One year after a team of U.S. Catholic doctors went to Haiti to care for the people in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, three of the same doctors returned in February. This year, they saw some signs of progress in the impoverished country’s recovery from the disaster, but with an infrastructure still struggling to stabilize. Yet, the doctors found that the Haitian people remain upbeat, patient and convinced that God will see them through their difficulties.
“The amazing thing is still the people,” said Dr. Allan LaReau, a pediatrician from Kalamazoo, Mich. “They are so resilient and so beautiful and so appreciative. If you get discouraged by the poverty and extreme needs, the people keep you going, especially the kids; they’re just abso-lutely beautiful.”
LaReau was accompanied by Dr. Patricia Curtin of Wilmington, Del., who specializes in geriatrics, and Dr. Mary O’Connor of Seattle, who practices pediatrics and internal medicine. All three physicians are alumni of the University of Notre Dame.
The three doctors first went to Haiti together in 2009 at the invitation of their former chemistry professor, Emil T. Hofman, who became interested in Haiti after his retirement.
LaReau, Curtin and O’Connor had already decided to spend a week providing medical care in Haiti in 2010 before the earthquake hit on Jan. 12, 2010. After the immediate chaos of the earthquake died down, the doctors went to spend a week working alongside other foreign doctors caring for the Haitian people in a makeshift outdoor “clinic” set up at the Notre Dame Center in Leogane.
That clinic no longer operates at the Notre Dame Center, for life is returning somewhat to normal for the Haitian people. The doctors noted that there were fewer tent cities than last year, but still far too many people remained in temporary tents, and a central sanitation system still is needed. Some new, permanent housing had been built or was under construction, but a great deal of rubble still remains, they said. Most people have access to clean water, but the doctors saw signs of malnutrition in their patients.
All three doctors said that now it is important for the Haitian people themselves to begin to direct the assistance being donated by foreigners and to get themselves organized. Many Haitians expressed the hope that the March elections in the country would produce effective leadership for dealing with Haiti’s many problems.
“I think the message I got was that the solutions are going to have to involve the Haitians,” LaReau said. “It can’t be well-intentioned people coming in and doing things for the Haitians. We can help, but the long-term solutions really have to involve Haitians ... and that came through loud and clear in terms of medicine.”
A local Haitian physician, Dr. Luccene Desir, arranged a schedule for the three U.S. doctors to go out each day and conduct a “mobile clinic” in underserved areas. Those clinics usually took place in outside courtyards under trees, often in the middle of earthquake rubble that still dots the landscape. Many of the Haitians they saw have no transportation to get to a hospital for treatment, and many have no funds to pay for treatment up front, as is required at the hospital.
The three doctors said they saw many common medical problems, like pneumonia, skin infections, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal ailments, etc., but because these problems had been going untreated, they were usually more severe than the doctors would see in the United States. LaReau reported that about 75 percent of the children he saw had severe ear infections.
The three doctors brought along drugs that had been donated by the hospitals they affiliate with and by some generous drug companies. Thus they were able to treat effectively many of the ailments, but they also realized that many of the Haitians would not be able to get follow-up care.
O’Connor said it saddened her that many chronic diseases that could be well controlled won’t be. For example, she said that 70 percent of breast cancer deaths occur in developing countries because there is no early diagnosis. Caught early, breast cancer is very treatable, but options are limited when it is caught at a late stage, she said.
Holy Cross Father Thomas Streit of the Notre Dame Center had asked the three doctors to hold a one-day geriatrics clinic at the hospital for his elderly parishioners of St. Rose of Lima, and he announced the clinic at Sunday Masses. Consequently, more than 100 people showed up for the clinic. The oldest person they saw was 99, Curtin said. She said that at the last minute she had bought reading glasses at the dollar store, and she was amazed to see that the older women were delighted to get the glasses so they could see well enough to continue sewing. She plans to take lots of glasses when she returns to Haiti.
Attending one of the Masses where the geriatrics clinic was announced was a sister from the Company of Jesus religious order, which runs a nursing home for elderly abandoned women in Leogane, so she asked Father Streit to have the doctors come by the nursing home, too (see sidebar below).
Another highlight was their trip up into the mountains to an underserved community. A jeep took them most of the way, but the group had to walk the final one-half mile because the road was not passable for a vehicle. Nearly 100 Haitians were waiting to be seen when the three doctors arrived.
“We thought we had seen it all until we went to the mountains,” Curtin said.
“Our walk up there and our ride up there was breathtaking! We knew the Haitian people are beautiful, but we had just seen the [earthquake] destruction and didn’t realize how beautiful the country is, with mountains, hills, green crops being planted. I’m so glad we went up there, because it really gave me an appreciation for the potential of that country.”
Ann Carey writes from Indiana.