There's a Chance That Lives in Every Dream
A story by David Caldarella, a stage IV cancer survivor and grateful patient.
St. Damien’s Church
The following blog represents my own personal thoughts and feelings on a recent mission trip to Haiti. The invitation to accompany Jefferson Health was the opportunity and experience of a lifetime. I was blessed to join the amazing doctors and nurses from University of Miami and Jefferson Health including my dear friend and lifesaving surgeon, Dr. David M. Cognetti, MD, FACS, Co-Director, Jefferson Center for Head and Neck Surgery, and Associate Professor, Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. I was equally blessed to have my friend of 25+ years and professional photographer Michael John Murphy join the trip. Michael is a kind soul and it was a real personal comfort for me to have him along on this journey. Thankfully, I will lean on Michael’s pictures to better tell the incredible story of this mission trip to Haiti.
Anne Cognetti and David Caldarella visiting the abandoned children
We arrived in Haiti on Sunday afternoon and headed straight to St. Luke’s Hospital after dumping our gear in the compound so the doctors and nurses could unload supplies and meet with patients for surgery. We started each morning with breakfast in our compound and then attended church service at 7 a.m. We were joined at church by locals as well as groups from France, Canada, Italy, and University of Scranton. Unfortunately, daily mass also included funeral services for far too many babies and children.
This stark reality served as a constant reminder and backdrop for our trip. However, chapel always provided a peaceful and spiritual start to our day. The entire crew was present for mass each morning and brought a sense of unity to the group.
I followed the funeral procession from the chapel on our first day to the final resting spot for the deceased. I joined Dr. David Cognetti’s cousin Dr. Peter Cognetti and his kids, Anne and Will for the rest of the day. We visited St. Damien’s Pediatric Hospital where one of the rooms is designated for abandoned children. These babies and children are left to fend for themselves and are often brought to St. Damien’s for needed care, love and eventually placed with an orphanage. This room is most likely the first place these beautiful children feel human touch. The image above shows Anne Cognetti and me visiting with the children.
St. Damien’s complex also houses a warehouse, chicken coops, tilapia breeding ponds, gardens, bakery, and various other opportunities for locals to support themselves. After the pediatric hospital visit, we finished the first day by helping Founder Fr. Rick Frechette organize the construction supplies section of the warehouse. The photo above shows the completed task.
Michael and I joined a group heading to Cité Soleil for our second day. It took us approximately one hour from chapel at St. Damien’s through the “streets” of Port-Au-Prince to get to Cité Soleil where we were met by local gang leaders who would later serve as translators between the Haitian people and our doctors. We set up a pop-up clinic on this day where somewhere between 50 and 100 patients were seen by our doctors.
The devastation and destruction that we witnessed in this area will remain with us for the rest of our lives. The people are welcoming of any support and hope could be seen in the eyes of the children. This was evident when our friend Chris shared some clothing and a couple new soccer balls with them. The picture above was taken by Michael as we arrived at St. Mary’s where we set up our clinic for the day. The small bridge was a gateway over mountains of waste and trash that here at home we would only see in an open landfill. However, this is where people lived in aluminum huts if they were lucky with animals rummaging through this canal of waste that led to the Atlantic Ocean. The cleared parcel of dirt along their “beach” visible to the right of the canal of waste in the picture above is where kids migrate after school to play soccer. The plight of the human condition throughout this country is unimaginable and Cité Soleil shakes you to your very core!
St. Luke’s Hospital – Surgery Blackout
Our third full day was spent with the University of Miami and TJUH doctors, nurses, and team members. Michael continued to photograph. I spent the day operating the blood supply circulation pump and supporting the medical team however possible. The photo above shows one of the times that we were greeted by a blackout during surgery. The team remained focused and many iPhone flashlights were turned on as you can see in the right corner of the picture above. Our medical team worked side by side with skilled Haitian surgeons like Dr. Patrick Jean Gilles, nurses, and other medical team members.
This image captured by Michael in surgery is one of my favorites of the entire trip and doesn’t need much of an explanation. I am helping Dr. Cognetti with his surgical gown as he prepares to operate on a Haitian patient. This was an equally gratifying and extremely emotional day for me on so many levels. I was the patient almost seven years ago, on the surgical table and now to be serving others side by side with some of the surgical team from TJUH that saved my life was truly a moment that I will cherish forever.
David Caldarella & Dr. David Cognetti
It was extremely humbling to witness the skill, care, and compassion delivered by the medical team and as a former patient I can appreciate the quality of their lifesaving care.
Our compound had an outdoor eating/meeting area and flats that would house up to 6 people. Michael and I shared a room in our flat with Dr. Cognetti and first-year Jefferson University medical student Matthew along with a pediatric doctor and his wife from Italy. There was one bathroom and we were fortunate to have cold running water out of the shower if at all. Each bed came equipped with a mosquito net. We were so grateful for our accommodations because nearby there was so much despair and devastation.
Michael captured this picture in a newly-built chapel inside the compound at St. Luke’s Hospital prior to leaving for Toussaint Louverture International Airport for our return trip home. I started to feel sick our last night in Haiti so I think this picture the next morning captures me, physically and emotionally drained, reflecting deeply on the mission experience. I was thinking about the Haitian people, loved ones at home and those special angels that watch over us now. I felt God’s presence in this moment as much as I did during my battle with cancer. I also know a wave of emotion came over me at some point in this quiet moment regarding the totality of this mission trip. Tears started to flow and my heart was empty and full all at the same time.
Group Photo – Haiti Mission Trip 2017