Sounds, Sights and Experiences from a Resident in Haiti

MARQUETTE, MICH – Medical mission trips provide volunteer opportunities and mutually beneficial learning experiences abroad for medical professionals and students. Michael Kates, D.O., of the Marquette Family Medicine Residency Program, seized the opportunity to travel to Haiti through the Friends of Haiti –Green Bay, a non-profit organization that seeks to improve the lives of those living in Haiti’s impoverished areas through healthcare and other services.

“I jumped at the opportunity,” he said, “You see stuff there that you don’t see here, it was exciting!”

Stuart Johnson, D.O., community assistant dean for the MSU College of Human Medicine, UP Region, has been traveling to Haiti for several years and invites one or two residents or medical students to accompany the group and gain global medicine exposure.

After a full day of travel, the group arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which lies on the Gulf of Gonave. This is the biggest metropolitan area in the country, and is comparable in size to Chicago. Kates recounted the sounds of the city which included motorcycles, taxis and blaring music from boom boxes. The taxis, known as “tap taps,” competed for customers with customized vehicles featuring flags and brightly painted artwork on the sides of the vehicles.

The group stayed in a compound run by a Catholic charity the first night, continuing to a remote village the following day. Less than 20% of Haiti’s roads are paved so the ride was long, slow and bumpy with some areas barely passable. Only pickup trucks and SUV all-terrain 4-wheel vehicles can navigate the pot-hole filled roads in these remote areas.

In addition to the treacherous roadways, the landscape has few trees. A complex deforestation problem, contributed by demands for lumber and fuel, as well as hurricanes and other pressures, has exposed the landscape.

“The Haitian side of the island is nearly devoid of trees,” observed Kates. “There is very little wildlife left but it is common to see goats, pigs, turkeys and stray dogs outside the homes. The goats, pigs, and turkeys are staple foods. Without refrigeration, keeping live animals is the only way for families to have meat for meals.”

At the mountain village, Kates stayed in a large cinderblock building without any windows on the ground and slept in a hammock. Electricity was sporadic, coming on for several hours each night when a generator was in use.

“The generator was off more than it was on due to technical difficulties and running out of gas,” Kates said. “It was quite comfortable, except for the occasional barking of dogs, the passing tap tap blaring music, and the extreme heat.”

Common amenities, such as drinking water, required daily planning.

“For water, one person would be in charge of filling up a jug at the water station,” stated Kates. “The jug was a 5 gallon bucket with a tube and a filter cartridge on top. We used hand sanitizer and wet wipes to wash our hands to avoid some of the bacteria and microorganisms present in the water.”

Despite the obvious challenges of living in this impoverished area, the Haitian hospitality was exceptional. Dr. Kates really enjoyed interacting with the local community and took pride in the healthcare he was able to provide his patients.

“The clinics were very efficient and able to accommodate several hundred patients per day,” he recounted. “There is no insurance and all documentation was done by hand on small booklets that the patients kept.”

Lack of infrastructure and communications adds to the lack of electronic medical records in Haiti. The development of an individual health record that patients are required to bring, allows medical professionals a way to track the health and illness of their patients.

Many people walk for hours to be seen and Dr. Kates saw conditions that he had only read about in textbooks.

“I had a young girl that I diagnosed with Angelman syndrome, which is a rare developmental disorder,” said Kates. “She was 13 and had never seen a doctor.”

He was able to identify people who needed more treatment and was able to help treat infections, diabetes, and hypertension.

“We had a very good system in place that involved getting people treated for parasites, giving them vitamins and commonly needed medications,” said Kates. “We had a small pharmacy that carried a lot of very commonly needed medications that we take for granted here.”

There is no access to local drug stores so simple things like Tylenol or Tums are greatly desired.

“This was a once in a lifetime experiences,” Kates said of the trip. He spoke of the generous and kind-spirited Haitian people, and the superb team of healthcare providers he accompanied. The exposure to a new culture and environment, gave Dr. Kates a new perspective and a sense of purpose. He looks forward to another medical mission trip in the future.

The Michigan State University College of Human Medicine – Upper Peninsula Region works in conjunction with UP Health System – Marquette to coordinate the training of family medicine residents and Michigan State University College of Human Medicine medical students. Since its inception in 1978, 286 medical students and 198 resident physicians have graduated from the two programs.

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