a giant has just left us.
The passing of our friend, Rodrigue Mortel, MD
A few years ago I began a paean to this wonderful person thusly, “My goal is to nurture young minds, give them a thorough education and turn them into upright and outstanding citizens who respect their brothers and sisters, love their country and above all have a deep faith in God,” is a quote not from the book of utopia but the firm belief of a colleague who retired from his lifelong career as a stellar clinician, teacher and researcher to delve into the perilous terrain of providing first-rate schooling to wretched children in the motherland. This colleague is none other than Rodrigue Mortel, MD, the beneficiary of universal brotherly adulation for his accomplishments as demonstrated recently when the word spread like wildfire that he was awarded an Honorary alumnus diploma by Penn State University, joining an exclusive club of only a handful of faculty members of the Penn State University School of Medicine to have been picked by the President and the Trustees of the University of Penn State for such accretion to a step closer to empyrean echelon of academia.
Far too often we tend to heap praise on a fellow citizen as a posthumous gesture and paying scant attention during the person’s lifetime. This is an unfortunate cultural trait but a habit that needs to be broken. It is routine in North America to honor an individual who has accumulated a lasting legacy; this type of recognition has all the salutary effect of positive feedback, fostering further goodwill and encouraging the individual to continue for society’s benefit. This evaluation is based on correspondence, conversations with our friend.”
I now find myself in the conventional and delicate position of birthing a posthumous tribute to that very person. At the very least, I can pat myself on the back and feel happy that I paid timely respect to a vaunted figure of our society during his living. Rodrigue and I go back to the nineties after I had helped organize the first-ever AMHE scientific congress in our homeland along with our sister society AMH. He and I clicked from then on. I was pleasantly surprised that one year or so after I wrote a full-length article about him that he asked me to help him write another version of his autobiography. We spent countless hours going over the minutest details of his life and it was remarkable that he was so open and willing to share aspects of it that the average person from our society would shun describing. He volunteered the fact that his mother was a restavèk but that he loved her so much that at her funeral, “I had to find the moxie to remain upbeat but deep inside, another struggle was shaping over that tragic day of July 1989. It was the day when my life became unhinged because I had to bury my mother. It never occurred to me that when in Haiti, I could function without the presence, the soothing and reassuring voice of my mom, the one person who fashioned my life and after whom I have molded mine. In my adult life, this was by far the most traumatic event I ever had to endure. Yes, my mom whom I loved dearly was leaving my sister and me behind after a third but so painful bout of stroke. The suffering I endured while watching her deteriorate on a daily basis in front of my very eyes paled in comparison to the realization that she was leaving this world as we know it and forever I couldn’t touch her skin, see her smile, have her rub her callous hands on my balding scalp. I was being robbed of a very dear possession that I always took for granted; my heart was being ripped from my chest and I had a hard time coming to terms with it. I was being torn apart into small pieces, feeling like a flyspeck, a dust mote, as buffeted as my soul was.
That day at the church, I started crying uncontrollably, shedding tears for the pang and the searing hurt that my soul was wallowing in. This was a moment out of character of my stoic self. I have gone through a lot of hardship, I have been part of or seen up close human suffering of epic proportion and somehow I always found the strength to carry on, but that day, I became unglued and the seams of my being were bursting wide open. My mom meant so much to me for she had done so much to allow me to be where I am today. She literally worked herself to an extreme so I could have something she regretted never having had an opportunity to enjoy: the simple pleasure of writing and reading, the reward of a formal academic education.”
Although we did finish the project, titled “The power of H.I.P.A.D.” (it stands for Honesty. Integrity. Productivity. Assiduity. Determination.), at the end his publisher advised him to write about a different chapter of his life to forestall any criticism that he was rehashing events previously described in his first autobiography. He didn’t want to impose on me to start all over again- although I didn’t mind to- and he went solo and concentrated on his activities as the founder of several schools back home in St Marc. We always kept in touch and I am sharing a picture he had sent me that summarizes the joy he felt making sure he imbued the destitute with the single most important asset in one’s life: an education.
He single-handedly founded the Mortel Foundation and he built a string of schools for the destitute. He was a man of strong convictions, undeterred by potentially troublesome consequences. Of late, despite all the insecurity back home, he would take a trip to his birthplace on a monthly basis to supervise the handling of the schools. During his tenure as the Chairman of the Ob-Gyn Dept at Penn State, he forbade the performance of abortions because of his value system and he told me he would have welcomed any challenge by any group to reverse that policy. That endeared him with the Archbishop of his archdiocese and they had a mutually satisfying and long relationship and his birthplace benefited from its largesse. Let’s be clear about this, I am not suggesting any quid pro quo; I am merely pointing out that this principled man carried his heart on his sleeve, was quite able to convince skeptics, willing to turn mountains to corral others’ support to his worthy cause. He had become a deacon and was willing what he was preaching.
The above picture tells us all we need to know. Good work is appreciated. There is a preternatural need for a good role model. May he rest in peace and send his positive vibes our way in our steadfast quest to follow such consequential footsteps. I find it propitious to share this poem:
Requiem for a fallen angel.
There is a natural law to which there is no exception:
Sooner or later each one of us will cease being and to function.
A verity, it surely is, but why this is so, we will never know.
Unwittingly we are spectators witnessing a terrible show:
An unending tug of war playing out between friend and foe,
Unlike the harmony between leg, foot and toe.
Life, our friend, through birth, replenishes the population,
Death, our foe, waves the specter of its extinction.
One of our Angels had a fatal fall,
Forever, will no longer respond to our friendly call.
Like a fallen autumn leaf absent around spring,
Only a kluge of a sound will come from a guitar missing a string.
When absent among the livings, is a close relative’s name,
It means that one’s perspective will never be the same.
From our communal listing, this angel is forever gone,
A most painful fact for it can’t be undone.
Saying farewell and good-bye,
But really meaning or wishing for a stand-by,
Like the buoy on rough water remaining steady.
Wishful musings for sure, but nonetheless heady.
One of our eternal dreams: how we wish we could last forever!
Can at least the memories and the spirit never
Be forgotten? And for good reason will the good deeds
Not be buried but germinate and become good seeds?
An Angel has fallen; why now, we will never know.
It is painfully obvious we are lining in a row,
Oblivious or not, but getting ready for the final tow
Which will come at its own speed, swift or slow.
Our time is ticking and most unfortunately, someday,
Somewhere, somehow, like today,
Come rain, come shine, a turn, our own,
Will come and we will go on
The trek that we have to take all alone,
From hither to yon.
Reynald Altéma, MD