‘Ayiti, Cheri Mwen’: A Brief Account of Our Medical Missions Trip to Haiti

David Pierre, Jr.
2013 D.O. Candidate, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine

The thought, planning, and the actual accounts of my recent medical mission trip to Haiti offered a remarkable experience. I selected key points during this whole humbling process in order to give you a glimpse of our trip to Haiti.

Original Plans: Early in the school year, a fellow classmate and friend of mine, Peter Riedel, approached me about coordinating a medical mission trip to Haiti for the summer. In all honesty, my plans for the summer consisted of finding a way to attend the world cup in South Africa. Unbeknown to him, his suggestion of focusing on Haiti rightfully put me to shame while also reminding me that my future goals of aiding Haiti should not be postponed for leisure.  Nevertheless, in a few days time, I moved forward by contacting my uncle Gaston Jean, an employee of a reputable NGO in Haiti, to assist me in setting up the details for the mission trip. I can vividly remember speaking to my uncle on Sunday, January 10, 2010 around 4:00 pm while taking a study break at school. After roughly forty minutes on the phone, he reassured me that he would be able to take care of the logistics in Haiti for us. I contacted Peter and Stephanie Miller to deliver the good news. In our minds, everything was going smoothly as planned.

Screeching Halt: January 12, 2010 was a typical day of classes for me. The end of classes was followed by a cardio workout at the gym and a “nutritious” beefed stuffed burrito laden with cheese at one of my favorite restaurants, Chiptole®. Around 6:00 pm, my books were sprawled out across my cubicle in school’s lower level basement, otherwise known as the “dungeon.”  My fifteen-minute nap was interrupted by a call from my father.  “Gen yon tanpet ki passé Ayiti (there is a hurricane that hit Haiti).” Since I was accustomed to Haiti being hit by hurricanes, I told my dad that I would check the news out after studying. For some odd reason, after hanging up the phone I decided to go visit CNN online to see if there was any information about this hurricane. Seconds later, my eyes got larger, my mouth remained opened, and my heart started to race. As I sat there in disbelief reading headlines that read,  “devastating earthquake hits Haiti.” I ran outside to the study room to call my father only to hear my mother sobbing in the background. We tried calling my uncle Gaston, but we couldn’t get in contact with him. The next days I would find myself unable to sleep, eat, concentrate or study. Those moments would change my perspectives on life forever.

Change of Direction: A few days after the earthquake I stormed into the dean of student affairs office to request that our school be involved in some type of relief effort.  As already expected, she was willing to assist me in whatever capacity I asked. Collection boxes were set up to assemble hygienic supplies, antimicrobial soap, etc. Peter, Stephanie and I decided to change our original plans of volunteering at an orphanage to concentrating on earthquake relief efforts. I was soon contacted by Dr. Julia Coupet-Helstrom, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine alumni and co-founder of the nonprofit organization entitled, “Team Angè,” to join efforts in setting up a medical mission trip for the upcoming summer.  We decided to focus our mission trip on the southern region of Cayes-Jacmel, Haiti. As weeks progressed, to combine our resources we collaborated with first-year osteopathic students from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey School of Osteopathic Medicine (UMDNJ-SOM) and Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine (AZCOM).

We met every Friday to update each other on the logistics for our trip. As the days grew closer to May, Dr. Helstrom-Coupet started experiencing difficulty with communicating with key personnel in Haiti. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, Dr. Helstrom-Coupet had to cancel our trip to Cayes-Jacmel, Haiti. However, she made it her duty to continue to advise and assist us in finding other sites that could accommodate to our group size.

Perseverance: By this time we had already begun fundraising and were quickly approaching our proposed date of going to Haiti (June 5).  Yet, we had no site to go to. A decision was made that if we did not find a site to accommodate to our size and goals by the following Wednesday, the trip would ultimately be canceled. That very same night I asked other members of the team to help me with finding a site. I contacted over 15 organizations, pleading with them to take on such a large group of students. Not to my surprise, no one could accommodate to our size. As frustration drew near, I decided to give a call to Ms. Shonta Collins, the founder of Explorers Sans Frontieres (ESF). I still tell myself, that God personally put this lady on Earth for as a blessing. After a few conversations with her, she decided to add us to the ESF team. Because UMDNJ-SOM and AZCOM were able to find different sites to volunteer, our team was now down to six students from PCOM. Shonta worked her magic and was able to work out the logistics for us to collaborate with the team that was already set forth to go to Haiti.

Soon after, we booked our flights, purchased our supplies, and got our immunizations. Our final exam for the year was on June 4. Immediately following our exam we darted back to our apartments to finalize our packing so we could take the Greyhound Bus to New York. To our surprise, our flight to Haiti got canceled and pushed back to the following day. But, that did not discourage us; we knew that many people were depending on our arrival.

Haiti: Once we got to Haiti, June 6, we set up our tents outside to sleep in. Every morning we woke up around 5:30 am to start getting ready for the day. Some would help with making lunch for the team, while others helped pack medications for the day. We operated as one unit. We departed from our camp at roughly 8:00 am – a notion that Shonta consistently reminded me of.  In total, we worked at “Tent Cities” in Delmas 31 (Camp Toto, Camp Sineous, and the Center for Accommodations and Health) and in Delmas 33, Port-Au-Prince. Once we got there, we split up into three different stations: triage, consultation with the doctor, and pharmacy. April Elder and Peter primarily worked in the triage section. Petagaye English was the all-knowledgeable “goddess” of pharmacy, and Stephanie eventually assisted her father and our attending, Dr. Miller, with consultation. I volunteered at all the stations, primarily as a translator.

We saw approximately 90-110 patients per day (June 7-June 11). The patient population included men, women, and children with various disorders and infections including; Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA), malaria, hypertensive crises, secondary infection, dehydration, malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, acute and chronic gastrointestinal issues, chronic conditions, mental illnesses including stress, anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD). The type of learning we got from volunteering in Haiti surpasses any book reading, lecture or exam. My brain could not comprehend what I witnessed with my eyes, nor could I formulate a way to say them.

Persistence: Upon returning from Haiti, I have come to realize how medical students, future physicians, and health care practitioners hold tremendous amounts of influence. During the first few days of post-earthquake in Haiti we all witnessed how important medical related disciplines would be in aiding with the crisis relief. Our training transcends our immediate surroundings. In Haiti, there is an urgent need for primary care physicians, public health advocacy and educational advancement. We should continue to ask ourselves, “With this training, how can I make an impact? Have I done enough?”

One evening during our daily debriefing sessions, our translator, Jean Boyer, stated something to me that continues to resonate through my mind even until this day. He looked at me straight in the eye and said, “David, we are beyond grateful for what you guys have done for us today and this week. Every effort and every sacrifice has made a difference. But there is one question that I want to ask you. Now that you have done this work while in Haiti, what will you do when you leave?” These few words are what continue to remind me that my work has just begun. However, I know that this work cannot be done all alone. “L’Union Fait La Force” (Union Makes Strength).

Acknowledgements:

Dr. Julia Helstrom-Coupet
Shonta D. Collins-Founder of Explorers Sans Frontieres (ESF)
Debra Collier (PCOM OMS II)
Stephanie Miller (PCOM OMS I)
Dr. Michael Miller (Attending)
April Elder (PCOM OMS II)
Peter Riedel (PCOM OMS II)
Petagaye English (PCOM OMS II)
The entire ESF Team Haiti-C
Cassandra Dorvil (UMDNJ OMS II)

And to all those that prayed for us, submitted their own special contributions, and showed support. We are beyond grateful.

To get more information on volunteering or providing support “Explorers Sans Frontieres” please visit: www.explorersSF.org or contact me at davidpierrejr84@yahoo.com

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