“It is exactly the way it is described in the papers. Total chaos. Blue helmeted UN troops patrolling the roads. And complete and utter poverty everywhere. But the people have been friendly,” writes Dr. Claude Roland, a highly skilled American vascular surgeon, who lives in Ray Brook., in an email, to his wife, Jola, from Haiti.
By volunteering to serve as a surgeon at the “Hopital Albert Schweitzer,” in central Haiti, Dr. Roland was fulfilling his childhood aspiration to become a missionary doctor. The hospital serves 345,000 impoverished people in the region, and is considered an integrated health care system.
In his email, Dr. Ronald writes: “I have just arrived at the hospital, received a Haitian dinner in the dormitory for visiting staff, and have already met some fascinating physicians, physical therapists, and other support staff. I had to walk through the hospital to get to this the only computer in the hospital. There are children lying on blankets all along the walls.”
His effort to learn a bit of Creole has paid off. “I have not yet needed to resort to asking if someone speaks English. I was able to communicate effectively at customs. No problem getting through, but the suitcase with medical supplies is just bits of plastic held together by the inner lining. Fortunately it is still intact.”
In a follow-up email Dr. Roland wrote: “Just got a tour of the hospital along with a visiting Swiss cardiologist… A corpse and screaming babies is the impression one gets …I treated a day old baby without anus. I have successfully dilated an opening so that he could pass meconium. He’s lucky. His young mother (maybe 16) was very happy to be able to start breast feeding.”
But Dr. Roland’s gladness didn’t last long. In his next message to his wife, he wrote, “I am seeing some really serious stuff in the clinic without the resources to do a proper workup. I think I am dealing with testicular cancer and a stomach cancer. No way to know for sure…. There must be fifty people standing in the hallways in front of the clinic. I have to go.”
In response, his wife, Jola, wrote: “I am so glad that you made it. This is going to be not only an experience for you but also an experience for us through your eyes. Wow… I have forwarded your email to our sons, Peter and Tristan… Love you and miss you and I am very proud of you.”
The next email from Dr. Roland proclaimed: “Clinic is over. I saw lots of pediatric pathology. I have three circumcisions scheduled. I was given a prescription pad! No control, no questions asked. It’s though without being fluent in Creole. My translator was getting tired and a bit cranky toward the end of the day. It was hard to get a good history from my patients. If I come back, I will need to learn some more orthopedics. It is a major component of what is done here by the general surgeon.”
He soon found out that there are lots of serious orthopedic injuries, mostly due to motorcycle accident. “I saw four people, a couple, a child and the grandmother piled onto the motorcycle buzzing through the crowds on roads consisting of uneven rock,” he notes.
Following the morning report, Dr. Roland went on surgical rounds with Dr. Exe, the Haitian chief of surgery. “He is an incredible surgeon with a broad repertoire of skills,” he wrote to his wife. “The way a general surgeon was many decades ago in the states. He is astoundingly humble. His complete lack of surgical arrogance is remarkable.”
He was able to report also some other good news that day. “We had lunch in the visitor’s dormitory. Physician, from abroad and local, as well as physical therapists. A group of ladies prepared some fantastic Haitian food.”
But starting next day, he was on call for surgical services. The email from his son, Peter, cheered him up. Peter wrote: “Hey Pap, it all seems super challenging. Hang in there! I am sure it is all about style. You will be fine!”
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.