At St. Damien Hospital in Haiti there is a special ward named the “Fish Room”, which cares for abandoned children with special needs. Read how NPH Haiti helps give these children a fighting chance. December 28, 2020 - Haiti
Jérome, a young child with special needs in the Fish Room
St. Damien Pediatric Hospital, being a philanthropic and non-profit organization with a mission to help underprivileged and destitute people, is often a refuge of forgotten cases. This includes children of all ages suffering from difficult circumstances, many of which have special needs and severe neurological disabilities.
When St. Damien Hospital was situated in Pétion-Ville, there was a room on the 4th floor named “Room 41”, which consisted of six beds, two auxiliary nurses: one working during the day, the other at night; and a doctor, assigned to oversee the children when needed. Over time, “Room 41” gained the unfavorable name, “the abandoned room”, due to the children it served who were abandoned by their parents.
Once St. Damien moved to Tabarre on 30 September 2006, “Room 41” adopted a kinder name: the “Salle Poisson”, meaning the “Fish Room”, gaining the name through an ingenious system to help illiterate people find their way around the hospital; as they cannot read names of the wards, rooms are named after objects so can be identified by a drawing. Therefore, the Oncology Unit is renamed “the Mango Room”.
During this time, the room increased its capacity to 12 beds, with the ability to treat children with cerebral palsy, microcephaly, neurological sequelae with limitation of movement, among other conditions. The majority of the children are between 5-and 13-years-of-age, sometimes staying for long periods of time, as NPH Haiti and Institute of Social Welfare try to find the best solution to accommodate the child in the long term.
In many cases, the children have been left in the street, at the hospital gates or in the courtyard. Sometimes policemen or the parents bring them needing urgent medical care, only for the parents not return. On occasions, mothers who give birth at St. Damien’s Rita Merli Maternity Program which treat high-risk delivery cases, abandon their new-born babies despite the vigilance of the staff.
Before the earthquake on 12 January 2010, the organization Handicap International estimated that 800,000 of the then 8 million population lived with a disability in Haiti. Since then, there has been no census or documents reporting on the special needs’ population in the country. However, that number is estimated to be much higher, increasing the pressure on an already fragile infrastructure.
The social stigma creates additional barriers for people with disabilities in Haiti, due to the panoply of cultural and religious beliefs leading to discrimination. The disabilities are often seen as having a supernatural origin. Many parents of children with special needs abandon them or hide them from view of the community for the fear of reprisal, and because they lack the basic skills, education, community support and financial resources to cope with the needs of the children.
In some cases, the doctors are unable to save the children, and unfortunately they do not survive. If possible, the social work department of the Institute of Social Welfare rehome the children in nurseries or with families, although this is difficult due to the type of attention that the children require. St. Damien has sought to close this unit and tried to ensure that children go to specialist homes or wards that support children with disabilities. The NPH Haiti Special Needs Program regularly sends therapists from the home for disabilities, Key Germaine, for physiotherapy sessions. Very rarely are the children transferred to main NPH Haiti home, St. Helene; they usually go to Saint Simon, which has the staff and facilities to cope with specific special needs children
The Christmas Season is always very cheerful in Haiti, despite the various social issues affecting much of 11.12 million population. With Christianity playing a significant role in daily life in Haiti, it is a time to celebrate the birth of Christ, as well as rejoice and enjoy the merriment throughout the country. Throughout the towns and cities, the streets are filled with people, and shops are stocked with toys and gifts. The small traders take the opportunity to embellish the streets by spreading their trestles with toys of all kinds which makes the eyes of children shine.
Christmas does not go unnoticed at St. Damien either. The atmosphere becomes cheerful from the beginning of December, with the sun feeling brighter and the joy filling the air. Employees decorate the hospital so shines with tinsel and shiny bulbs, with exchange of gifts and the St. Damien choir prepares for the Christmas Mass at the hospital, which is followed by a hearty Christmas dinner.
The Fish Room is no different. The children's ears are charmed with Christmas songs and the nurses go more out of their way than usual to create a festive atmosphere for the children, while continuing the everyday duty of care to ensure the emotional and physical wellbeing of the children. Santa Claus pays a visit bearing gifts such as new clothes, blankets and toys for special needs children that are attached to their cot. This brings smiles to the faces of children who might not have experienced Christmas before. And despite being abandoned, they are gifted with the love from doctors and nurses committed to giving them a fresh chance in life.
Are you able to support the children at the Fish Room this Christmas? Donate $20 to help purchase a new toy, blanket or clothing for our abandoned children. Join the Life Savers. Donate at nph.org.
Damarie Egide Voight Saint Damien Hospital Communication Officer
You may be only one person in the world, but you may be all the world to one child.
—Fr. William Wasson