By Bruce Bellingham
Herbert Gold, San Francisco’s famous novelist, approached me in the rain on Polk Street the other night. With his wet trench coat, and the rain running off the brim of his khaki hat in the shadows, he looked like a character out of The Third Man. Funny that, the author of The Third Man was Graham Greene (he also wrote the screenplay for the classic movie). Greene was mad about the Caribbean. That’s what Herb Gold wanted to talk to me about. Not about Vienna, where The Third Man takes place, but about Haiti, where Herb’s been visiting off and on for decades. He’s been there about 35 times. Herb loves Haiti. I’ve never heard anyone say anything less than glowing about Haiti, in terms of her soul and her spirit. Herb wrote a famous book about Haiti called The Best Nightmare on Earth. That’s a revealing title. It’s hard to imagine a place on the planet that has had to endure more suffering. Since the earthquake that hit Haiti, the poorest nation in the hemisphere, killed 200,000 people two months ago, Herb’s heart has been breaking.
“Of course I want to go back,” says Herb, “but I’m not sure if I wouldn’t just get in the way. I’m a writer, not a doctor. I know people, friends of mine, who were killed. It’s very difficult. Newspapers won’t send reporters down there like they used to because of the economy. That could help, bringing more attention to this catastrophe.”
Herb suggested I get in touch with a friend of his – Dr. Yen-Len Tang, a pediatrician who works at Kaiser Hospital in Hayward.
Dr. Tang has been going down to Haiti since 2004, and left again just the other day for a month. His plans? To take care of sick and injured Haitian children who are hospitalized out in the countryside.
What is so compelling about Haiti? Why does it have such magical effects on so many who visit?
“Haiti is about chaotic growth and decay at the same time,” says Dr. Tang. “It’s really quite magnificent.”
These are such mysterious signals, such contradictions.
“Many more people will die before the recovery happens, but I have to go back. During normal times, Haitians demonstrate incredible patience, show deep friendship, produce wonderful music and food.”
Dr. Tang is paying his own travel expenses, using vacation time he’s accrued at Kaiser. He will be living at Hospital Albert Schweitzer, an American-financed operation that provides health care for 300,000 people in central Haiti.
I wondered if he might be worried about his personal safety. He’s not, mostly because he will not be in the capital, Port-au-Prince, as things get grimmer. They will get grimmer before they get better. He also can speak the local lingo, Creole – a mix of French and the region’s ethnic African dialect. He’s divorced; his kids are terribly proud of him. Dr. Tang went to Johns Hopkins Medical School and trained at UCSF.
Will this journey into the postearthquake darkness make him become a better doctor?
“I think so,” says Dr. Tang. “Obviously I am going to encounter children who are far sicker, far more badly injured than I would see in Hayward. I also see Haiti, a third-world country, showing signs of first-world problems, such as childhood obesity and diabetes, while the poor diseases, such as malnutrition, are rampant too. They need our help, the help of the NGOs. I certainly get a lot out of being there.”
Herb Gold says there have been a lot of stupid things said about the disaster in Haiti – the vicious and vile things that Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh have said. Robertson said Haiti asked for the quake by making a pact with the devil all those years ago in order to gain independence from France.
“But,” added Herb, “for all of the putrid blathering from these morons, we still have someone like Dr. Yen-Len Tang, who shows real class, real kindness. That’s important to remember.”
Bruce Bellingham also writes for the Marina Times, our sister publication. But Bruce doesn’t have any sisters. Perhaps this experience is good for him. Let him know one way or another. E-mail him at email@example.com.