William E. Cloud
Wancelo Died Last Night was not the original title of this piece when I began writing it four months ago in May, 2016. Wancelo Jules was alive, but sicker than I realized at the time. I originally titled it Somebody Touched Me because I believed our lives had just intersected in the mountains of Haiti for a divine reason – to save his young life. Sadly, that was not to be. Despite a mighty struggle, Wancelo died from the complications of AIDS at the age of maybe 13. (He was an orphan and no one, not even he, knew his actual age). In any event, his early death could have been prevented with proper medical care and medicine – neither of which he had access to in the remote area where he lived nor was it affordable.
My mother’s favorite spiritual, Somebody Touched Me, was about a woman who had been sick for a very long time. She had spent all her money on medicine that did no good. She was at death’s door. One day she “heard about Jesus was passing by, so she joined the gathering throng and while she was pushing her way through, someone ask her: ‘What are you trying to do?’” She answered: “If I could just touch the hem of his garment I know I’ll be made whole.” She managed to touch Jesus as he walked by. Even though he didn’t see who it was, he “turned around and cried ‘Somebody touched me.’” I was reminded of this song when I met Wancelo.
My wife, Carole, and I traveled to Haiti to visit a medical center in the mountainous community of Lazil, Fleurant, that was damaged by the 2010 earthquake. The area had been without a medical facility ever since. Our purpose was to inspect and assess what repairs would be required to make it operational again. The word had gone out in the community about the purpose of our visit and we were met by a large crowd of people who greeted our party with great fanfare, including a step-show performed by students who attended the school next door to the clinic.
After the festivities, I noticed a young boy leaning against a nearby truck. He caught my attention because he resembled one of my grandsons, except he had such a sad face. He was very thin and continuously rubbed his eyes. After we made eye contact several times, I felt an inexplicable connection with him. Intrigued by what I was feeling, I asked him through an interpreter whether he was enrolled in the school. He told me in a barely audible voice that problems with his eyes prevented him from attending school. I later learned that he lived with his 23-year-old sister, Chela, who had two children. They were very poor and she struggled to keep everyone fed.
Chela disclosed something even more distressing. Wancelo was gestationally HIV positive. After their parents died of AIDS, she borrowed $150, pledging the family home as collateral, to pay for Wancelo’s inpatient treatment in a private hospital for a month. She defaulted on the loan and was not only about to lose the house to foreclosure, but was facing the threat of going to jail for nonpayment of the debt. Haiti has debtor’s prison. With no money, Wancelo went untreated for the virus for several years. To complicate matters, he contracted yellow fever, a viral infection that has no cure, that had progressed to the toxic, deadly phase.
As his sister described his poor health and her family’s desperate plight, Wancelo touched my arm. By no means am I trying to equate myself with Jesus, but I can only describe the feeling of his torch as spiritual. It was as though I had been divinely commanded to intervene into his life. I looked down into his eyes and saw a silent plea for help from this desperately sick child. I committed then and there to do everything within my power to save his life. He later told me that he was afraid of dying and that I gave him hope of living a longer life.
I laid awake all that night thinking about him and trying to understand the deeply emotional feeling I was experiencing. This was later interpreted it as Wancelo’s mother’s spirit watching over him and that I was a Godsend. I humbly accepted that explanation.
The virtually nonexistence of healthcare in the rural Haiti countryside made it abundantly clear that getting him lifesaving treatment and medication there was going to be a major challenge. Recognizing this, the next day we took him to the capital Port au Prince to get him medically assessed and treated.
Unfortunately, all of Haiti’s public hospitals were shut down by a doctors’ strike over nonpayment of wages and poor working conditions. So, we had to take him to one of the few private hospitals that were open. We arrived at the first hospital at about 9:00 in the morning. The tarp canopy covered the outdoor waiting area in the parking lot covered by a tarp canopy and the one inside the building were packed beyond full capacity with people who had been waiting to be seen since 5 a.m. Our Haitian interpreter offered to monetarily “persuade” the guard to make an exception, which still might not have helped since there were more than 200 people ahead of us waiting in the stifling heat. We took him to another hospital where he underwent tests at a cost of $115; a pittance for medical care in the U.S., but well beyond the financial means of the vast majority of Haitians who survive on only $1.50 to $2.00 a day.
Tests confirmed Wancelo was nearly in full-blown AIDS. Aggressive treatment was urgently needed to save his life. Since I was scheduled to return home in a few days, I left him in the care of a pastor who agreed to take him into her home so that he could continue receiving medical care.
Wancelo saw Carole and I off at the airport. It was a very emotional departure. We were no longer strangers. During the short time we had been together, Wancelo became very attentive to Carole. He would hold her arm walking or climbing steps. Since we couldn’t understand each other verbally, we constantly showed each other our affection through thumbs-up and fist-bumps. He no longer seemed the sad little boy I met a few days earlier. It was clear he had hope for the first time in a long while. His demeanor had also brightened dramatically by the new I-phone, clothes, sneakers, sunglasses and wholesome meals.
When I got back home, I learned that there are plentiful resources available here for HIV treatment, especially for children, including programs for the uninsured that paid for the expensive medication. I visited the Whitman-Walker health center that specializes in providing HIV/AIDS care to the Washington, D.C. community. It has a very high success rate for treating the sickest of patients suffering with HIV/AIDS. One doctor there told me: “If you can get him [Wancelo] to us, we’ll bring him back.”
Encouraged by this, I started the application process to get him a visa to come to the U.S. The first requirement to obtain a visa is a birth certificate. He didn’t have one. As it turned out, getting a copy of a birth certificate where he lived would have been a bureaucratic nightmare. The keeping of vital statistics such as birth and death certificates is lacking in rural Haiti to say the least. And even if I was fortunate in getting his birth certificate, securing a visa would be even more problematic since he was a minor orphan who had not been appointed a legal guardian.
Before I had time to start the visa application process, however, his health took a serious turn for the worse. He developed sores in his mouth, stopped eating and began to hallucinate two weeks after I left Haiti. His sister insisted he be brought back home. I arranged transportation from Port au Prince to the hospital nearest his home in Ley Caye. His sister wanted to stay nearby while he was hospitalized because travelling to and from her home and the hospital would have been extremely difficult given the distance and lack of transportation. I paid for her food and lodging for the nearly two months he languished in the hospital before he died on August 4, 2016. It also paid his final hospital bill and funeral expenses.
Wancelo was unable to speak the entire time he was hospitalized. I never heard his voice again.
I got to Wancelo too late to save him. Had he not gone untreated for the virus virtually his entire life, his death could have been prevented since advances in the treatment of HIV has changed the prognosis from a death sentence to a chronic disease. That’s not the case for those infected in Haiti, particularly in the rural countryside, because access to basic healthcare is either scarce, nonexistent and/or unaffordable for the average citizen. Only God knows how many thousands of Haitians with health problems go untreated. The needless loss of Wancelo to a treatable disease gives even greater urgency to providing access to medical care to those in that God-forsaken country.
I hope and pray that just as I was touched by Wancelo, his story will prompt others to help the Cloud Foundation provide urgently needed medical care to the Haitian people.