The knock on the window woke me up. As the priest, I got the bunk near the window so I could get up to visit someone without waking the others. It felt like I had been sleeping five minutes. It was more like an hour.
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which killed about 250,000 people and inflicted incalculable injuries, both physical and emotional on others, our little Catholic hospital north of Port au Prince served the injured and their families. I was with a team of first responders.
This night, a 17-year old girl was declining rapidly. Her brother, along with a couple of other relatives, were anxiously waiting news in the courtyard waiting area. Her brother was being hit particularly hard. I briefly greeted them when I arrived but could not stop long. First things first. There were only two medical personnel in the room: a physician and a nurse. I was needed in my role as nurse first. She needed to be coded. We were severely limited in what we could do since we did not have a ventilator. Our first round was successful. She was stabilized and we quietly celebrated. Within minutes, however, this young lady began a rapid decline. Our hearts sank. We could do nothing more for her but pray and watch her die. Two of us began praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, a traditional prayer at the hour of death. She died within minutes.
We found the family in the hospital’s courtyard and broke the news. It was devastating, especially for the brother of the deceased. Ultimately, he needed psychiatric assistance, including medication to calm him. All I could do was sit quietly with him and be present. I kept saying, “I am sorry. I’m so sorry.” These were the few words I knew in his language. I must have sat there next to him for close to an hour. Before I left, the brother looked me intently in the eyes and asked me to pray. I prayed the only prayer I knew in French, the Our Father (in Haiti, Catholics speak Haitian Creole, but pray in French). It seemed I had done little for the family, but I had done all that was needed: to be present and to care.
Two hours later (or was it one, or three?) I walked the short distance back to our residence. I was overwhelmed with emotion. As I stopped and looked up into the sky I suddenly realized, through my tears, that my faith was stronger than it had ever been. “How could my faith actually increase amidst all this suffering?” I asked myself rhetorically. Walking with others in their suffering is to walk with Jesus and let him walk with me. I experienced what I had been teaching for years. I thanked God for that moment.
Loving God, you who are our sure foundation, we come to you with so many needs. We are powerless in many ways. So often we do not know what to do for others in their trials. To be present with others in times of need is to be your presence. Help us never forget that the smallest gesture offered in love can bring hope to someone’s life. Help us to remember that often all you ask of us is to show up and be present. Most of all, Loving Father, increase our faith, especially amidst suffering. We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Fr. James Bromwich is a Catholic priest, mission leader in healthcare, storyteller and a good friend.