache and muscle pains with any movement, the vomiting and the rising fever. Confusion and vertigo.
Had he done anything to help anyone?
“Think carefully.” Naomi had said. “Don’t be careless with your thoughts. They may never return.”
Concentrating, he remembered a few details of days past: Port au Prince-nothing standing, wrecked buildings, the president’s palace collapsed; looking down from the helicopter at the ruins of the Notre Dame Cathedral; only a few columns and pieces of façade; the crumpled remains where small groups of people still gathered. Scattered bodies, people stumbling, covered with gray cement dust; all a pale gray.
Naomi told him about the helicopter. Then Cody remembered the wind howling from open doors as the staggering machine flew along, the heavy vibrations, the smell of kerosene; The Russian pilot’s large hands pointing at the colorful patches of plastic scattered haphazardly in the jungle. People lay on the plastic, or on the bare ground. Near the Artibonite River crowds gathered as the helicopter landed in an abandoned soccer field near the Schweitzer hospital.
Cody remembered entering the hospital. The injured lay everywhere; battered, broken arms, legs, and heads, scrapes, gashes, even missing body parts. The odor of infections floated over hot moans and screams. So many injured. So many amputees. Arms and legs, which ones belonged to which face? He couldn’t remember that. He had amputated limbs and applied skin grafts to countless arms and legs. The families fed the patients and crowded the injured, watching as dressings were changed. They held hands with the injured-tightly when it most hurt. Bibles tucked and carried, prayer books in hands, under pillows; hymns singing, the injured sang between tears.
Cody thought he had helped a little; using simple measures and bandages still there. Patients struck on the head or other vital parts needing major surgery were gone. There was no help for them.
Faith – practical, supportive, had carried everyone including him.
Each night he saw shapeless forms gliding up the hospital stairs and around the large room he shared with many others. In the dim moonlight, they stopped and mumbled at bedsides. Small lights, candles, marked their pathway through the hospital. Stray animals moved away. Dogs whined and ran as in fright when the faceless forms blew dust on open wounds before floating back down the stairs and gliding away from the hospital. He felt dust on his forehead and remembered the soft whispers.
“Ou dwe ede tet ou! Ou dwe ede tet ou!”
Cody remembered those words. Naomi had said them before when she held his head up as he chewed tough strands of goat meat and drank fluids from the cup pressed to his lips.
You must help yourself! You must help yourself!
A tall Haitian man walked slowly along a dirt pathway, grasping his injured leg with one hand and holding a few wild flowers with the other. Shoeless, skin black as a moonless night, clothing torn and ripped, he had somehow found a spotless white shirt.
He struggled up the stairs of the hospital after removing his shapeless straw hat.
Earthquake victims filled each bed, some wrapped in bandages, others lay nakedly on the floor or clustered into corners of the large room. Moans echoed; wounds covered with flies oozed and dripped; stray dogs licked the floors.
“Manman, Manman,” the Haitian man said. He searched up and down the room; stepping around the beds, over people on floors, shooing flies and animals away.
“Manman! Manman!” The whispered name of his mother brought no replies even from the few neighbors lying in distress. No one answered.
“Ester, Ester! Ki Kote w ye?” Still no one called out.
The tall man knelt to place several wild flowers in Cody’s hands. Tears streamed his face and stained his white shirt. He then rose and walked to a patient with no feet lying near the hospital entrance with uncovered, seeping wounds. Silently, the tall man removed his white shirt and draped it over the legs of the fragile old man who said nothing.
Naomi returned after several days to make certain Cody ate and drank. As she walked closer, he noticed the soiled bandage on her leg, the limp, and her facial grimace.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said, then her eyes widened with tears; Doctor Exe has disappeared. His wife and Daniel, his son, are missing.”
Cody did not recall returning to Florida.