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From Haiti, with love [Commentary]

My wife of 55 years, Mallie, recently passed away in our home in South Florida after a hard-fought, three-year battle with stage-four lung cancer, although she never smoked, consumed alcoholic beverages, or, for that matter, ate red meat. But excruciating as it was to serve as her caregiver — and to ponder incessantly why a disease so unrelated to her lifestyle befell her — the ordeal brought into focus a neglected side of the current debates over immigration policy as well as the debate suggesting the decline of race relations.

For I was sustained during the long days and nights of Mallie's illness by the loving care from female immigrants from Haiti who fled the atrocious conditions of their country, came to South Florida and worked hard to gain pharmacy assistant certification, medical technician licenses or nursing degrees.

To be sure, I've always been a staunch supporter of the widest possible humanitarian parameters for immigrants. My father came this country from Italy in 1912 all alone, a 16-year-old-youngster, and I have no proof that he entered legally. What I know is that he was hard working and infused in his four children an appreciation for the enormous accomplishments we could attain in America. And nothing upsets me more than to hear news of fleeing Haitians losing their lives trying to reach Florida or being sent back to Haiti, no matter that the first African-American president holds sway in the White House and that under American policy, Cuban illegals generally get a free ride to their new land.

I was first smitten with Haitian immigrants in 1974 when, as an administrator at American University in Washington, D.C., I hired an executive secretary from that untoward island. Her main job was to assist me in the enormous problems of facilitating part-time and full-time faculty contracts. Young and bright-eyed and determined to continue her education as a result of university tuition benefits, she impressed me for two reasons: First, she was qualified; more important, she desperately needed employment and was willing to work long hours. Not only was my choice an excellent aide, but we became dear friends.

Mallie and I attended her wedding, socialized together in the D.C. area, played jokes on each other on birthdays, and spent time together in our Florida home after I retired. When Mallie was first diagnosed with cancer and, as a result of chemo, experienced severe bouts of cold flashes, my former secretary dropped all major activities and knitted in record time an afghan that Mallie carried with her like a child with a favorite blanket.

Also in these early months of Mallie's illness, I thought of my former secretary each time Mallie and I went to our local drug store to pick up her prescriptions. A female pharmacy assistant from Haiti made a special effort to respond to Mallie's radiant smile with an even bigger one, made light of my poor French, and always rendered the opinion that Mallie, sans hair, looked absolutely beautiful — warm gestures that undoubtedly increased the efficacy of Mallie's pain-easing medications.

Another Haitian window opened for Mallie when she had to undergo at a local hospital frequent MRIs of the brain where the cancer had spread. The disease also attacked her pelvic and ribcage bones, and it was almost impossible for Mallie to lie down with a Hannibal Lecter-type cage over her head for 30 minutes. But frightened as Mallie was on her first visit, the female technician from Haiti treated her as if she were her own mother. That tender loving care was such that subsequent visits were even anticipated.

Then when Mallie declined to such an extent that home hospice was necessary, three Haitian nurses came to her rescue, especially after a 24/7 regimen was called for. A 12-hour shift for nurses is no easy task, but hospice care is to nursing what oncology is to physicians, taking nerves of steel and challenging the body's capacity to function without debilitating emotion. And unlike a hospital setting where numerous resources are available, including monitoring equipment and relief aides for breaks and meal times, home hospice is constantly demanding, especially as a fretful husband roams the bedroom with questions and concern.

No matter. The nurses took charge of Mallie's bedside, rubbing her back, legs and arms with soothing creams, speaking softly about her beauty and resolve, administering morphine regularly, and, most of all, dealing with the most unspeakable of indignities as the body collapses. But Mallie, who would have turned 74 next week, died peacefully, caressed by her Haitian caregivers.

Shortly afterward, I called my former secretary who, not surprisingly, was now devoting much of her life to caring for her ailing father. I told her that the two of us didn't need to hear any more remonstrations about the declining state of race relations in America. And we both marveled about the unheralded lesson of Mallie's passing, namely, that those who had been subjected to so much hate and cruelty in their own country were somehow best suited to render the most love in their newly adopted one.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University. His email is

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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