In Aim Higher, Haifa reveals the challenging life events that led her to rock bottom, the inward journey that she embarked on to rebuild her faith and life, and the meaningful lessons she learned along the way.
Join the author as she shares how we can all take control of our lives to achieve success.
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IT ALL STARTED ON JULY 4, 1992. I had recently celebrated my first communion, and I was counting the days until my ninth birthday. Two months earlier, random bruises had started showing up on my body, mostly on my arms and legs. They were light blue at first and darkened with time. They appeared randomly, disappeared suddenly, and reappeared in different places. They were not painful to the touch, because they were not caused by injuries. My mother grew concerned and took me to the pediatrician, who did not provide a diagnosis but suggested she monitor me.
As time passed, the condition did not improve; if anything, it got worse. Besides being covered with bruises, I started seeing red pinpoint-sized spots, medically known as petechiae, on my chest and legs. I remember my heart racing as I discovered them and worrying about what was happening to my body.
On this fateful morning of July 4, my mother and I returned to the doctor, who ordered an expedited blood exam. After the blood draw, we went home to wait for the results.
A few hours later, a call came from the doctor's office. The results revealed that I was suffering from an extremely low platelet count that was causing superficial bleeding, hence the bruises and petechiae. It was imperative that I be treated immediately to prevent a cerebral hemorrhage. I was living in Haiti at the time, and there were no proper treatments there to address my condition. Flying to Miami was my only option.
I still remember the chaos in my house after the diagnosis. My mother frantically tried to reach my father on the phone to let him know that we needed to travel right away. Cell phones were not popular at the time, but she was able to reach him at the tennis club where he played on Saturdays. There were only a couple of flights leaving Port-au-Prince in the afternoon, and we could not miss the last one.
My mother and grandmother went up and down the stairs, packing suitcases, looking for passports, and running like lunatics around the house. I started feeling anxious and asked what was happening. My mother calmly told me that my father, she, and I were going to Miami for a few days, just like we had on our previous summer vacation. I suspected that she was not telling me the whole truth, because we were leaving my sister and brother behind. But I did not ask any further questions and kept to myself.
Fortunately, we were able to catch the last flight, which landed early evening in Miami. I can only imagine the pressure my parents must have been feeling while in the air — putting their lives on hold, leaving two young kids behind, and being uncertain about my health. Until recently, I had not thought about their side of the story and the way my siblings' lives were altered by this circumstance. As the one whose life hung by a thread, I focused solely on how my life was affected.
Being young had its advantages in this case. I was so carefree that I never considered the worst-case scenario. I looked healthy. If it were not for the bruises and petechiae, no one would have guessed that I was sick. I felt great. I was active and had lived a healthy life until then. However, my insouciant attitude toward my health ended when I got off the airplane. I walked in front of my parents and passed the airport staff lined up with the wheelchairs. I heard my father ask me to come back and sit in one of them. He pretended that it was a way for us to avoid the long line at immigration.
My heart sank to my stomach. I felt like someone had dropped a bucket of cold water on me. I instantly knew that I was seriously sick and life would never be the same again.
From the airport, we went straight to the emergency room of a children's hospital. A blood count was done again. I had around 4,000 platelets. The normal range started at 150,000. I was immediately admitted to the hematology and oncology floor and later diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenia purpura. Commonly referred to as ITP, it is an autoimmune bleeding disorder characterized by a low platelet count. Untreated, this condition causes internal bleeding, as platelets are the cells responsible for making blood clot. I was given an intravenous treatment and underwent multiple tests to identify the underlying cause.
I do have fond memories of my weeklong stay at the hospital. I had a beautiful room with beige walls and drawings of water, fish, and ducks. I spent my days eating vanilla ice cream and watching Disney movies — particularly my all-time favorite, Mary Poppins. The hospital staff was amiable, and I had a Crush on a young physician who was part of the team attending to me. For the most part, I felt well — except on two alarming occasions.
The first occurred one night shortly after I was given the intravenous medication. I started shivering and felt like my body was falling into a deep hole. I held my mother's hands and cried profusely. I thought I was going to die.
The second occasion was during a bone-marrow examination. The procedure consisted of sticking a needle in my lower back to remove a small amount of bone marrow for biopsy. I did not know what procedure I was having when the nurses picked me up. My mother gave me a kiss and stayed in my room while my father accompanied me. I cannot recall whether the doctors let him in the procedure room, but I remember vividly every detail of the procedure. I laid on my belly, tears rolling down my cheeks, screaming while the needle made its way into my lower back. I felt like a screwdriver was perforating me.
When I returned to my room, my mother looked devastated. For the first time, I could tell that she had cried while I was gone. I started worrying and asked multiple questions. I wanted to know what was wrong with me, what the doctors said, why she was crying, and most importantly, if I was going to die. I do not remember what she said, but for the first time in my life, I felt helpless and vulnerable — two emotions that would become familiar from that day on.
The possibility that I had leukemia was ruled out after the biopsy. The ITP was not chronic, but the doctors could not provide a clear answer as to what had caused the drop in platelets. They suggested that the cold medicines I was always on could be a reason. I was expected to make a full recovery and lead a healthy life. However, my convalescence would take about a year.
I spent the entire summer in Miami, going to doctor's visits regularly. It was vital that they monitor my platelet count to ensure that it was stable. My siblings came to see me for a few days but could not stay long. Although I felt great, I needed to rest and avoid tiring activities that could cause a relapse.
At the end of the summer, I returned home to start the school year. With Haiti being a small country, most people in our social circle were aware that I had been seriously ill. So on more than one occasion, I heard my mother recount the events. Through these conversations, I discovered details that I had been spared. I learned that the emergency room physician had told my parents my platelet count was so low that without immediate treatment, I would have died during the night.
This information left me in shock. I did not know how to process it. How could I understand death at eight years old except to be extremely scared? I never brought up the subject with my parents. I am not even sure they knew that I overheard the truth. No one ever wondered about my emotional state or discussed with me what I had been through, so I pretended that I was fine.
However, finding out about my near-death experience had a profound impact on me. I was afraid of falling asleep because I thought that I would die in my sleep. At sunset, I had this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. The darkness reminded me of death. Quite often, I went to bed and stared at the ceiling. I did not want to fall asleep. My grandmother often had to take me in her arms and soothe me during my sleepless nights.
No matter what was going through my mind and how anxious I felt at the possibility of dying, I never uttered a word of it. I kept all my feelings bottled up inside, and they were boiling on high. Soon I lashed out at the only one I could imagine was to blame for my turmoil: God.
* * *
I am the oldest of three children and was born five years after my parents were married. My birth was a wonderful surprise, as they doubted that having children was in the cards after years of trying. My mother found out that she was pregnant with me in a dream. She was in a church that she did not know when it was announced that she was expecting. A few months later, I came into the world as this unexpected little miracle.
I do not know what it feels like to be so close to losing a child, but I suppose that it must be similar to experiences that suck the life out of you and rob you of your soul. I never asked my parents about the agonizing hours they went through on that fateful July 4. But it was clear that my survival reinforced once again the belief that I was nothing short of a miracle.
After my ITP, my mother and grandmother praised God, while I started questioning His existence. My near-death experience brought an unsettling feeling about Him into my heart. I could not understand why He let me get so close to death if He had all these powers to create and change things. And if He truly existed, why would He allow me to have such a traumatic experience? Was I not worthy of His love and protection?
I completely rebelled against Him. I did not want to hear anything that had to do with Him. I was confused about my beliefs in Him and what I had been taught in catechism class.
My ITP diagnosis was followed by a few more health issues. In June 1995, while attending a cousin's birthday party, I felt an excruciating pain in my lower abdomen that left me immobilized. I laid in a fetal position waiting for it to subside and to be taken home. After a few days without relief, I was hospitalized.
The car ride to the hospital is engraved in my memory. At the slightest turn and bump, I felt an acute pain, and tears rolled down my cheeks. The surgeon believed that I had appendicitis and needed surgery. The night before the operation, he told my parents that he believed his diagnosis was 98 percent accurate. This statement caught my attention. I did not understand why he was not 100 percent confident.
Although by this time, I was no longer suffering from a fear of falling asleep, the idea of getting general anesthesia terrified me and brought back the fear of dying. I did not want to be alone in the operating room without a familiar face and asked if my father could stay with me and hold my hand as I fell asleep. Unfortunately, my request was denied.
The morning of the surgery, my heart completely dropped at the sight of the nurses coming into my room to prepare me. I felt helpless as I was rolled down the hallway. I felt so small and insignificant. I felt meaningless to God. Once again, He had let me down, and I was terrified. My parents walked next to me, and my mother held my hand. I tried not to look at them or I would burst into tears.
At the entrance to the operating room, the nurses stopped so my parents could kiss me goodbye. I had tears in my eyes, but I tried my best to hold them in. I did not want my mom and dad to see how scared I was. Reliving this moment and writing about it still gets me teary-eyed. I remember this vulnerable little girl; in many ways, I am still her. It is hard to believe I went through all these experiences at such a young age.
In the operating room, I remember looking at the light and having this urge to surrender. I could not change the circumstances I was in. Acceptance was my only option if I wanted to feel free. I decided to let go. I let go of my fear. I let go of the anger that led me to fight the flow of life. I completely surrendered. Doing so brought a bit of peace to my heart. I started counting while waiting for the anesthesia to kick in. Ten, nine, eight, seven ...
A few hours later, I woke up to the news that I had been the 2 percent. It was not appendicitis, as the doctor had predicted, but a torsion in my left ovary caused by a cyst wrapped around it. Although the concern about my chance of having children was lifted, a feeling of emptiness was born in me, and my faith in God was shaken to its core.
In addition to my parents finding out under unusual circumstances that they were expecting me, my birth was marked by a rather peculiar event: my great-grandmother died a few hours after learning that I was finally here. My grandmother, whom I adored, lost her mother the same day that her first grandchild was born. Although my birthdays were always happy occasions, it must have been bittersweet for her as the anniversary of her mother's passing crossed her mind.
Saying that I felt a bit different all my life would be an understatement. From the circumstances of my birth to my multiple illnesses and the profound thoughts that weighed on my soul at such a young age, how could I not feel that God somehow was not only against me but setting me apart from everyone else?
At eleven years old, I felt depressed. One night after my release from the hospital following the surgery, I locked myself in a bathroom to sob. There was this strange feeling inside me that I had never experienced before. I felt as if life had been sucked out of me, and my soul had left my body. I was exhausted emotionally. I wanted to die.
I did not want to be a burden for my family as the child who was continually sick and monitored incessantly. I wanted to blend in and be like everyone else my age. No one around me was experiencing the challenges that I had gone through so far, even less wondering about God's existence and the deep thoughts that came with it.
My last severe illness occurred when I was a teenager. It was a mild liver issue that almost turned fatal.
One early morning, as my mother was helping me dress for a doctor's visit, I suddenly felt a warm sensation traveling from my chest to my head, and I collapsed on the bathroom floor. I had fainted on a few occasions before, but this time was different. I was not regaining consciousness despite my mother's multiple attempts.
Distraught, she left me on the floor, screaming that it was over. Yet I came back to normal in my father's arms a few minutes later. I constantly played back the moment that I passed out in my mind. I could remember up to the point where the warm sensation reached my head, leaving me lightheaded. Afterward, there was nothing. I did not see light or darkness. It was as if I had never existed. It felt almost similar to being asleep. I wondered many times if this was what death felt like.
By the time I reached my twenties, I'd had a near-death experience, two surgeries, and multiple stays at hospitals. Above all, I had mastered the art of burying my feelings and keeping up appearances. Underneath the portraits of a happy little girl, carefree teenager, and poised young adult was a shattered person struggling to make sense of her illnesses and religious beliefs.
In college, I was an emotional wreck. Although I avoided thinking about my feelings as much as I could, they hit me sporadically. A few mornings, I woke up with intense sadness and curled up in bed crying for hours. I felt like my life had been stolen from me. The painful memories weighed heavily on my soul.
I had bottled up many emotions over the years. I felt a rage that I could no longer control. On these few occasions, I buried my face in my pillow, sobbing, screaming, and asking why I had to go through all of this.
Fortunately, my emotional outbursts were infrequent and never lasted more than a few hours. I was very good at wiping away my tears and doing anything to keep my mind off these unpleasant experiences. I hated them. I hated my past and the reminder of how weak and broken I was.
In addition to my emotional wounds, I was also dealing with an utterly damaged faith. My relationship with God had not been good for several years. The multiple traumatic incidents in my life had compromised it. I blamed Him for all the unfortunate circumstances that I went through. I did not know whether to believe that He existed or not.
I questioned all the religious stories that I had learned thus far. Unlike my family, I did not see myself as a miracle but a martyr. Every illness was a dagger in my faith, and I struggled to keep it intact while it was tested by these challenges that felt so much bigger than myself.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Aim Higher"
Copyright © 2019 Haifa Blanchard.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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