It was a privilege to be asked to accompany the group as a non-medical support person and accompanying me, was another dear friend and personal dentist from Decatur, IN, Dr. Roger Thompson.
Over the next few weeks, we received instructions from the organizers which items could be brought into the country. While very few personal items were allowed, several hundred pounds of dental supplies were packaged and made ready for our trip. Our team, dosed with the prescribed amount of quinine tablets to guard against malaria, and given general instruction on what to expect in-country, was filled with anticipation as we prepared for our journey.
In the misty background of our preparations, there was trouble brewing for Haiti and its president Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier. News reports of uprising throughout the country were down-played by our hosts as "happening in the South of Haiti, near Port Au Prince". We were assured since our missions trip would be located near Cap Haitien, in the northernmost part of the country, our fears were ungrounded.
On Tuesday, January 28, 1986, Roger Thompson and I flew Republic Airlines out of Fort Wayne International Airport (then known as "Baer Field"), to Sarasota Florida. Our flight was a few minutes out of Sarasota just before noon, when our pilot directed us to "look out the left side of the aircraft" and we could witness the vapor trail of the just launched Challenger on Florida's east coast. My eyes were filled with wonder as they followed the white trail upwards into the heavens. My wonder, however, was interrupted by thinking how odd the vapor-trail just seemed to stop abruptly and then...nothing...
Upon arriving in Sarasota, the airport was blanketed in an eerie silence. The television screens throughout the terminal were carrying the fresh news that the Challenger had exploded in flight a short time ago. Having witnessed just moments ago its brief, fiery path outside our plane, I was struck by the depth of loss our country was feeling at such a tragic end to those brave souls piloting the shuttle.
The weather in Florida was a frigid 28 degrees Fahrenheit as we loaded and prepared to board our chartered twin-engine Piper Comanche through Agape Air, which would transport us to Cap Haitien. Hangared at the jet port in Sarasota, our pilot Norris Brown would have to de-ice the plane's wings before embarking on the next leg of our journey. I was unconsciously beginning to itemize those events that were beginning to portend our efforts to get to our mission's purpose...the reports of unrest in Haiti, the explosion of the shuttle Challenger, the unusually cold weather in a normally balmy part of Florida, ice on the wings of the aircraft transporting us to a foreign land...However, none of us were deterred, and, after successfully de-icing the aircraft, we flew 4 and a half hours on a southeast heading towards our final destination.
We descended into Cap Haitien airport under overcast skies and disagreeable humidity. Our cultural expectations of how a major airport should look were shocked to see a modest structure lacking the appointments one would find 5 hours northwest of here. The terminal was merely a concrete block structure in the middle of a large field with a 2 mile paved strip that served as its only runway. It was nestled between some large hills that were barren of any large trees or forests.
After a perfunctory inspection of those items we brought into the country, and having satisfied the questions of our purposes in-country, the Haitian customs officials cleared us for final passage into the country. We met our host Henri Claude Beliard, a kind, gentle man who had arranged transportation for our group to Terrier Rouge, a village about one hour from Cap Haitien, where the dental team would be ministering to residents in the surrounding area.
Our pilot would be staying in country during our clinic making other supply drops around the country.We would rendezvous with him at the end of our clinic for the return flight back home.
Passing through the filth, squalor, and masses of humanity viewed from the cloudy windows in our bare-bones extended vans, we were struck by the depth of overwhelming needs obvious in this heart-wrenching country in the Caribbean...our efforts to travel to meet the stark needs of those suffering so dreadfully seemed tiny and insignificant.
The road we traveled was blacktopped for a short while, but the bulk of our journey was completed on a dirt road (path?) recently rutted by rains that reminded us we were not home any longer. We encountered one military roadblock that we passed through without difficulty once they learned the purpose of our mission trip. The countryside was filled with shacks built with any materials that were available (or handy). Many were cinder-block having thatched roofs and dirt floors. Most of the cooking appeared to be done outside and the huts were used primarily for sleeping. Most of what I saw during the ride consisted of women carrying carefully balanced water jugs on their heads, sugar cane bundled and toted by humans, horseback, oxen, or by donkey. Even though the rural conditions were dirty, they did not match the squalor witnessed earlier in the city.
Nearly fifty people were waiting for dental care when we arrived at Terrier Rouge just before noon. Quickly changing into our scrubs and not really having an idea what we were in for, the team saw approximately 100 patients that afternoon between 1:00 and 5:00 p.m. Routine dental care normally extended in the U.S. was discarded and replaced by extractions-only procedures on the open-air front porch of the City Hall where our makeshift clinic was quickly put together. An assembly line of patients was formed where an interpreter would ask the patient to point to the problem tooth; an injection was made at the site where the patient pointed; the patient was moved forward to a holding area where he/she would wait for the novocaine to become effective; once the tooth was adequately numbed, the patient was then moved to one of the five available dentists who would then extract the tooth. The patient then was given a packet containing antibiotics and a small amount of pain medication with instructions (again, from an interpreter) as to how to manage the medications.
And so it went. Our makeshift dental clinic, interpreters, people lined up 40 and 50 deep, teeth extracted (sometimes as many as 10 at a time), and herculean efforts at trying to keep instruments as sterile as possible in a significantly un-sterile setting. Working from sunup until dusk, as there was no electricity in the village, we performed our mission work. The people were so appreciative, patient, and oh-so kind. It was a privilege serving them.
Our dorm facilities were spartan but clean. Showers were provided by a suspended barrel of water heated by the Caribbean sun during the day. We were advised to keep our mouths closed during showers to avoid any possibility of ingesting contaminated water from the barrels. Meals and lodging were provided by the Catholic rectory in the village and were sumptuous by Haitian standards. We were humbled by their kindness and hospitality.
Nights were filled with the thumping rhythms of voodoo drums and crowing roosters. Never wandering from our compound at night, we could only imagine the rituals performed by those participants of what we were told was the country's major religion. The darkness seemed even more so as we witnessed those haunting sounds.
We had fallen into a somewhat predictable routine of processing those patients arriving for treatment. In fact, it was almost efficient. Our day began routinely enough at 5:30 a.m. on the Friday we received word that riots had begun in Cap Haitien sparked again by the despotism and oppression familiarly associated with the Duvalier regime. We were instructed to abandon our duties in Terrier Rouge and return immediately to Cap Haitien where our chartered plane would take us back to the U.S. and out of harm's way that was erupting in Haiti. In a surreal 3 hours time, we had packed instruments, left medical supplies with the rectory, and heart-breakingly informed those 75 patients waiting for treatment that we had to flee the country. Many of those patients had walked great distances that morning for service only to be turned away by events in a country that had become all too commonplace to them: A tyrant's selfish whim to have his way with this torn land.
At 11:30 a.m. the vehicle arrived in Terrier Rouge to carry our medical team and its gear to Cap Haitien. We quickly loaded our belongings with urgent warnings to get back to the city immediately for departure out of the country. Our vehicle met another roadblock and, this time, it took a bit longer to explain why we were heading into Cap Haitien. However, explanations accepted, we were allowed to pass the checkpoint without further issues.
We arrived in Cap Haitien around 1:30 p.m. finding, to our horror, that our pilot had been told, as we were enroute to our rendezvous point with him, to leave the country immediately. Failure to do so would result in his plane being impounded. So, without ceremony and taking the threats very seriously, he flew his plane and our exit strategy back to Florida leaving us stranded in a country beginning a slow boil toward revolution.
"Abas Duvalier!" (Down with Duvalier!) graffiti was scrawled on several buildings as we arrived at the Imperial Hotel--the predetermined spot where our pilot would have met us and taken us home. Our party was the hotel's only guests and a skeleton crew had remained there to presumably take care of us. There was a great deal of confusion about the actual political climate from our vantage point. However, internationally news reports were stating the country was indeed in revolt and people were "fleeing the country"...The State Department had erroneously reported that Baby Doc had left the country, but it was clear to us that he had not. He had closed the airports and imposed strong military sanctions to keep order in the country.
Back home our families were more than a little concerned about our safety and the status of our return trip to the U.S. Conflicting reports from various state and federal government agencies added to the angst felt by all. Our communication link was a single phone located in the lobby of the hotel where numerous calls were made and received trying to work out a reasonable solution to our plight. All to no avail...
One visit from a State Department official suggested that we (somehow) travel to Port Au Prince and book a commercial flight back to the U.S. The problem with that suggestion were the many miles that lay between us and that city where roads were being aggressively blocked by Baby Doc's thugs. And, we learned later, that commercial flights out of Port Au Prince were backlogged for at least two weeks in the remote event that we could even get to Port Au Prince.
Adding to the despair, we learned that our pilot, when contacted by one of the Doctors' wives, had said, he "may never get into the country again"...
So, a constant vigil was posted by the single phone. We had arranged to post a "watch" with each of us taking a turn by the phone, in the event that one of the many phone calls would produce the results we were eagerly awaiting--a flight out of Cap Haitian and home to our anxious and awaiting families.
In spite of the unrest in the country, our group felt we were in no immediate danger as a brief visit into town resulted in no unusual problems. We spent a few hours wandering through the Iron Market where many had displayed their wares ranging from fruit to various and sundry woven baskets, carvings and the like. Eager to learn if there had been any progress toward our departure, we returned to the hotel to find that no word had been received.
Again, our group had determined that we would post a watch by the phone that evening lest we miss a call. Roger and I had noted that we would take the "Graveyard Watch"--from midnight to two a.m.--so, we retired to our room for a couple hours sleep before taking our turn.
Around 11:30 p.m. we were awakened abruptly by automatic weapon fire outside our bedroom window. Simultaneously, Roger and I rolled to the floor from our separate twin beds and carefully made our way to the inner courtyard of the hotel. We learned that the military was enforcing a curfew by firing shots into the air to intimidate people keeping them off the streets. It worked for us. We abandoned our plan to keep watch by the phone and returned to our rooms for a fitful night's sleep.
Each day thereafter a curfew was imposed and the city grew very quiet. The eerie silence was broken only by a periodic gunshot and time stood still. Our hopes for leaving Haiti were being dashed repeatedly and despair was palpable.
We learned that one missionary flight was allowed to leave the country, but there was no room on board for our group. So, we remained. And waited. And prayed.
Our families, we knew, were praying for our safe return, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to put a pleasant face on our circumstances. My brother Phil had called on Sunday to see how we were doing. He told me he had prayed for our safe return that morning at church and I wept. I realized that our plight was completely out of our hands and God was the Person Who was going to have to make it all happen. Phil was precisely the encouragement that I needed that day.
At breakfast on Monday morning, the gloom was overwhelming. No word had come during the night to indicate that permission had been obtained for our departure. After breakfast, I returned to my room to read a devotional that Roger had brought on the trip. I opened it to a passage and read the following:
Norman Harrison in "His in a Life of Prayer" tells how Charles Inglis, while making the voyage to America a number of years ago, learned from the devout and godly captain of an experience which he had had but recently with George Muller of Bristol. It seems that they had encountered a very dense fog. Because of it the captain had remained on the bridge continuously for twenty four hours, when Mr. Muller came to him and said, "Captain, I have come to tell you that I must be in Quebec on Saturday afternoon." When informed that it was impossible, he replied: "Very well. If the ship cannot take me, God will find some other way. I have never broken an engagement for fifty-seven years. Let us go down into the chartroom and pray."
After reading the passage, I boldly petitioned the LORD to take us home today...I left the room and as I was walking through the hotel lobby to be with the rest of the crew, the phone at the desk was ringing. With no one else around to answer it, I picked it up. The voice on the other end asked if I was part of the group who was awaiting permission to leave the country. I answered, "yes", and he said to be at the airport at 5:00 that afternoon. Our pilot had just received permission to come into the country and pick us up.The captain continues his story thus: "I looked at that man of God and thought to myself, 'What lunatic asylum could that man have come from? I have never heard such a thing as this! Mr. Muller,' I said, 'do you know how dense this fog is?' 'No,' he replied, 'my eye is not on the density of the fog, but on the living God, who controls every circumstance of my life.'" (Italics mine) He knelt down and prayed one of those simple prayers, and when he had finished I was going to pray; but he put his hand on my shoulder and told me not to pray. 'Firstly,' he said, ' because you do not believe God will, and secondly, I believe God has, and there is no need whatever for you to pray about it.' I looked at him, and George Muller said, 'Captain, I have known my Lord for fifty-seven years, and there has never been a single day that I have failed to get an audience with the King. Get up and open the door, and you will find that the fog has gone.' I got up and the fog was indeed gone. George Muller was in Quebec Saturday afternoon for his engagement."--From "I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes" by Glenn Clarke
After sharing with the group the miracle I had just witnessed, we thanked God for His answer and began packing for our trip home. We left the hotel at 1:00 p.m. to cautiously make our way to the airport carefully avoiding the military checkpoints that had been established around the city. The runway, previously blocked with with debris to keep aircraft from entering or departing, had been cleared. At precisely 5:00 p.m., the Piper Comanche from Agape Airlines with our pilot Norris Brown at the controls, touched down at Cap Haitien to extract the dental team from Baby Doc's madness. We learned later that it would be another 3 weeks before Cap Haitien Airport would ever process another flight.
1 Peter 5:7 "Casting all your cares upon Him, for He cares for you."
To God be the glory.