Recently Jennifer Fitch, a team accountant with TSNE, traveled to Haiti as part of a medical mission. She shared some of her experiences with fellow members of the NonProfit Center upon her return.
On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit near Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince. As news of the devastation and loss of life spread, disaster-relief groups of all kinds immediately mobilized to help. Many of these organizations routinely perform aid work in Haiti, a nation of roughly 9 million people that shares a third of the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.
Due to a long history of political instability, the people of Haiti struggle with a lack of infrastructure, including having little access to medical care for either preventative or emergency needs. As initial disaster-relief programs complete their missions, longer-term programs must meet the everyday needs of vulnerable Haitians. One such type of aid program involves setting up temporary clinics in the most underserved areas to provide basic medical care.
Building a Bridge
A nonprofit organization in New England that regularly visits Haiti to conduct these clinics is Monadnock Bridge Builders, a non-denominational medical missionary group based in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. TSNE’s own Jennifer Fitch, a Fiscal Sponsorship Program team accountant, recently spent two weeks in Port-au-Prince as part of a team of 20 Bridge Builders volunteers. She shared stories and photos of her experiences as part of the NonProfit Center’s Lunch Break series.
Fitch had actually been planning for a trip to Haiti since the previous October, having been inspired by her mother’s work with Bridge Builders. Joyce, a nurse practitioner, has been making trips with the group for the last 5 years. Like the rest of the team, which consisted of a mix of nurse practitioners, nursing students and pharmacy/supply assistants, Fitch and her mother paid their own airfare and expenses.
Tapping Local Resources
For 8 weeks prior to the trip, they collected donations and supplies. Each got creative: Fitch cooked and hosted a casual benefit lunch for her co-workers to raise funds for the Bridge Builders’ longer-term care program; Joyce similarly had a party to collect supplies such as over-the-counter medicines.
When Fitch told Zipcar about her efforts, they donated driving credits to her for her trips to collect supplies.
Setting Up the Clinic
After a day’s travel to Port-au-Prince, with each volunteer in charge of a 50-pound bag of medical supplies, the team was welcomed by local liaison Franclei. His home, which had itself been damaged in the earthquake, was the team’s home base during their stay.
On clinic days, they set off early in the morning to begin the process of registering, examining and dispensing medications to the dozens of people already waiting in line – some of whom had walked for miles.
Cases that could be treated on-site included infections, parasites, minor wounds, headaches and upset stomachs. More serious cases, such as acute appendicitis and congestive heart failure, or cases needing lab tests or x-rays, were referred to the longer-term care program.
In addition to medicines like antibiotics, Tylenol and Tums, the clinics dispensed infant formula, diapers, prenatal vitamins and children’s clothing.
Education Is Key
Fitch explains that it was important to instruct each patient on how to take their medication and where to go if they needed more. “Most people have no access to medicines. They try to buy them on the black market but what they get could be anything – an antibiotic, sugar, an empty capsule.” She relates a story about a patient who said they needed more of the pills they’d bought, and, when asked what the pills were, proffered a nearly-empty roll of Sweet Tarts.
To prepare for each clinic, the team’s pharmacy assistants counted out bottles of oral medications into bags of 30 days’ worth. Children from the nearby orphanage were happy to help out. “You’d say, ‘Hey, can you count to 30?” smiles Fitch at the memory of the children, who she describes as “amazing.”
One resident of the orphanage that Fitch was overjoyed to meet was Benson, the “little brother” her family has been sponsoring for several years. The shy, reserved 10-year old lit up when Fitch and her mother arrived, and immediately asked where the rest of the family was. Fitch immediately adored the boy, spending as much time as she could with him.
A Clearer Sense of Purpose
“I knew that it would change my life,” Fitch says of the trip. “What I didn’t know was that I would absolutely love every single minute of the whole experience.”
She spoke of the warmth, beauty and generous spirit of the Haitian people. The experience had a beneficial effect on Fitch personally, too: she returned with a clearer perspective and sense of purpose, with the goal of using her accounting skills to help women-owned microfinance organizations in Haiti. She also can’t wait to return to the island to do more aid work – and to see her little brother Benson again.