The smell of putrid flesh, acrid and hostile to her senses, rose from the pile of what was once a humble low-rise apartment building. The din around her tried to drown out a small cry, but somehow her ears picked up the weak, persistent sound,
She held her finger to her ear in a silent order to listen while searching their faces for confirmation that they'd heard the tiny cry as well.
The dust covered, exhausted men around her paused their shoveling, glad for a moment's reprieve. Days upon days of searching hung on them and their eyes held a grief too deep to speak. Culled from survivors, they were an unlikely collection of humanity, an unlikely team of strangers.
She knew none of their stories: what they did in their lives before the world came tumbling down, what their dreams were, who they loved, what made them cry. Something of this magnitude leveled the playing field and brought them all down to one common denominator: survival, for them and for the people they hoped to rescue.
"Kisa? Konben?" Maxime, a slight young man, whispered to Sonya West, a Senior Nurse with Angels Aid International.
"He say, 'What? How many?'" interpreted Darley, the unofficial lieutenant of the Haitian crew under her temporary authority.
"It sounds like an infant. Hurry! Dig!"
After forty five minutes they reached the tiny little girl, held in the cocoon of her mother's arms in a selfless attempt to protect her from falling debris.
"We too late," said Darley, "she gone."
After confirming the death, Sonya laid the child back in her mother's arms and they marked the spot for the recovery teams to collect the bodies. The little babe was one of many they'd found that day; none of them were they able to save from a miserable death.
The group stood in silence, with no ability to move on from the moment. The stirring hope that they'd felt at the sound of life, tiny as it was, now crashed and faded; they couldn't go on. They were at fourteen hours straight with no break; determination to find at least one person alive had driven them on.
Sonya threw down her Red Cross supplied helmet, tears of anger and exhaustion accompanied her as she slumped to the rubble beneath her feet.
"I'm not Search and Rescue! I'm a nurse! Finding dead people is NOT what I'm here for!" Great sobs rose from her chest and she gasped for air between cries,
"When will more teams get here? I can't do this!"
The men around her nodded their silent agreement, each taking turns laying a hand on her shoulder as they filed slowly out of the site, confirming with a look and nod that they would be back at sunrise the next morning.
The next day turned into several, but each day more teams arrived and Sonya was finally relieved from rescue duty and stationed where she belonged, in the triage tent. The buildup of endless day's stress and fear clung to her but she was now in her element. There were successes and miracles to celebrate, to bring hope among the devastating losses. That hope kept her going.
Every day was a long nightmare of heat, sweat, blood and heartache. At the end of it, after a sponge bath and a tasteless dinner, she would drop onto her cot in the large tent that served as nurses quarters and sleep the slumber of the exhausted: silent, void, empty. Only to rise again the next dawn and do it all again while praying for strength to carry on.
Weeks turned into months; she extended her stay more times than she could count. Her parents begged her to come home; they didn't realize how much she'd changed from the self-absorbed young nursing graduate they said goodbye to at the airport.
Here advisor agreed, "Sonya, at least take a sabbatical. You can always come back. That is, if you still want to after you get home and come to your senses."
"That's just it. I think...no, I know...if I go home I won't want to come back. As afraid as I am here every day, I'm more afraid of not doing what I'm called to do."
Her advisor said nothing, waiting for Sonya to continue. When she didn't he asked, "How can you do it?"
"I wake up each morning and eat my manna for today...just for today. It's enough."
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