Last month’s Armchair Travel stands out as more than a unique traveling experience. Our auditorium was packed as residents gathered eagerly to hear this particular story.
Since the 1980’s, Panorama residents Jim and Therese have had an ongoing connection with the people of Haiti. They both speak French and Creole and have each contributed tremendously to the welfare of others.
The pair met at the Hospital Albert Schweitzer Haiti (HAS) where Jim was Medical Director and Therese a nurse. Jim previously worked in Congo as the only doctor for approximately 50,000 people, an experience he considers to have been very formative in his life. Prior to accepting the position at HAS, Therese worked as a nurse in Switzerland, where she was born.
They have both focused their life’s work on third world service, with reference to the philosophies of Albert Schweitzer and Larry Mellon, the founder of HAS. “Reverence for life.” and “Where there is life, help it.”
The Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Haiti operates under these philosophies, not only as a hospital but a provider of Integrated Community Services. HAS goes beyond the walls of the hospital to provide the community with resources essential to basic health that are otherwise lacking in Haiti, such as clean drinking water. These services are desperately needed in Haiti, a country that is plagued with unsanitary conditions and limited access to basic health care. Waterborne illnesses affect a majority of Haitians. Diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria are also in high occurrence. To exacerbate these conditions, Haiti suffers from overpopulation and extreme poverty.
Therese continues to travel frequently to Haiti, often bringing with her much needed medications. Her most recent trip was this past January. Over the years, she has built strong relationships with many Haitian people. She currently sponsors the education of several students in Haiti; one of these students went on to dental school and subsequently opened a dental practice in Haiti. “She is their lifeline,” says Jim.
Although Jim is retired, his dedication to this organization and the people of Haiti has not faltered. Since 1999, Jim has been conducting research on peripartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM), which is associated with congestive heart failure in women during the end of pregnancy or shortly after giving birth. He first encountered this condition while working in Haiti and discovered there was a lack of research behind it. His research has since worked to put a face on PPCM and improve the prognosis of patients in Haiti and worldwide. With effective diagnosis and treatment, the mortality rate of PPCM in Haiti has declined from 50% in 2000 to 15% in 2008.
PPCM is a topic these two are passionate about, something they truly take to heart. In 1988, Therese was working on-call at HAS when a woman arrived in the ER with her four week old baby girl. Presenting with signs of rapidly progressive heart failure, the woman was admitted to the hospital for urgent treatment. Therese noticed the baby girl was also in need of immediate medical attention. She was severely dehydrated and malnourished, weighing only two and a half pounds. Despite receiving the best treatment available, the mother died within a week of being admitted. Therese knew there were no remaining family members to care for the child so she made a decision to adopt the baby girl. That baby girl is now 25 years old and working on her doctorate in Michigan. Of course, they are very proud of their daughter. It is incredible to see how her life was transformed by that tremendous act of love. Most babies in Haiti don’t survive long after their mother passes, due primarily to malnutrition. Formula is too expensive and babies aren’t able to obtain proper sustenance and build their immune systems. Therese saved that child’s life in many ways.
Jim and Therese moved to Washington to be closer to Jim’s twin sister. Jim later received a Panorama flyer in the mail and decided to check it out. They have been residents since 2007.
When asked if they will travel to Haiti again, Jim replied: “If my research requires.”
Haiti can be a dangerous place. They have encountered some frightening situations on their many trips. As Jim puts it, “Nothing is ever sure in Haiti. I often said ‘why am I doing this?’ but Haiti is in my heart for sure.”
Therese has a braveness about her that can’t be said for most of us. She intends to continue her active involvement in Haiti. “I don’t think about the dangers. I just go with my heart.”
They both say the most remarkable thing about Haiti is the people. With the poor conditions and very limited government assistance, Haitians manage to maintain unparalleled optimism.
Already one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, Haiti’s economy was stricken by a heavy blow in 2010, when a 7.0 earthquake hit the highest populated area and caused billions of dollars in damage. A third of a million people are still living in tents in Port Au Prince, 3 years after the earthquake destroyed most of the capitol city. Economic growth and overall recovery has been a slow, struggling process. There is a major lack of jobs and industry, and 60 – 70% of the population is illiterate. Education is difficult to afford and government provides inadequate support. In addition, the thousands of fatalities and devastating injuries caused by this earthquake have left families torn apart.
This teenage girl lost her entire family in the earthquake. She says “M kap viv anko.” (With my new leg, I can live again).
Even still, as Jim and Therese have observed, “they want to learn. They realize that death is a reality. When they have an opportunity, they take it.”
Therese has traveled to Haiti 3 times since the earthquake to work with survivors, particularly amputee patients.
In response to the devastating injuries caused by the earthquake, Hanger Inc., the leading provider of prosthetics and orthotics in the U.S., has set up a clinic at the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer. They have provided over 1,000 limbs, free of charge, for victims of the earthquake. To follow Hanger’s tremendous philanthropic activity in Haiti, check out their blog: Haiti Amputee Relief Blog.
It’s easy to see Jim and Therese only wish they could do even more to help.
“The hope is on these people with such optimism. Tomorrow’s going to be a better day.”
The work these two have done over the years serves as a shining example of humanitarianism. They stand as inspiration for those of us around them to do something, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and to help better the welfare of others who are less fortunate.
Some projects in Haiti that Jim and Therese recommend as trustworthy and a good way to help the people of Haiti are: 1)TeacHaiti (http://www.teachaiti.org/), 2)Mennonite Central Committee (http://www.mcc.org/) and 3)Hôpital Albert Schweitzer (http://www.hashaiti.org/) “