When a group of doctors who are University of Notre Dame alumni went to Haiti last year to learn about medical needs there, four of them planned to return in a year to provide general medical care. However, this year, their week in Haiti turned into the unexpected challenge of caring for thousands of earthquake victims without the technology and supplies they normally use. 

“We had our ‘MacGyver’ moments,” quipped Dr. Allan LaReau, a pediatrician from Kalamazoo, Mich. Those “MacGyver” moments required creativity, using what limited supplies were available and improvising in dozens of situations.

Volunteer mission 

Yet, all the doctors came away from their week in post-earthquake Haiti feeling that they had received more from their experience than they had given, and were encouraged by the unique bond of working with other Notre Dame alumni and medical personnel from around the world. 

The original trip the doctors took to Haiti last year was instigated by Emil T. Hofman, a retired Notre Dame chemistry professor. After his retirement, Hofman became interested in the Notre Dame Haiti Program in Léogâne. Every year Hofman would invite some of his former students who had gone on to be doctors to accompany him on a “reconnaissance” week in Haiti with the hope that some of those doctors would then be inspired to return to Haiti to provide medical care. 

LaReau told Our Sunday Visitor that he had always wanted to volunteer on a medical mission, a desire growing out of his Catholic faith and a sense of service that he had acquired at Notre Dame. When he found out that Hofman was leading his last “reconnaissance mission” to Haiti in 2009, he jumped at the chance to go. 

“It caused the infection in me that Emil T. hoped it would; it caused the desire in me to want to go back,” said LaReau, who is the father of three children and grandfather of one. That same “infection” was passed on to three other doctors who made last year’s trip, and they planned to spend the first week of March 2010 doing primary care in Haiti. 

For Dr. Patricia Curtin, the mother of three school-age children who specializes in internal medicine and geriatrics in Wilmington, Del., it was a fulfillment of a desire to do something outside her “comfort zone.” 

Dr. Mary O’Connor, also the mother of three young children and a pediatrician and internist in Seattle, had done some international health care over the years, but wanted “a bigger, more long-lasting commitment.” The fourth alumnus was Dr. Peter Kowalski, a psychiatrist from Dallas. 

Rush to the scene 

When the earthquake struck Jan. 12, the ensuing chaos and lack of transportation put their plans on hold. Then they heard that airplanes were once again able to land in Port-au-Prince, and so they scrambled to make arrangements. Through Notre Dame contacts, they learned that the Notre Dame center in Léogâne was hosting a medical clinic, so the four doctors were teamed up with other agencies and became part of medical team No. 7, consisting of about 30 other medical people of various specialties. 

“When the earthquake hit, I became consumed by it,” said O’Connor. “Then I learned that over 110 of the children and nuns in one of the schools we had visited [in 2009] had died. I became broken and determined not to turn my back on the community of Léogâne.” 

Knowing that medical supplies were scarce in Haiti, the doctors gathered as many supplies and medications as they could carry, took leave from their families and medical practices, made their own travel arrangements and met in Miami on Feb. 27. 

The next morning, they flew into Port-au-Prince, hitched a ride on a flatbed truck to another city and waited there to be picked up by staff from the Notre Dame Haiti Program center, a residential and teaching facility directed by Holy Cross Father Thomas Streit, a parasitologist. 

The major difference the doctors noticed in Haiti between the trip last year and this year was, of course, the devastation, but, also, they were struck by the makeshift tents everywhere. Some of those “tents” consisted only of bed sheets strung together for privacy, with no roof. The food and water crisis immediately after the earthquake had abated somewhat, but the living conditions were still extremely primitive. 

At the Notre Dame center, another tent city with hundreds of people had sprung up in the center’s outer courtyard, and the inner courtyard served as the medical clinic, complete with a Quonset hut mobile hospital that had been shipped in by a donor in Oregon. That afternoon, team No. 7 sorted all the medications brought in by the members and set up a makeshift pharmacy. 

By the next morning, about 200 Haitians were already in line, waiting for treatment. That line grew even longer as the week went on. “The people just sort of show up,” LaReau said. “They just seem to know that the doctors are in town.” 

The doctors each saw between 60 and 80 patients a day. LaReau’s first case was a premature baby, born the evening he arrived. Most babies born in Haiti are low birth weight because of poor nutrition and lack of prenatal care, he said, and he had high praise for the nurses, who took overnight shifts to care for the babies and their mothers. The last night he was there, he assisted at an emergency Caesarean section delivery of twins, both of whom arrived in good shape. 

“The guardian angels were flying around,” LaReau said.

Back to medical basics 

Those angels were assisted by some of the team’s “MacGyver” tricks, one of which was keeping the babies warm by skin-to-skin contact with the mother and floodlights for extra warmth. Team seven “did a little Algebra problem” to figure out the right concentration of dextrose solution for tiny babies, LaReau said, and fed the babies with syringes and feeding tubes. 

Most of the children had common childhood ailments, such as pneumonia, diarrhea and ear infections, which Dr. LaReau found in close to 90 percent of the children he saw. 

Of course, routine cases were interspersed with serious situations. O’Connor treated a baby with meningitis and marveled at how victims of serious injuries were recovering and “somehow managing their pain.” LaReau saw an unconscious toddler who had ingested manioc, a root that is poisonous if under cooked. Team nurses looked on the Internet for appropriate treatment for the poison, and the child survived. 

LaReau also recalled one little boy who was brought in at the end of a particularly grueling day, and the boy had both arms amputated above the elbow. “When I saw him, I realized I wasn’t having a bad day after all,” LaReau said. 

Curtin said that she and LaReau saw 150 patients one day when they traveled to a tent city to do a mobile clinic. “We practiced medicine with no lab tests, no X-rays to speak of, and with some limited medications,” she said. “We got back to the basics, and it was really the art of medicine that I learned back in medical school that so intrigued me.” 

‘Amongst the saints’ 

While it was frustrating not to be able to offer some of the tests and treatments available in Seattle, O’Connor said the Haitian people were always grateful for the care the doctors were able to give them. LaReau noted that people waited for hours in the hot sun, yet remained polite and uncomplaining, even though doctors often were able to offer them only “comfort care.” 

However, that “comfort care” was a great gift that patients appreciated. O’Connor said that one of the interpreters told her that the care the doctors showed the patients made all the difference to them. 

The medical challenges, along with the earthquake devastation in the already impoverished country could be overwhelming, LaReau said, because the need was so great that it was hard to know where to start and finish. Notre Dame staff affiliated with the Léogâne center encouraged the doctors with a football analogy of “just move the ball 1 inch on the field.” And Father Streit shared the wisdom of the Haitian saying “pas à pas,” meaning “step by step.” 

All of the doctors were struck by the resilience, strength and faith of the Haitian people, who they said maintained a sense of dignity in terrible conditions and never complained. “They were amazing,” Curtin said. “They said that God and Jesus would get them through, and that by reading their Bible, that would give them strength. They had incredible faith. I want to hold onto that feeling of being so inspired by a group of people that had so little, yet gave us so much, in a sense.” 

When O’Connor attended Sunday Mass at the destroyed St. Rose of Lima Church, she said hundreds of people came and sat outside on chairs they brought, or sat in the rubble. “All were better dressed than I, children in perfect school uniforms, moms and grandmas in Sunday best,” she said. “And I know where they had slept: outdoors, in tents or under sheets with no protection from the rain. Many climbed the rubble, and no one left early from the one-hour-fifty-minute Mass.” 

When O’Connor told Father Streit that when she was in Haiti she felt closer to God, he told her that was indeed the case, because when you are with the Haitian people, “You are amongst the saints.” 

Ann Carey writes from Indiana.