By: Crystal Long
Serge Geffrard was 8 years old and living in Haiti the first time he saw a doctor. The visit left an imprint on him far beyond the treatment for a bad cough.
As a teen, Geffrard emigrated from the impoverished country with his family to South Florida. His path eventually led to Gainesville, where he graduated from the University of Florida College of Medicine in 1998.
But Geffrard’s heart never really left his home country. His need to give back to the underserved people of Haiti led him in 1996, as a second-year medical student, to organize the first Project Haiti trip. He and 10 of his classmates spent the week of spring break in Haiti, offering needed medical services and launching what has become the longest-running international health outreach project at UF.
Geffrard, now a pediatric cardiologist in Stockbridge, Georgia, in 2004 co-founded Project Haiti Heart, a nonprofit organization that provides medical, humanitarian and spiritual help to the people of Haiti.
The inaugural 1996 trip was led by Eloise Harman, M.D., now professor emeritus in the UF College of Medicine’s department of medicine, and Parker Small Jr., M.D., professor emeritus in the UF College of Medicine’s department of medicine and department of pediatrics, in a collaboration with the University of Miami and Project Medishare.
In Project Haiti’s annual spring break trip, the team of volunteers from a variety of specialties strikes a balance between service and education. The team can treat over 1,000 patients at mobile clinic sites and has expanded to include residents and physicians from family medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, obstetrics and gynecology and surgery. Pharmacy students and a pharmacist are essential in dispensing medication and more importantly, recommending substitutes when medications are not available.
At times, when a dentist and dental residents can accompany the team, dental extractions are a large part of the treatments provided. Conditions aren’t always favorable, and they often have to work outside, sterilizing instruments using a pressure cooker and propane gas.
A volatile political climate, along with natural disasters make Haiti a challenging environment for the team. Following a devastating earthquake in 2010, Harman and Geffrard traveled back to Haiti, against the guidance of institutions in the United States.
Harman described scenes most people can barely imagine.
“The collapsed buildings, tent cities and the smell of decomposition from people trapped beneath the rubble was unbelievable,” she said. It is as an image that will never be erased from her memory.
Project Haiti organizers traveled to Jimani, a border town in the Dominican Republic, where they treated Haitians injured by the earthquake. Their trips resumed to Haiti in 2012.
While the major focus of Project Haiti has been to bring medical assistance to underserved populations, the endeavor also provided an invaluable educational experience for the UF students.
“This work allows students to find an appreciation for global health and what it’s like to provide medical care in developing countries,’’ Harman explained. “They have a real appreciation for what is available to us in the U.S.”
One of the biggest challenges Harman and her students experience is the language barrier. Explaining a diagnosis or treatment plan, even with translators, can be frustrating. The pharmacists experience their own difficulties because many of the people have the same or similar names. Things as simple as a childproof container have proven problematic because they are unable to explain how to open the containers.
Another challenge is the ability to keep records and reach back to patients they have treated. The team has witnessed some of the most heartbreaking conditions – biopsies that revealed advanced-stage cancer, adults blinded by cataracts, malnourished babies.
Even in the reality of these hardships, Harman said the people of Haiti have always been grateful and would even come back years later to see the doctors and pay thanks.
Harman is sensitive to the unique challenge and conditions the health care professionals in Haiti face, and she is cautious not to offend them.
“You have to recognize that they do things differently because they have to,’’ she said. “They are required to be resourceful.”
As Harman reflected on her experiences in Haiti, one thing that stands out are the orphanages. Many of the children there had parents, but they just can’t afford to care for them.
“The kids were anxious for affection and would flock to play Frisbee with the medical students,’’ she said.
One day, Harman recalled, as she boarded a bus leaving a settlement around a sugar plantation, a woman stopped her. At first, Harman couldn’t understand what the woman was asking. Then the woman pointed at Harman’s shoes. Harman thought, why not? She was at the end the trip. When she boarded the bus, her students took notice of her missing shoes and many of them followed her lead and donated their shoes as well. Now, it has become a tradition to donate their shoes at the end of each trip.
Even the simplest of gestures can leave a lasting imprint.