Smiling in the Storm:

How TVI Began

by Dr. Ben Fredrick

Thriving Villages International started with a boy.  And a heart.

Two days before Thanksgiving, 2006 my wife and I received an email request to host Anderson, a 16-year-old Haitian boy.  Anderson had a large hole in his heart that required a surgical repair, and Penn State Hershey Medical Center agreed to provide the surgery for free.  A partnering organization, Angel Missions Haiti, had already arranged for his medical visa and transportation to the U.S.  Despite a wide distribution of the email, a host family for Anderson had not been found.  By the time we received the email, Anderson’s medical visa was in jeopardy of expiring.

We considered potential impacts on our kids and family, and then said yes to the request.  Ten months after we took this small step, I found myself journeying out to an impoverished and neglected remote area on the southern peninsula of the poorest country in the West: Pestel, Haiti.

In early 2007, after surgery, Anderson stayed with us for three months.  We soon began to wonder what sorts of dangerous situations we were sending him back to.

A month after Anderson left for Haiti we hosted another Haitian boy named Nelson who was quite ill by the time he arrived.  Through an initial pre-op evaluation at the medical center, Nelson’s situation was deemed tenuous, and concern was raised that a successful surgery might not be able to undo the effects of his heart problem.  He was in congestive heart failure.  Furthermore, Nelson needed a new heart valve to replace his ruined mitral valve that had been attacked at one point in his life by strep bacteria, a well-documented complication of untreated strep throat (rheumatic heart disease).  In short, Nelson had experienced a common strep throat but lacked access to the most basic antibiotic, penicillin, which could have prevented destruction of his mitral valve.  The difference of a couple of dollars meant, potentially, loss of a 12-year-old boy’s life.  This boy moved into our house, ate at our table, played with our kids.

And he struggled to breathe.

The day of the surgery we were uncertain of the kind of valve that would be placed in Nelson’s heart.  A metal valve would require potent blood thinners which would be impossible to manage in Pestel.  Nelson’s parents were willing to sign over their parental rights to us, and we were willing to adopt him if that need arose.

After the successful surgery, we learned that Nelson was given a bioprosthetic valve which would allow him to return to Haiti to be with his family.  The valve would need to be replaced when Nelson was in his early 20s, though.

The chain of events to this point really led me to the conclusion that I would need to travel to Haiti.  I’d been reading about Haiti’s depth of poverty and the daily struggles so many faced.  When I first went down in October, 2007, I didn’t have a clear purpose, except to visit Anderson, keep in contact with Nelson, who would not have any way to contact us should anything go wrong, and to experience in some small way the suffering that exists in Haiti.

I had no expectation that I’d ever travel to Haiti again.

That October, I flew into Port au Prince with Vanessa, director of Angel Missions Haiti.  This was my first international trip.  Before the trip, I didn’t even own a passport.

Our itinerary in small part included a trip out to Pestel to visit with Nelson, and to meet Sister Fidelis Rubbo.  Sister Fidelis is a Franciscan nun from the U.S. living in Pestel.  She had persisted in searching for a surgical option for Nelson, and she’d bought medications to keep fluid from accumulating in his lungs.  If she’d been too busy or had a little less hope, Nelson wouldn’t be alive.

When Vanessa and I arrived by small plane in the southwestern city of Jeremie, we were to pick up a boat at the port.  We received a call from Sister Fidelis that the boat was delayed from Pestel. The outboard engine had failed and they had to pull over to rig something together.  Finally, she called back when they were again on their way. The boat arrived at the chaotic port in Jeremie, and Sister Fidelis waved to us from the boat as it approached.  The size and make of the boat was a shock to us, with its home-made sails and bamboo mast.  One man in the boat was charged with bailing it out.  As it neared, Vanessa and I schemed quickly how we could avoid this trip to Pestel.   

For a reason I can’t articulate, once the boat docked, I stepped down into the boat, to the shock and dismay of my traveling party.  Soon we were on our way, sails up, the engine running, and the ocean waves slapping our hull.

The trip on the ocean was pleasant for the first three hours.  Then the captain called out to his mates to pull down the sails.  A distant storm moved in quickly, and we could see the leading edge of the rain.  Sister Fidelis, ever unflappable, had brought a blue tarp with her, and we pulled it up over ourselves as the storm slammed down on the boat.  The afternoon sky grew dark and we spent the next hour on the ocean, traveling slowly along to Pestel, hidden underneath the tarp.  Sister Fidelis took the opportunity to lead us in an appropriate sing-along, “With Jesus in the boat you can smile in the storm...”

Arriving in Pestel in the black of night, I learned that the town didn’t have electricity.  We navigated the dock with flashlights as the rain continued. The next day I only spent about six hours in Pestel before we headed back for Jeremie by truck.  The total time spent traveling to and from Pestel was eight hours.  Yet, I was deeply affected by my brief experience in Pestel.

During that first trip to Pestel, I met Nelson and his family.  They invited us into their two-room house where they had prepared a chicken and rice lunch.  I was deeply humbled by their generosity, and realized that I have much to learn from the Haitians. 

I also met with the only Haitian physician for the entire Pestel area, Dr. Phillipe Seneque, who showed me his health center with its barren pharmacy.  He described the overwhelming needs of Pestel.  He told me one haunting story of a 6-year-old boy who had died of tetanus the week before we arrived.  I was dumbfounded, then angered.  No one should die of tetanus anymore.  

We drove to a few other villages also.  These informal meetings provided me with the same message from the villagers:  they needed health care, education, and water.  They need exactly what my kids need, what you and I need.

Since my first trip, I’ve visited Pestel many times and have encountered stories that break my heart and prompt me to act on their behalf.  So it is my hope and prayer that the story expands to many more children and many more hearts: perhaps yours.