Second in a series
For several years now, a group of Upstate medical students known as “Team Haiti” has spent a good part of their winter break volunteering on the island. The group that welcomed 2012 in Haiti was a mix of students who had been there before — including Claudy Zulme and Farah Daccueil, who are natives of Haiti — and newcomers, including Dawn Lammert, a student in Upstate’s MD/PhD program.
“With Distinction” will feature a series of posts and reflections from the Team Haiti students. This installment features Dawn’s impressions.
It’s been really hard to answer the classic “How was your trip?” question. Part of asking the question is reflex — it’s what you use to start a conversation when you come back from break.
But the other part is an assumption that a trip over the holidays is a vacation.
For lack of a better all-encompassing term, I have been defaulting to, “It was an experience.”
It has been almost two weeks since we came back, and I still haven’t really figured out how to succinctly express what being in Haiti was like. If I pick just one picture from my photo album and describe it, it will be so radically different from the next. And then there are the pictures I didn’t take.
The first day we were in the hospital, I couldn’t take pictures. I couldn’t justify to myself why I was taking pictures. I didn’t want them as souvenirs. I couldn’t take a picture of a child with Kwashiorkor and not feel like I was exploiting their misfortune for the benefit of an impressive photo album or to fulfill the expectations of those who would see it when I got home.
Sometimes I tried to convince myself that I had to take pictures so people back home could see what things are like in Haiti.
But what are things like?
From an American middle-class standpoint, things in Haiti could easily be described as dismal, but it is hard to get a candid sense about what people in Haiti think Haiti is like. And what if I came from a different background; then what would I think? I’ve found that trying to judge my experience or the gestalt of Haiti just leads me into a never-ending spiral of confusion and frustration.
What I can share, though, are some observations on the differences in the medical systems of Haiti and the United States. For example, if you come to the hospital in Haiti, the cost of actually seeing the doctor (your consult) is actually very inexpensive.
But, once you have your diagnosis, you have to go buy your sutures/casting/etc. yourself, bring them back, and have the doctor finish his work.
I first approached this trip from a public health standpoint. We helped out with a mobile clinic. That’s public health, right? But there is so much more needed than a handful of medical students for two weeks.
They really need better infrastructure and social policy. The water situation needs to be fixed desperately. Municipal garbage disposal didn’t seem to exist. Hygiene is a huge hurdle for healthcare.
During the pediatric portion of the mobile clinic, I saw a lot of girls with urinary tract infections. The doctor I was working with explained that it was because their water is so dirty. The same answer could be used for the many kids with worms, too.
When we volunteered at the orphanage, Claudy’s SUV took a beating because of the nature of the roads leading up into the mountains. When I say things need to be fixed, though, I don’t mean they need to be Americanized.
But “Americanized” is what I know, and that has been a huge addition to my frustration.
NPR recently did a few stories on Haiti. One focused on “before and after” the earthquake of January 2010. I have no real concept of Haiti before the earthquake, but my feelings on the story were that the opinions were too polar.
Like my pictures, you can find things that are beautiful and magnificent — the banana plantations, the mountains, or the Citadel — or you can find the tarp huts of displaced people as you drive out of Port-au-Prince, the garbage dumped off the coast and burned along the road, the dirty trickle of run-off used to bathe in.
All along the route up the mountain to the Citadel, children would ask, “Photo? Give me $1.”
In some strange way, I found it refreshing — even if the repetition eventually got on my nerves. They were no longer an anonymous child you could just take a picture of to show off at home.
To contain this long rambling of my confusion and frustration about the state of Haiti, and at the risk of being cliche, I’ll say this about my “experience” — it has truly shown me that there is a lot of growing as a person and a physician, especially mentally, that I need to do in the next years of school and beyond.