The work goes on in Haiti

Hopital Albert Schweitzer has woven itself into the fabric of Haitian life, reports Rev. HAROLD T. LEWIS


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Men anpil, chay pa lou.

("Many hands make the load lighter.")

-- Haitian proverb




Riding shotgun in the front seat of the Land Rover was probably, in retrospect, not a good idea, as it gave me a much too up-close-and-personal view of the perilous terrain several hundred feet above Deschapelles in a remote area of Haiti some three hours to the northeast of the capital, Port-au-Prince. The steep, serpentine roads were rocky and narrow, and, as we discovered to our horror, two-way!

In the cabin behind me was a team of medical personnel -- a physician, two nurses, a prosthetist and two physical therapists visiting from Michigan. They had invited me to accompany them on what was for them a routine round of house calls to patients of Hopital Albert Schweitzer Haiti who were unable to make the long trek down to the hospital in the Artibonite Valley below.

At one home, a man in his 30s was suffering from a rare bone disorder, making it necessary for him to both wear a prosthesis and walk on crutches, at least temporarily. His prosthesis was examined, and it was determined that it had become misshapen as the foot became stronger and had to be replaced. The prosthetist took measurements and promised that the device would be replaced and delivered to the young man within two weeks, either by another team or by a social worker assigned to the region who made his rounds on a bicycle.

In another home a few miles away, the patient was a toddler with malnutrition and related intestinal problems. After examining her, the doctor in the group had a conversation with the little girl's mother in which he reviewed the dietary and medicinal regimens necessary for the child's recovery. The mother was reminded that necessary medicines could be obtained at one of the four outlying community health centers operated by HAS.

At the health center we visited, nurses offer information about nutrition, administer inoculations and provide counsel on family planning and other medical issues. Instruction is conveyed by community health workers who speak the patients' language and is reinforced with colorful charts, diagrams and posters prominently displayed throughout the facility. Residents of the mountain community walk for miles, with children in tow, to avail themselves of the services offered.

HAS is a 131-bed hospital and community-based health care system that has been operating in rural Haiti for nearly 60 years. Founded by Dr. Larimer (Larry) Mellon and his wife, Gwen Grant Mellon, members of a family whose name in Pittsburgh has long been associated with banking and philanthropy, the hospital has strong Pittsburgh roots that extend to many, many supporters in Western Pennsylvania and beyond.

Larry Mellon was inspired to open the hospital by an article about Dr. Albert Schweitzer published in Life magazine in 1947. Schweitzer forsook careers in theology and music, earned a medical degree and set out for Gabon, West Africa, where he established a hospital. Larry decided to "go and do likewise" and thus HAS was planted in the midst of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Virtually the sole industry in the community of Deschapelles, it is a full-service, around-the-clock medical facility -- the only such institution in a valley inhabited by some 345,000 people (roughly the population of Pittsburgh).

In a country where half the population lives without access to clean water and which has the highest infant mortality rate in the Americas, HAS was an early model for addressing the root causes of these problems through community-based care, providing immunizations, prenatal care, nutrition counseling and supplements, resources and expertise to build wells and sanitation systems, and even agricultural counsel to help reduce food insecurity.

In a country experiencing a dramatic rise in traumatic injuries due to traffic accidents, and which has been visited by a series of natural disasters and epidemics, such as cholera, HAS has been quick to respond. In recent years, the hospital has won significant grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development to renovate and expand its surgery, emergency and trauma care facilities, to set up a treatment center in response to the cholera outbreak and to establish a prosthetics center for amputees that is now the largest in the Caribbean.

The "tremblement de terre," the Great Earthquake of 2010, wreaked havoc not only in the epicenter of Port-au-Prince, but also in outlying areas where survivors, often homeless and bereft of relatives, sought housing and extended-family members. The Artibonite Valley was no exception, and HAS was able to meet the increased demand for care that came with this influx of people.

HAS could accomplish such a Herculean task because, unlike so many ad hoc organizations that sprang up in response to the disaster, many of which have since disappeared, HAS is part and parcel of the Haitian fabric. With some 500 employees, 95 percent of whom are Haitian, HAS knew the territory and could continue to hit the ground running, as it has done for more than half a century. It has an intimate knowledge of the people and their culture, enabling it to respond to local demands with a collaborative, holistic approach.

Today, HAS is poised to do even greater things in the years ahead, thanks in part to the significant support provided by Pittsburghers who continue to be loyal to this extraordinary cause. With a new management team, including a CEO with deep experience in international health care management as well as a significant investment in development and marketing by an anonymous donor, the hospital is broadening its base of support in and beyond Pittsburgh and planning for technology and infrastructure improvements that will help it address more effectively some of the most challenging health problems in Haiti.

The plight of the often-unsuccessful boat-lifts from Haiti many years ago reminded us that Haitians are literally, as well as figuratively, our neighbors. In Haiti, Hopital Albert Schweitzer Haiti is a special place, and our support for it speaks volumes about the character of Pittsburgh. Our help is both needed and appreciated.

Men anpil, chay pa lou.

opinion_commentary

Harold T. Lewis is rector emeritus of Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside and has been involved in church projects in Haiti since 1976. He is a member of the board of Hopital Albert Schweitzer.


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