I recently returned from my trip abroad to Haiti. It was
quite different from my other CAGO experiences thus far in several ways.
Particularly, it resembled a surgical mission trip much more than any other
ventures in which I have participated this year. We set off at 5am from Wills
Eye, flanked with the ten bags containing hundreds of pounds of medical
supplies we had packed over the preceding weeks. The team consisted of my CAGO
mentor, Brad Feldman, Donnae, our top notch surgical scrub nurse, Brynn, one of the Wills’ surgically gifted third
year residents, and my sister Brianna,
who is currently enrolled in the pre-medicine track at JMU. After navigating
through customs at the airport in Port-au-Prince, we were finally on our way
toward Fond-des-Blancs, a remote village nestled in the mountains about 70
miles from the capital. The journey took over four hours on narrow dirt roads
that hugged the mountain side. We journeyed in total darkness, as much of the
country still lives without electricity; we relied on the headlights rather
than streetlamps to guide our way. Abruptly,
amid the darkness there was an island of light. As we drove closer, scattered
street lights lit the road, which had just as suddenly become paved. And then, before us was a small city of
lights encompassed by a gate; we had arrived at St. Bonafice hospital. It was
quite literally, a beacon of light in the darkness: the only source of medical
treatment for miles. We were greeted
with much excitement, and quickly whisked away on an impromptu tour by the
incorrigibly optimistic, tirelessly hardworking Anshu Chandra, who the founder
of the department of Ophthalmology at St. Boniface hospital.
Our first day in clinic opened our eyes to the massive task
at hand and the impressive strides made by Anshu, alone in this remote place
with her vision of what it could be.
Trained as an optometrist in the U.S., she made Haiti her home just
under a year ago. Within that time she has single-handedly secured space within
the hospital, trained local villagers to serve as ophthalmic techs, and
initiated a weekly educational session to improve the medical fund of knowledge
of those working in the clinic in order to medically manage as much ophthalmic
pathology as she can. Moreover, she has secured an impressive amount of
equipment donations and has outfitted her home-grown clinic with 4 slit lamps,
a YAG laser, SLT laser, visual field machine, and an OCT. Having screened the
patients for potential surgical intervention prior to our arrival, the
pathology we saw was extreme and advanced. Nearly everyone we saw needed our
attention but with just 4 surgical days available, advanced cases were
prioritized, and the rest were turned away with regret.
The next few days were a blur of complex surgical cases on
wide-awake patients staring rock-steady into our wobbly microscope with only a
local anesthetic block on board. They ranged from 12 to 94 years and they all
showed stoicism long put out of practice in our society. The OR staff had been similarly
plucked from the village and taught to navigate an operating room by the
residing surgeon. Ophthalmic surgery was a new experience for them, and they
took the intrusion of our surgical team in stride. They stood dutifully by
Donnae, learning the names of the instruments and steps of the surgeries. We
continued our case load until past midnight on some evenings, only to leave the
OR staff turning over the room for an emergency C-section. It goes without
saying that the needs of the community were many and the number of men and
women with the expertise to help were few.
Despite our busy week, we found one night to explore the
village. We wandered down the lane under a sky so intense with stars our necks
ached from staring up at them. We followed Anshu down to the only watering hole
in town. As we neared the gathering we noticed that the “bar” was an immense metal cargo shipping container that, once
emptied, had been filled with a small fryer, a freezer, and stools. A plastic
sheet had been draped from the container’s edge to poles about 6 feet away to
create a covered outdoor space, which had been filled with tables and hanging
lights. Though it did not lack in creativity, the meager set up felt striking
compared to the fine restaurants and swanky bars of Center City. This was “going
out on the town”, here in Fond-des Blancs.
We looked terribly out of place. A large speaker had been set up outside and a
young man was thumbing through his phone, looking for the next song to play.
Once selected, the crowd erupted into animation. There were fancy steps, and
swiveling hips. There were cheers and whoops and laughing. Their joy was
obvious. Their joy was infectious. Among us at first, it was an imperceptible
sway, and a tapping of the foot. And then, in an instant, the locals traversed space
between our group and theirs, reached into the depths of our foreign crew, and
pulled us into their movement. It was like water bursting through a dam. The
next 20 minutes were a blur of motion and laughter. I stilled for a moment to
take in the joyful chaos around me: a
group of strangers entangled in an alcove of merriment carved out by villagers
who lived a life worlds apart from our own.
And yet, in that moment, we all shared in this contagious delight
brought about by music and movement, a commonality of humankind that transcends
language and culture and status.
As on my other
ventures abroad, I learned a great deal about the medical system in Haiti, and enjoyed
the challenges I met both surgically and personally while spending time there—bucket
showers and goat meat and all. But, as always, what I carry away with me in my
mind are the moments when the shared human experience reveals itself to me. I
tuck them away, and revel in them later. And then, I place it amongst the trove
of other moments gleamed from across the cultures I’ve been fortunate enough to
briefly become a part of, and marvel at the threads that tie us all together.
Thank you to Brad for the surgical safety net and great
confidence in the skill he sent me to learn this year, to Brynn for her
adventurous spirit and steady, willing hands, and to Donnae for making every
operation run as if we were at the Wills Mothership. Thank you also to Brianna for joining me on
this adventure, and being the best makeshift circulator a surgeon could ask
for. And of course, to Anshu for all of
her tireless work.