The horror was in the stomach, an empty, draining pain. All the way up the highway, Rosemond Lorimé had felt it running out of him. It was like the river running out of him, getting worse with every turn around the mountains.
Rosemond lived in a thatch-and-mud house in Meille, a small village on Haiti's central plateau, built along a little river of the same name. There wasn't much to do there, among the bean plants and banana trees, for a man of 21. You could swim or take a bath in the river. You could help the older folks raise pigs and turkeys, or plant cassava. Rosemond and his cousin would sell rum and kleren moonshine to the soldiers at the U.N. base, and introduce them to the neighborhood girls in exchange for a few dollars. But that was about it. Even the earthquake had been boring in Meille. The ground had just groaned and rumbled and stopped.
The sickness came nine months after. Rosemond's father fell ill first. A low, hard pain formed in his gut and radiated all over his body. Then the diarrhea began, then vomiting, torrential like a fall storm. Soon everyone in the house was sick: Rosemond, his four brothers and sisters, his mother. The illness then moved into the neighboring houses. The family gathered up its money and sent Rosemond's father to the hospital in the nearby town of Mirebalais. But it soon became clear that Rosemond's sickness was the worst. Pain gripped his gut, and heat rose in his head and cut his intestines as if he'd eaten a stick of thorns. His stomach became a rejecting vessel. The water he drank would come back up or go straight out. Rice did the same. Even the garlic tea and cotton leaf that the women in the village gave him to settle his stomach ended up vomited or run out onto the ground. The diarrhea kept flowing; Rosemond became thirstier and thirstier. Neighbors whispered that it must be a spell.
The family looked for money to send Rosemond to the hospital too, but it took days to find enough. The day after his father returned home, weary but alive, Rosemond's brothers put the slumping young man on the back of a motorcycle taxi to go to Mirebalais.
Under an arid sky, arms carried Rosemond into the little hospital with green-painted walls. A voice cried out in the room. Struggling for air, Rosemond closed his drying eyes and never opened them again. It was Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010.
I was grinding up Route Delmas toward the AP bureau in Pétionville with my fixer, Evens Sanon, when a news report came over on the radio:
"…the hospital in Saint-Marc. The Ministry of Public Health and Population reports that 41 people have died. Many are children. The patients arrive at the hospital with symptoms of vomiting, fever, and strong diarrhea. The Ministry of Public Health and Population urges all citizens in the Department of the Artibonite to watch for symptoms and report them…"
I suddenly felt sick too. Though experts at the World Health Organization, medical NGOs, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had been emphasizing that a major epidemic would be unlikely after the quake, they pushed out vaccinations to be sure. I'd dutifully chased down every lead, increasingly joining the experts in their skepticism. But something about this -- the number of people, the specificity of the symptoms, and the pinpointing of a locale -- was different. This sounded real. We pulled out our phones, Evens dialing the health ministry to try to confirm the report.
I did what I always did when major news broke in a part of Haiti I couldn't reach immediately: I called the United Nations.
Yes, a spokeswoman said: There is a situation in Saint-Marc. An international team was making the 60-mile trip north from Port-au-Prince to Saint-Marc to investigate. And yes, there were dead: 19 confirmed. It was Wednesday, Oct. 20; three days, unbeknownst to us, after Rosemond Lorimé died.
Saint-Marc lies an hour up the coast from Port-au-Prince, just below the Artibonite River delta. The main hospital was overwhelmed with patients; more than 1,000 had flocked there from across the river valley. The sick and dying lay on soiled blankets in the parking lot, nurses darting around to put IVs in their arms. Police barricaded the hospital gate, letting only urgent cases through; relatives watched helplessly as their loved ones went in. The policemen covered their noses and mouths with surgical masks and bandannas, in case this mysterious disease was spreading through the air.