A student perspective: Spring break outreach to Haiti

by Elise Harrigan

Around 11:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, 34 of us loaded the bus headed to Atlanta. When we arrived around 2 a.m., there was already plenty of energy in the group. After multiple games of Would You Rather and long lines through the airport, we were finally on our way to Haiti. Within a few hours, the Caribbean sun was beating down on our very pale Sewanee bodies.

The two groups quickly said goodbye and we each headed for our adventures. This year the Haiti Outreach trip was divided into two parts. I was in the medical and dental free clinic group. We were right on the water and being hosted by an Episcopal Church that Sewanee has had a relationship with for many years. With us we had two doctors, Matt and Sara Baird and our dentist, Bruce Baird.

Everyday, we would set up our free clinics in the building around our complex. We had two offices for the doctors, a building for the dental clinic, triage station outside under the trees and a pharmacy. We saw about 80 medical patients a day and pulled a total of 120 teeth throughout the week.

Many of the patients we saw had different infections, worms, high blood pressure, stomachaches and headaches; many of the same things that we suffer from everyday. The difference is, these people had been living with these pains for weeks, months, maybe even years. In some cases we saw a man with the end stages of HIV/AIDS. A 6-year-old child came in weighing around 30 pounds. The most heartbreaking part of the young boy was he came to see the doctor for an earache, not even realizing the severity of his little body. There were many more cases like this and many times were we could not fully help the Haitian people because of our limited resources.

In the dental clinic, patients would tell us what tooth was bothering them and we would, through a translator, make sure that they knew we were going to remove the tooth. Many times these teeth were their four front teeth or even in some cases the last tooth they had in their mouth. I was so shocked by the way they trusted in our dentist’s, doctors’ and students’ hands. There was a major language barrier but if it relieved them from a small bit of the pain they were feeling, that was enough for them. Each student was able to be very hands on and pull some teeth of the patients (I pulled four!). In both the dental and medical clinics, all the students were able to really be right on the front lines with the doctors. Since I am not aspiring to be in the medical or dental field, I knew that this was an opportunity that would never come along again.

As a group, we spoke about the ethical dilemmas behind what we were doing in Haiti. If someone looks healthy but complains of stomach and headaches, should we still give them medicine to help them in the future? Is the patient to doctor relationship formed more important than trying to give just the medical basics to all patients without forming relationships? Which will help more? What do we receive from going on these outreach trips? Would we help more if we just sent the money that it takes to get us there?

From discussing these different aspects of our work, we came to a decision that our work there is valuable and needed. The relationships formed are important and they need to know that people care. We also made it a major part of our trip to stress that anywhere in the world people should all get the same quality health care; it should not be based on where a person lives. On the other side of the country in Cange, the agricultural group was faced with many of the same challenges.

Dr. Deborah McGrath, a professor of Biology has been working to set up a project to help reforest Haiti. After many years of trying to find the right spot to do this, they decided on Cange. Through a group called Zamni Agrikol, McGrath has gathered local farmers to plant coffee beans to receive carbon credits for their carbon sequestration. This meant that everyday, the students from Sewanee and eight native Haitian students from CFLL, an agricultural school, hiked for two hours up the mountain to a small village where 100 farmers awaited them. These farmers were chosen to be apart of this program because of what their land was like and how close they were to a water source.

As soon as the group arrived, they got straight to work, interviewing farmers to learn the lay of their land. Sewanee and CFLL student’s together measured and counted the trees on the land. They also took soil samples from each farmer’s plot of land. When they gathered back together as a group, the farmers prepared rice and beans for everyone to enjoy. Sewanee students were working hand and hand with the Haitian farmers and the native students. This project that McGrath has started is something that could have a tremendous impact on Haiti. When you fly over Haiti, it looks so bare. The lack of trees that the country has is something that has to be changed. Our group broke ground on a coffee nursery that will be ready this summer for the farmers to begin to plant. There will be 5,000 beans for them to plant. This not only will start to increase the number of trees in Haiti but also give the farmers an income.

Ironically, when you go to Haiti you get to meet famous people. Yes, they did get to shake hands with Bill Clinton, meet Paul Farmer, and see Mario Batali. This was not planned before, and because of connections through Peggy and Paul Farmer, the group was able to connect with Bill Clinton. Former President Clinton was in Haiti working on some of the projects that he is involved with. He is a friend of Paul Farmer, who created Partners in Health and is the brother of one of the group leaders, Peggy Farmer. Through this connection the group was able to hear President Clinton speak about the same issues that Dr. McGrath is working on in her Carbon Credit project. That is pretty impressive to be working on the same issue that President Clinton is concerned about. From connecting with President Clinton, it gave the project that Dr. McGrath is working on some good connections that will help grow the project in future years.

I was in the mental and dental group and the most impressive thing was when were reunited for the last two nights in Haiti, the group did not even mention the meeting of Former President Clinton, the part that had the biggest impact was by far, the Haitians. I believe that both groups took away from this trip is the respect that we have for Haiti. It is a hardworking place that has the chance to grow. It does need a lot of help and that is where Sewanee and do their part to contribute to continue to help Haiti develop. From experiencing Haiti, I believe that the group has not only a greater understanding of suffering but also a greater appreciation for the live and the need to give back.