Olnite was part of the Starfish program when I took over leadership of the program in the spring of 2016. She was one of the first women to successfully start a business with our small business loan program, She had used her loan to buy a large cooler so she could buy fresh fish from the fishermen early in the morning. The cooler allowed the fish to stay on ice and last longer into the day. She also had another side hustle selling special oil they use in their hair. She had repaid her loan three different times and kept investing her earnings back into her businesses.
She was tall and skinny, always sporting some funky hair style. She was older and more mature, but so grounded and confidant. I graduated her from the program, but later brought her back to participate in a program we ran for awhile where the only aid we provided were small business loans to the participants. She was to be more of a mentor for the rest of the women, but still participated in the program. We gave her additional funding for a larger loan to purchase a second cooler. She graduated fully at the end of 2018.
Towards the end of 2018, she had a strange bump in the armpit. I can remember us sending her to get labs done, as the doctor who serves at Tytoo thought maybe it was some strange infection or boil. The labs were inconclusive and we guessed it would either come to a head or go away after a while.
She graduated from the program and I didn’t see her for a few months. I remember running into her one day in the village where she lived and she showed me how the bump had not gone away, but had actually grown in size. I had our doctor write another reference and we sent her to a hospital in Port-au-Prince that time. Her visits there were also inconclusive as the doctors told her there was nothing they could do for her.
Another month or so passed and the next time I saw her the bump had grown so big, she could no longer keep her arm down. She held it up constantly, resting it on her head. At that point, we gave her money to go to a hospital much further away. By this point, I was guessing it was cancer and her visit to this last hospital concluded just that. Unfortunately, they told her they would be unable to operate and there was nothing they could do for her.
Early summer arrived and she came to me in so much pain. She had lost a lot of weight by that point, not that she even had much to lose in the first place. She told me she wanted to go and be by her mom, who lived three hours away in the southern peninsula. We looked at her finances, because she had yet again saved up quite a bit of money through our small loan program. She decided she needed $50 to travel to her mom’s, but she wanted to save the rest of the money for her children. I agreed with her decisions, hoping she would come back miraculously healed, but knowing deep down that that was probably going to be the last time I saw her.
A few weeks passed and her daughter, who I would guess to be 16 or 17, tracked me down during a Starfish meeting one Tuesday. She passed her phone to me and all my fears came true. A video played of Olnite lying on the ground, screaming in pain. Her tumor had busted open and her entire armpit was one massive wound. I could only watch for one second. My heart shattered for her.
The only hospitals we knew of that deal with cancer had already turned her away and now she was so far away from us, there was nothing we could do. The lack of resources ran me over like a train that day, as I sat there knowing that there was nothing we could do to help her. We gave her daughter money that day so that her and her two other siblings could travel and be with her. Two short weeks later they returned to tell us she had passed away.
I was somewhat relieved to hear the news, because I knew the amount of pain she was suffering from. But that holy anger sure did roar inside. Why cancer? Why Olnite? Why does Haiti have to be so damn hard? How can we be only 800 miles from Florida, where there’s revolutionary, state of the art medical facilities and world class doctors? How is it possible that in today’s world, with all the technology and medicine, people are still dying in such agonizing ways?
Her cancer literally broke out of her skin and there was nothing we could do to save her, all because of where she was born. I hate that reality so much. Sometimes I think we paint this picture of poor people and bottle it all up into a definition of them lacking material possessions, but it’s so much more than that. The reality of the poverty we face in Haiti means we don’t even have hospitals with oxygen sometimes. The countrywide lockdown these last several months resulted in several hospitals closing altogether due to lack of resources.
The thing I loved most about Olnite was that she never played victim. She was an entrepreneur and seemed so determined; so fearless. We were able to help her and her family in many ways through our Starfish program, but she always carried this spirit that made me believe she would make it with or without us.
Sometimes there will be participants in the program who just expect you to do everything for them, but she was never, ever that way. That’s actually probably why I was always so drawn to her; plus, I always felt like there was something I could learn from her. I think that’s the hardest part about her death, knowing the type of person she was and then knowing that her suffering and ultimately her death took away all that she was: strong, resilient, brave.