|Am I my brother’s keeper?
By Dr. Colleen O’Connell
Class of 1995
I am often challenged by colleagues and friends about why I choose to dedicate time to health projects abroad when ‘we have enough problems here at home.’ Never sure if an answer is expected, I’ve used such opportunities to educate; contrasting the troubles afflicting our healthcare system with those that plague developing countries, outlining how a physical disability determines survival in sustenance based societies, and how access to basic health care is often denied those in greatest need.
Dr. Colleen O’Connell helping Mom and son.
However, beyond personal ambitions, there exists a responsibility that I believe we are bound by, and that transcends political or geographic borders. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child both identify the rights of individuals to access to healthcare, and specifically include provisions for the disabled.
For two years I have been volunteering with Healing Hands for Haiti Foundation Inc. In 2002 I undertook the challenge to organize the first Canadian team to participate in this project, and have since traveled three times to this beleaguered Caribbean nation. Haiti has the poorest standard of living in the Western Hemisphere, and with the recent violence and instability is now in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. The country lacks effective infrastructure, has meagre health care services, and relies heavily on aid for the most basic of necessities.
Volunteering with Healing Hands for Haiti offers the chance to participate in the development of sustainable rehabilitation programs through a number of initiatives; training Haitians in rehabilitation medicine, prosthetics and orthotics, teaching caregiver schools for orphanage staff, and providing education to families of people with disabilities. Volunteers provide hands on interdisciplinary care to disabled patients alongside local staff and trainees. Teams spend one to two weeks in Port-au-Prince, residing in dormitory style accommodations, with unreliable electricity, bottled water, two mouth-watering Haitian meals daily, and little free time.
Dr. Colleen O’Connell talking to a young Haitian.
Our teams have consisted of volunteers from across Canada; each person uses vacation time, fundraises to cover expenses and equipment. Teams include dedicated nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, prosthetists, orthotists, support workers, in addition to nursing and medical students. To date over 40 Canadians have volunteered with two teams, many going with both trips.
Our rehab clinic sits behind tall concrete walls topped with razor wire, armed guards patrolling the site. The clinic building houses a small gym, even smaller prosthetic shop, pharmacy, two exam rooms and a classroom. In the early morning hours, colorful pick-up trucks with painted slogans “New Luck” or “Love Jesus” dropped off hopeful passengers with a variety of impairments: amputations, stroke, developmental delay and cerebral palsy. Others made their way on foot and crutches, carefully struggling through the garbage and debris strewn streets. Accompanied by family or friends, they often waited an entire day to be seen.
In mid-30s Celsius, we worked long but rewarding days. Seating systems were constructed, orthoses fitted, education on positioning, feeding, skin care provided. Over the course of each week over 200 patients are seen. Throughout the clinic, Haitian rehabilitation workers were being trained by our team on how to make prostheses and orthoses, how to assess patients with paralysis, care for amputated limbs, and how to develop a therapy program.
Each day in addition to the clinic, groups are sent to work in orphanages or local hospitals. This was perhaps the most difficult of all the work done. No amount of advanced research can prepare one for the emotions evoked when witnessing masses of children with wasted and contracted limbs, seemingly tangled together on the floor. We held children who would not survive the year. The vast needs made it even more challenging to focus on the immediacy. Orphanage staff were very caring, often mere children themselves; overwhelmed by the numbers of children, lack of food, medicines and clothing, they welcomed us graciously.
The days at each orphanage were spent evaluating the children, providing education, and determining equipment needs. Basic medical care was given, such as wound care, deworming and rehydration. Simple interventions were taught, such as proper positioning for feeding children with swallowing difficulties, stretching and bracing needs for contractures, and stimulation exercises for developmentally delayed children. Despite the great needs, definite outcomes were realized in our short visits; one child thought to be non-ambulatory was shown to walk; a child fit with a stander discovered an environment beyond the floor.
With our last mission in January 2004, we were confronted by a country rocked by violence and destabilization; protests raged daily, roadblocks prevented free movement, and delivery of much needed resources such as food and medicines were interrupted. Tear gas from nearby protests flowed through the clinic on more than one occasion, and often planned trips to orphanages had to be postponed or re-routed. These challenges further solidified our resolve. One of our nurses reflected “I’ve taken as much from the project as I’ve given; it becomes so much more real and important when we bring our experiences home and educate our peers about the overwhelming needs of our neighbours.”
For each of us who went, things will never quite be the same. An emphatically positive experience with rollercoaster emotions: we triumphed at our successes, such as fitting a girl with a new leg, and were humbled in sadness when confronted by needs greater than our resources, such as children dying with massive hydrocephalus.
The obstacles faced by a country such as Haiti often appear insurmountable, and projects like these may seem like a drop in the bucket. However, for each individual person we met, worked with, and provided care for, whether it was a prosthesis to replace a lost limb or words of comfort, I believe we have made some measure of difference. I have been to Haiti three times now, and am moved to see patients I had worked with earlier, now using new legs, wearing the shoes and braces we provided, and full of hugs and smiles seeing me again. And finally, in the end, there are more Canadians who have learned, which will ensure the people in Haiti are not forgotten.
For more information on how to get involved with this project, please contact myself at Dr.Colleen.O’Connell@rvh.nb.ca or visit the website www.healinghandsforhaiti.org. We are currently planning future trips, tentatively scheduled for November, and early 2005.