Howard U. Medical Caravan Visits Haiti

Sophie Jean-Felix, one of 18 Howard University medical students who embarked on the annual Haiti International Medical Service Learning Project (Photo by Bertrand Vulcain)
Sophie Jean-Felix, one of 18 Howard University medical students who embarked on the annual Haiti International Medical Service Learning Project (Photo by Bertrand Vulcain)

For aspiring physicians, the third year of medical school represents a transition from theory to practice. Once immersed in their studies, students have opportunities to apply what they’re learning under the watchful eye of seasoned professionals.

Since the 2010 earthquake, the Howard University School of Medicine globalized the rites of passage by sending a group of students and faculty to the small Caribbean nation to assist doctors in rural communities and exchange ideas about best practices.

The recent iteration of the Diasporic study tour included students born in Haiti or of Haitian descent, a number of whom ended the week more inspired to help their country people.

“I saw one infant mortality because there weren’t proper tools [in the hospital],” said Sophie Jean-Felix, 26, a third-year Howard University medical student of Haitian descent who aspires to study obstetrics and gynecology. “When babies come out and don’t breathe, you intubate them, but those tools weren’t available. The child won’t be able to survive. There’s a lack of proper medical devices and other resources. It was unfortunate to see that child pass away.”

Jean-Felix was among 18 Howard University School of Medicine students and faculty members who embarked on the annual Haiti International Medical Service Learning Project, a study tour that took place between June 24-30 in partnership with Howard University Hospital and the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians in New York.

In conjunction with Haiti’s Ministry of Health and two health professional students from other universities, participants provided medical treatment at Fort-Liberté in northeastern Haiti and its surrounding communities and conducted workshops and clinical training. They also assisted with medical care and health screenings. Eligible students received academic credit.

Before the Howard students arrived, Haitian medical professionals and students questioned government officials about the state of the country’s medical infrastructure.

“They wanted to know what changes would be made in the infrastructure to help them continue their education,” said Dr. Shelly McDonald-Pinkett, associate professor at the Howard University College of Medicine and faculty lead for the Haiti International Medical Service Learning Project.

McDonald-Pinkett, who is the first woman to serve as chief medical officer at Howard University Hospital, recounted seeing a man almost lose his leg because a minor cut became severely infected, a situation she said is indicative of significant resource gaps affecting Haitians.

“Medical schools are under-resourced,” McDonald-Pinkett said. “The [Haitian] students want updated information about preventative care, HIV management and treatment, the latest recommendations for the management of diabetes and hypertension. They also inquired about research opportunities.”

Since the start of the collaboration, Howard University Hospital donated an ambulance to the hospital in Fort-Liberté.

Global health organizations say Haiti’s shortage of trained physicians, medical support and affordable health care has inhibited its development, especially since the 2010 earthquake, when Haiti lost 50 medical centers, a teaching hospital and the Ministry of Health. Since a subsequent cholera outbreak, the Caribbean nation has struggled to restore its health care network and maintain access to sanitized water.

Meeting the Haitian doctors and patients’ needs required bridging cultural gaps. Howard students spent much of the week before the trip learning medical terms in Creole, the language spoken in Haiti, elements of Haitian culture, and sensitivity to their counterparts’ experiences. Students such as Bertrand Vulcain, who speaks Creole fluently, helped their peers grasp the language and often served as a translator.

Though he visits Haiti often, Vulcain said he saw his ancestral home in a different light while assisting doctors in Fort-Liberté. As he recounted his experience, Vulcain, raised in the U.S. for most of his life, described the patience of the Haitian people, many of whom waited untold hours before meeting a physician.

“There were so many people waiting for a long time,” said Vulcain, 26. “That speaks to the resilience of the Haitian people. In the states, when we have to sit somewhere for an hour, or we don’t get the best service at a doctor or restaurant, we fuss about it. These people wait hours to see a physician. That’s something really humbling to a person living in a privileged society.”

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