Haiti, a Country Forgotten

When I was a junior dental student I joined an outreach group travelling to Haiti to provide oral surgery to its citizens. Temple University Dental School, now known as the Kornberg School of Dentistry, travelled to Haiti each year unless political unrest made it unsafe to do so.   I was up to date with my oral surgery requirements and so I was chosen to join a group of three dentists, seven students, and one lawyer (she was the dean’s attorney and travelled there often just to help).

Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Its citizens live in applorable conditions that lack food, shelter, and basic sanitation.  Haiti has a history of overthrown, assassinated, or executed presidents and political unrest. Today Renee Preval remains president until February 2011. None of its  leaders has made Haiti prosper, instead its citizens live in a nation so impoverished that it exists as a fifth world nation.

Some facts on Haiti I took from the internet: 1. The average income is $90-300 US dollars per year.

2. Tiny mud shacks with roofs made of banana leaves will house a family with multiple children. Many of these children will die from drinking filthy water.

3. The unemployment rate is greater than 80% and more than 60% live in poverty.

4.  Less than 20% of those age 15 and over can read.

5. Haiti has the highest AIDS/HIV rate in the western hemisphere with 1/20 persons infected. There are approximately 150,000 AIDS orphans. The UN estimates that 6% of Haitians are infected with AIDS

Our trip was to last one week. Everyone in the group received Malaria pills and boosters of Hepatitis B. We packed all kinds of supplies:  dental instruments, antibiotics, pain meds, anesthetics, toothbrushes, toothpaste, toys, clothes, food, beverages. Our trip was to take us from Philadelphia to Miami to Port-au-Prince and finally to our ultimate destination, Jeremie. Known as the city of poets, Jeremie  is the capital city of the department of Grand’Anse in Haiti and has a population of 31,000.

When my group arrived in Port-au-Prince, we entered a hot and barely functional airport with only one receiving belt for luggage. The belt spins noisily and malfunctions often. So too do the overhead lights which turn off unexpectedly and throw the sticky overcrowded room into confusion. Once my group claimed its luggage we ventured outside to find our guide, Paris, who was always the driver for the Temple outreach group.

A crowd of Haitians, adults and children alike, stood outside the airport doors many without legs, arms, eyes, ears. They were beggers anxious to find some way to earn money. Paris found us quickly,  ushered us into his white minibus, and drove us to our hotel.  After a one night layover, we boarded a small charter plane and flew just under one hour south into Jeremie. There was no runway and we landed on grass. We packed into large white trucks and drove to the Haitian Health Foundation, a center started by Dr. Jeremiah Lowney, a dentist from Norwich, CT. Run by nuns, this center exists to provide healthcare to this very isolated city.

Jeremie has no outgoing communication.  The HHF has one phone that seldom works, a poor internet connection,  and no electricity. My group showered at night because the water in the incoming pipes was  warmest then having been been heated throughout the day by the sun. We walked the dark halls at night in pairs with flashlights or head lamps that strapped onto our foreheads like miners. After dinner we sat on the balcony illuminated by the largest moon. They fed us well, even packed lunches for our daily outings, and cooked for us at night as we ate amidst a nation of starving children.

Each morning we piled into white SUVs and drove through unpaved roads to as far as the cars could take us. Then we would hike the rest of the way, sometimes for several hours, crossing streams on foot or even on donkey, until we reached our destinations. We worked in a school, outside a clinic, but mostly in the jungle. Our group would divide into three teams…one to triage, one to numb, one to extract. We had no xrays and no motors, just our skills and help from the most resilient, appreciative and tough people I had ever encountered. 

We worked without stop because there were so many people in pain who had not seen a dentist and would not until the next outreach group. That would be at least one year. Word of mouth spread quickly and within one hour of setting up our instruments and chairs, miles of  Haitians waited to be treated. Their mouths were usually perfect with two rows of white strong teeth except the infection site which was often accompanied with facial swellings, abscesses, cellulitis. So we worked until the lack of sunlight made it impossible to see and then hiked back through the jungle to our waiting white trucks. I felt like I had stepped into a page of the Jungle Book.

The HHF is a superb organization that has saved countless Haitians from preventable deaths. They have organized programs like Give-a-Goat, Happy House, and Clean Latrines that aid in healthcare (particularly for children and women), and bring relief for meals, clothing, and education. They save lives, period. The HHF also functions at the extremely low overhead of  only 8 cents per dollar.  That means 92 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to services for the poor.   

There will be over 30,000 refugees fleeing by boats from Port-au-Prince to Jeremie in the days ahead. They will require food, shelter, and medical aid. Inaction on our part means death to these people. We must be generous and begin to give back a little of our surplus via mail or internet. Visit www.hatianhealthfoundation.org to learn where to send money and how to help. It is time the world stop forgetting about Haiti.  Perhaps finally now the tragedies spinning from this earthquake will make the rest of us help Haiti rebuild and create a stronger infrastructure for herself.

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