Ruth Hodges' plane landed in Port-au-Prince an hour before the earthquake. Her friends and relatives knew her flight schedule, but without cell phone service, they had no idea if the 83-year-old Tampa woman survived. Her adopted son called the State Department. A friend posted a picture on CNN's iReport. Another friend held a prayer vigil. Her former son-in-law spent 12 hours a day online, seeking leads on Hodges. Was she okay, they all wondered.
Eight days later, they received word from Haiti. She was more than okay.
She was caring for a woman with fractured legs. She was writing grocery lists of supplies for survivors and comforting the mourning. She had even been teaching local children English and fractions from the back yard of a pastor's home.
Sure, Mother Hodges — as many in the Belmont Heights community call her — had to use a walker to get around the rubble. But that didn't stop the 5-foot woman from working. It was her 54th missionary trip to Haiti, and she came to help.
On Saturday, Mother Hodges flew into Tampa after spending five weeks in Haiti. A dozen people greeted her at the gate with flowers, teddy bears and a giant sign that read, "Welcome home Mother Hodges … Tampa's Mother Teresa."
From a wheelchair, she pumped her fist in the air and grinned.
"Today, I'm planning when I'm going back," she told the group.
"What? Noooo!" they replied.
She just needs to raise some money and shake an ear infection. Then she'll be off on trip No. 55.
• • •
On Jan. 12, the American Airlines plane landed in Haiti at 3:40 p.m. A Haitian pastor picked up Mother Hodges in a van to take her to Ganthier. About 20 minutes outside of Port-au-Prince, the van started to shake.
She thought it had hit something. Then she noticed other cars riding the undulating road.
They kept driving. Hodges snapped photos of crumbled buildings and bodies covered in white sheets as they traveled through the city.
In the following weeks, she used donated money to buy toilet paper, food and detergent for those in need. She traveled to the Dominican Republic with a woman who had several fractured bones. She comforted locals who had lost relatives.
One woman named Yolene had lost her mother and three girls, ages 1, 6 and 10, in the earthquake. She needed someone to hold on to, so Mother Hodges reached out her arms.
"I saw so many mangled bodies, but this woman was just crying 'oh, if I had my girls. Oh, my girls,' " Hodges said.
She's sure she has post-traumatic stress disorder, but she told the doctor she doesn't need help.
"I told him that I could help the psychiatrist," she said. "I know what I need. I pray. I read my Bible. I get quiet."
• • •
Hodges first went to Haiti in 1969. Missionary work has always been important to her, ever since she was 14 and found ways to help others instead of asking why life wasn't fair. Her father died when she was 3, and her mother committed suicide when she was 6.
She often spends time at the hospital, sitting with the sick and comforting their families. That's how she met her best friend, Jeannie Jenkins.
Jenkins' husband went into a coma last year, and for three months, Hodges stayed with her in the hospital. They became close.
"She doesn't have to know you to help you," Jenkins said.
After her first trip to Haiti, she couldn't stop returning. She can't afford it. She gets a $746 Social Security check each month. She pays $366 on her Kia Spectra and $172 for its insurance. ("I use it to deliver vegetables to families and to visit the sick," she said.) Her rent and utilities are subsidized. She pays $200.
"There isn't anything left," she said, "but I always make it."
Friends and churches often fund her trips. That's one of the reasons she returned. She wants to raise money while the earthquake is still in the forefront of people's minds.
Though it worried her family and friends, Hodges was glad she was in Haiti on Jan. 12 so she could get to work right away. Still, if she had been in Tampa, she's sure she could have quickly found a way into Haiti.
"I always find a way to get to the sick and the suffering," she said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.