By Jennifer Burzawa
Time can get away from you. Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I went back to Thomonde, Haiti with Project Medishare for the first time in seven years.
I can’t believe it has been that long. I last went as a second-year medical student with the University of Miami, not too long after Project Medishare began. Since that time, a lot has changed in my own life. I was eager to see how much Haiti and Project Medishare have changed as well.
On my first trip in 2001, the Medishare compound was still being completed. In fact, we had an inauguration ceremony for the pavilion during that trip. We held our clinics right there where we slept. In fact, there wasn’t even enough space in the original compound to accommodate all of us. About half of the group had to stay in various homes of people in the community. The medicines we had to work with were only those that we brought ourselves. The closest hospital was Cange. There were no doctors in Thomonde other than those that came with us on our brief trips. University of Miami was the only medical school that was involved with Medishare at that time.
Things have definitely changed since then. I suspect that some of these changes, at least from my view, may in part be due to the fact that I have changed schools that I went with. Within the Miami contingent, Project Medishare has now become fully incorporated into the university’s new Global Institute.
Outside of UM, Medishare has expanded. One of my medical school classmates brought his interest in Project medishare to Emory where he completed his residency. Now within Atlanta, Medishare has expanded to Morehouse. And now there are three or four additional schools that have their own trips.
Each of these schools now has different agendas. The Emory portion is focusing on mobile clinics in the more underserved regions of Casse. In contrast, when I was a student, most of our work focused in the heart of Thomonde. However, on my second trip, we did two days of mobile clinic in a more remote village. The people there told us they had not seen a medical-related person in 2 years. Now even in the remote regions of Casse, Medishare and Z’anmie Lasante among other organizations have community health agents that visit these communities on a regular basis. At least 50 percent of the expectant women I saw had been seen in some medical capacity at least once before during their pregnancy.
Medishare now has full-time doctors and pharmacists that provide the day-to-day care for this community. There is a hospital right in Thomonde that provides daily care for patients, with a full staff of physicians. The majority of medicines that we distributed to patients were supplied directly through the World Health Organization (WHO) to the government to Medishare. Thus, our patients would be able to get refills for the very same medication that we prescribed. A phlebotomist also came with us to our mobile clinics and was able to perform tests for HIV, syhphilis and malaria right there for our patients.
All of these changes have definitely had an impact on the health of the region. Although I was not seeing pediatric patients, I could tell the severity of malnutrition appeared to be less from looking around. I remember a lot of orange hair and massively swollen bellies from those first trips. I was impressed by that fact, even in a year in which hurricanes and natural disasters have had such a devastating effect.
I am sure that my impression on the changes is also significantly influenced by the changes in my own life and vantage point. Now, going as a physician, it was great to be able to appreciate all of this development as well as to look at things through the eyes of the talented and passionate medical students who organized the trip. This group truly impressed me with their dedication to Medishare and international health, as well as their accomplishments in life. Several had organized a discovery project to study anthropometrics in the pediatric patients, as well as implement a Babyfer program. The students had collectively put together a field manual based on their experiences last year. I can only hope that these wonderful people will remember these trips as I have and continue to pursue their interests in Haiti and international health as they continue along their careers. It was also great to see that I was not the only person there who was making a return visit. Our translators also showed their commitment to the project and the country. Two of our translators were originally from Haiti, and were now returning to help. Our other two translators were former Peace Corp volunteers who had already given so much of their time, yet still came back for more. New faces and old faces alike, it was wonderful to see so many people giving up their free-time and holiday to contribute to this wonderful cause.
Volunteering in a place like Haiti, it can be frustrating not being able to see immediate results of your efforts. Many of the conditions we saw were chronic and systematic. Such conditions cannot be fixed in a one week trip with limited resources. But, today, having been there and back, I am confident we are doing more good than we may appreciate now. I have seen it with my own eyes.
Jennifer Burzawa recently completed her residency in Ob/Gyn. She is currently a fellow in training in gynecologic oncology at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston. She is a graduate of Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami.