Trained in Cuba, U.S. Doctors Describe Month in Haiti
After the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti, Dr. Melissa Barber received a call asking her to help treat people left injured and living in squalid conditions.
“There was no question,” said Barber, 30, who was born and raised in the Bronx and worked in quality assessment at St. Barnabas Hospital in the heart of the borough. “I actually resigned and I made plans to go to Haiti for a month. That is how much it’s ingrained in me to help the underserved communities when they are in need.”
Barber’s sense of service stems from her training at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, Cuba (See sidebar). Like thousands of fellow graduates from poor and indigenous communities in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, she received a full scholarship to attend the school in exchange for a commitment to work in areas that lack adequate access to healthcare. Haiti no doubt fit that definition before the earthquake, and even more so afterward.
So Barber joined six other Cuban-trained doctors from the United States — all of them women — who packed their bags full of donated medical supplies and arrived Jan. 26 in the Dominican Republic, beginning a commitment that could last for years.
ON THE GROUND IN HAITI
On the bus ride into Haiti, the physicians from New York City, Houston and Oakland got a crash course in Creole from their Haitian-American colleague, Dr. Martine Pierre. She taught them useful phrases like, “What’s your name?” and “What’s wrong with you?” For the next month the doctors would use these phrases while treating hundreds of patients a day.
Their home base was a clinic in Croix des Bouquets, a suburb of Port-au-Prince that lies eight miles northeast of the ruined capital. Cuban doctors working in Haiti before the quake set up the makeshift hospital a week before they arrived, and already word had spread to longtime residents and newly arrived refugees living nearby in tent villages.
“The line to see us would start at four in the morning,” Barber said. “Once they realized there is free medical care and medicine, they were like ‘Oh my god, I can finally see a doctor.’”
Many of the patients treated at the clinic had never seen a doctor before. In addition to receiving treatment for quake-related injuries and water-borne diseases, they sought help for chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. The doctors relied on their Cuban-training that focused on primary care medicine, as well as two years of training in disaster relief.
But nothing could prepare Barber for experiences like treating a 4-year-old boy who was brought in by his mother in a state of severe dehydration. Within 10 minutes of his arrival he died. The mother said she had left her son to search for his father when he went missing after the earthquake. By the time she returned home he had been suffering from diarrhea for four days.
“That kind of stuff is so preventable,” Barber said. “It speaks of a lack of healthcare that they need.”
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