Photo by Ellen Swanson
“There was an earthquake…” my mom started with as she sat me down. Tears burned behind my eyes as I heard the news that would change my life.
An 8.5 magnitude earthquake had not only just devastated the third-world island nation of Haiti, but had also shaken my world.
The tears were streaming and I couldn’t stop them; I was confused. I had no idea just how much of an impact this would eventually make on my life.
Of the 220,000 lives lost to the earthquake on January 12, 2010, my father, Dr. Frank Vaughters, was one. His hotel was crushed on the third day of a medical mission trip that he had been taking routinely for 22 years.
While in Haiti, he would collaborate with local care providers and set up medical clinics in various towns. He saw more than 100 patients each trip whose ailments varied from starvation to rare diseases, giving each patient his care and attention. His love for the country showed in his dedication to helping them.
My dad’s death taught me that I can’t change the past, but his actions in life taught me that I can positively impact the future for myself and others. It took nearly seven years, but I finally understand that the best way to live my life is to accept my loss and embrace it by loving others the way he loved Haiti.
I live by my dad’s example. I hear stories of his dedication and love, like how he never refused a patient in Haiti. I marvel at his investment, how he spent his entire inheritance in Haiti building better futures for the less-fortunate. He was devoted to the Haitian people, improving the lives of so many through his medical work and never asking for anything in return.
In March 2015, five years after the earthquake, I could truly understand his love for Haiti when I travelled there myself.
I felt my body temperature rise as I stepped foot onto the rebuilt grounds of the hotel that he died in. Standing at the mountainous hotel’s balcony, the sun illuminating the vast expanse of Haiti, I could feel his energy as the light hit my shoulders.
This energy led me to a memorial garden created for the victims of the earthquake. It prompted me towards the large bell in the corner, which my shaky hand firmly grasped. He and I rang the bell together.
Though the trip was mainly in my father’s honor, he would never have wanted me to make it all about him. Instead, he would have hoped for me to continue the work that he had started there, which was the remainder of the trip’s objective. I visited St. Paul’s School in Torbeck, Haiti, and for three days, taught girls ages 9 to 16 about feminine hygiene and how to make reusable menstrual supplies. In the future, I hope to implement this hygiene program in numerous schools across Haiti and to someday have as great of an impact as my dad. Through this experience, I was able to personally connect with the people of Haiti, rather than just trying to connect with them through my father.
The love that I felt in Haiti was immeasurable. I remember the glowing white smiles on pitch black skin as villagers tried their best to communicate with me despite my clear differences; the high-pitched laughter as my arms were tugged in all different directions by tiny dark hands at St. Paul’s. I realized why my dad dedicated so much of his life to these people — they radiated love, and he was thus able to give them even more love in return. I promised to myself that I would take the feelings I felt there with me always, and I do.
Back at home, I try my hardest to give people the love that I could feel in Haiti and to make everybody know that they matter, carrying out my father’s actions on a smaller scale. If a friend is in need of a pep-talk, a deep conversation or even just a hug, I like to be the first there for them.
I try to remind my friends that I’m thinking about them, even if they aren’t in need at the time, with something as simple as a note or text about how they’re on my mind. My dad gave Haitians the reassurance that during their distress, there is always somebody who cares. Letting someone know that they are loved doesn’t have to be as big of an accomplishment as what my father did; it can be something as simple as a handwritten note.
My dad may not still be physically with me, but his impact will never be gone. I saw it in the heart of my cashier at the grocery store who recognized my last name and told me how her kids had loved and missed having him as their pediatrician. I heard it in the tone of the woman next to me on an airplane to California, who was chatting about a great man she knew who travelled to Haiti, who just happened to be my dad. I felt it as I gripped the hands of smiling, healthy children in Torbeck. I feel it in myself every day.
It’s been seven years, and I still have to hold back tears whenever I’m asked to tell my dad’s story. I am still unable to watch our old home videos without realizing I’ve forgotten his voice, or drive past our old house on 87th St. and the garden that he’d worked in every day without slowing the car. But what I am able to do is understand what it truly means to love and care for others, thanks to my incredible daddy.
January 12, 2017, exactly seven years after the earthquake, I stood above my dad’s memorial. A few tears fell to the snow below as I said a prayer of remembrance, but instead of sadness, all I felt was love. I smiled — he would have wanted me to.