Helping Haiti consumes Analiesse Isherwood ('11)
Story by Kevin Taylor
It was intended to be the Christmas toy giveaway in the church. Christmas. Church. Cité Soleil. Boy. The nearly naked boy.
In Cité Soleil [site so-lay, Sun City] the poorest slum in Port-au-Prince, the chaotic capital of Haiti, Analiesse Isherwood (’11, Behavioral Neuroscience) came bearing gifts for the Christmas toy giveaway in the church. Boy. She saw the boy on the dirt street in Cité Soleil, naked but for a scrap of undefinable cloth. Plastic bottle on a string. Sitting in the passing tap-tap with her mission team, Analiesse Isherwood had the sack filled with toys – real, American toys – she had spent all her spare dollars on.
She was here to help boys much like that boy, nearly naked, playing with a bottle on a string.
“In my head I had seen this picture of a child accepting this toy and being emotional and touched and overjoyed at having this toy,” Isherwood says, describing how the dolls and stuffed animals and trucks and balls were lovingly pyramided at the front of a church packed with Haitian children and their parents who had assembled for prayer and gifts from an American medical mission team. But instead of a touching moment, Isherwood says, the toy giveaway “ended up breaking out into a mob, and we had to be escorted out by security, shoved into our tap-tap and driven away as fast as we can.”
As she was hurriedly stuffed into the tap-tap (think pickup truck with a tall canopy and benches in back), Isherwood remembers looking over her shoulder to see people throwing punches in a scrum over the toys.
And this was before the earthquake. Two weeks before. “I remember walking away confused at the face of poverty,” Isherwood says.
It was perhaps the classic collision of a First World white American with Third World desperation, and it forced her to examine not only her reactions, but her expectations and Haitian reality. The critical self-examination helped Isherwood make good, early friendships with Haitians – friends she lost in the magnitude 7.0 earthquake just weeks after she returned to Bellingham.
The deaths of her new friends, the wide swath of destruction and the enormous need have since driven Isherwood to return to Haiti four more times in the last two years – bearing not just toys, but an emerging vision to enroll children in school, to establish permanent medical clinics in villages, and to create an accessible medical records system for the countryside. And to somehow connect the people of Haiti with people in her hometown of Moses Lake and elsewhere.
“She never stops thinking about how to improve the world around her,” says Psychology Associate Professor Janet Finlay, who saw Isherwood develop traits of critical examination as an undergrad research lab assistant in Western’s Behavioral Neuroscience program.
Isherwood graduated cum laude in 2011 and is now a first-year student in the University of Washington School of Medicine’s program in Spokane.
She was in her second year at Western, already certain she was going to become a doctor – one who served the very poor, she says – when she planned a Christmas break trip in 2009 to confront “the face of poverty,” as she lyrically calls it.
Though only 19 at the time, she was accepted onto a medical team running a mobile clinic via God’s Chosen Ones Ministry, or GCOM, a Haitian nongovernmental organization. GCOM’s traveling clinics are staffed by visiting doctors and nurses from North America and Europe. Isherwood was funding her trip entirely through donations from family and friends, so the lower airfare to Haiti versus other nations was attractive.
Plus, she says, “I thought I could practice my Spanish while I was there!”
After waiting a beat, Isherwood laughs a long and wonderful laugh. Haitians speak creole, she discovered.
“I call it a God thing,” she says, referring to the confluence of decisions and choices – sometimes entirely wrong ones – that led her to precisely the right place.
Tall, focused and fearlessly curious about the world, Isherwood examined her initial, overwhelming experiences in Port-au-Prince and discussed them with others on the medical team and with Haitians.
She realized that as visitors we often don’t see – or we mis-see – the local realities. Impoverished parents in the church in Cité Soleil – parents with hungry kids, and who frequently feel the gnaw of hunger themselves – didn’t see heartwarming toys; they saw a pyramid of cash, toys that could be converted into rice or cooking lard.
She’s deepened these understandings – learning more of the language and culture – in subsequent visits after the quake, especially when it comes to how aid is delivered.
But after that first trip came this: She was back in Bellingham – clean air, snow-capped mountains, treated sewage – and switched on her cell phone when she left the research lab. “January 12, 2010. That day is forever in my mind,” Isherwood says. Her phone lit up with messages about the earthquake and terrible news. The guesthouse where she had stayed collapsed, killing six people. She lost several friends, both Haitian and American, when a clinic collapsed, and dozens of other Haitians she had met died when their workplaces were destroyed.
Isherwood says she stayed in her room for a week. “I really struggled that quarter. I knew I had to go back.”
By March, she had raised money, assembled medical gear and was in a plane carrying many Haitian expatriates returning to check on family. Approaching Port-au-Prince, people looked out the windows and saw entire neighborhoods had been shaken loose from hillsides. The familiar sprawl of tin shacks was gone. “It was like the whole plane gasped. Immediately it was filled with Haitians sobbing,” Isherwood says.
The indigenous health system has vanished, too, washed away by the tsunami of aid. Isherwood sees this as Haiti trading self-reliance for dependency on outsiders.
Paul Farmer, the humanitarian doctor profiled in Tracy Kidder’s book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” has collected essays in “Haiti: After the Earthquake” exploring the effect of aid. Can “this republic of NGOs,” he asks, make Haiti a better place? The answer is uncertain.
Isherwood says Haitians, not outside NGOs with disparate agendas, need to be key players. It has caused a disagreement between her and the Haitian head of GCOM over that organization’s practice of running mobile clinics and her view that people are better served by permanent clinics.
She is careful not to belittle the help offered at the mobile clinics, nor disrespect GCOM or the doctors who travel to volunteer with it. But, Isherwood says, there is a dynamic to the mobile clinics akin to that Christmas toy giveaway that went so wrong. The way they are designed, the medical teams get hit after hit of gratitude for the work they do, the gifts they bring. Then they go home.
“Sure we made people better in the moment, but what long-term good are we really doing? It’s careless to go in and give some of these drugs and then walk out,” Isherwood says. Haitians in the slums – and especially in the remote countryside where little aid is ever delivered – have little or no access to follow-up care, education, prevention.
Isherwood recalls a story about surgeons who treated a hydrocephalic child by installing a shunt to drain fluids from the brain.
“Doctors rush in, they want to help. They see this child and do something miraculous. A few months later [the shunt is] incredibly infected, the child’s life is worse off than it was before, the doctor’s gone, there’s no instruction for follow-up...” Isherwood says. This is a drawback to temporary docs. “I’m more systematic. It’s not just about putting a smile on their face, but how are we going to make a change so they have a better long-term life and potential?”
This has resulted in one of the enormous tasks the 22-year-old Isherwood is undertaking. In March, a medical team working with GCOM began a test run of a simple, card-based medical records system that Isherwood has devised. It’s a first step toward her ultimate goal of establishing permanent clinics in villages.
On her four post-earthquake trips to Haiti, Isherwood has increasingly forged her own way. Traveling only with a driver and a translator, she has left Port-au-Prince for the countryside, which sees little aid because of terrible roads – or even no roads. On her most recent trip in December, Isherwood found farming communities where children walk up to two hours in the morning to get to school. People often walk five or six hours on roads that we here in Washington might characterize as mountain hiking trails to reach a “market” that looks like a lemonade stand.
Isherwood has introduced this world to eighth-grade students at Frontier and Chief Moses middle schools in Moses Lake, and she’s hoping to add schools in Ellensburg and Spokane. Teachers Tracy Strophy and Linda Miller say their students are captivated by Isherwood’s stories.
Over the last couple of years, the Moses Lake middle-schoolers have grown with Isherwood. They don’t collect just toys anymore, but also have assembled 800 rehydration packets for cholera victims – life-saving self-help kits Isherwood gives away during cholera prevention talks in the Haitian countryside. The Moses Lake students also have helped her raise money to enroll Haitian children in school and to buy supplies for barren Haitian classrooms. She shares the results in photographs.
“Even some of my poorest students are amazed when they look at the home life – or school room – of some of these kids,” Miller says. “Dirt floor in the school, nothing on walls, tiny narrow wooden benches. They were shocked.”
Strophy says of her former student, Isherwood, “It’s wonderful the way she brings the story and shares it at kid level. They get really motivated. Right now I have two students going (to Haiti over spring break) with a church group to build a church and school building. There you go, there’s your ripple.”
If awareness of Haiti and concern for its people has impact as far away as Moses Lake, that’s a great ripple effect, as far as Isherwood is concerned.
And she’s gone back, and she’s gone back, and she’s gone back to the nation she calls the home of her heart. She carries Haiti with her in the sense that she’s contracted bronchitis at least twice from breathing the dust mixed with waste from the ubiquitous open sewers; and she’s gotten cholera, too. She’s planning up to two months in Haiti this summer and she brings more than toys. Analiesse Isherwood is bringing determination. She brings hope.
Kevin Taylor of Spokane is a free-lance writer who covers tribal and environmental issues, as well as the proper way to barbecue a marmot.