After a few days, morning rounds at the H?pital Sacr? Couer in Haiti quickly became a ritual. Walking classroom to classroom ? an adjacent school had been converted to hospital rooms to accommodate the hundreds of patients who arrived after the earthquake on January 12 ? I greeted patients lying on improvised beds made from wooden school benches and mats. ?Bonjour, kouman ou ye?? (?Good morning, how are you??) I would say in Creole with a somewhat strained smile across my face. Almost in unison, the response from the patients was ?M pa pi mal,? which translates as, ?I am not worse.?
I didn?t give this common colloquial response much thought at first as I made my way from patient to patient during my first several days. One young woman had lost half her leg. She seemed eternally grateful each morning and evening for the few minutes I spent reviewing her chart, briefly examining her infected stump, and providing pain medication. My next patient, a middle-aged man, had second and third degree burns over his face, chest and upper extremities. Although there is a natural tendency to avert one's eyes from scarred flesh, I found myself carefully examining his disfigured face each day, his peeling lips and eyes nearly swollen shut. I began to see the faintest taut smile emerge a little more each day. My next patient was an 8-year-old girl who had a three-inch stump protruding from her shoulder where her left arm used to be. Accompanied by a doting family member, the two of them nonetheless shared the same listless look.
The rest of the makeshift hospital room sheltered a paraplegic middle-aged man with a spinal fracture, two patients with deeply infected ulcers, and a young woman with a multi-part pelvis fracture. As I left the converted classroom, I found myself wondering how these people could choose a phrase (M pa pi mal) that expressed such a sense of optimism and gratitude ? acknowledging each day that things could have been worse?when they had suffered such loss. Most of us would have felt helpless. I was feeling helpless. They were bringing me up.