A Week of PT Service in Port-de-Paix, HaitiTweet
Saturday, October 14th was the official PT Day of Service. While many PT’s around the country provided falls risk assessments and other valuable services, I took a day to reflect on my week of PT service in Port-de-Paix, Haiti.
To better understand Haiti, there are a few things to consider. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The square mileage of Haiti (10,714) is just slightly more than Vermont (9,623) yet the population of Haiti is 10.5 million (compare to VT, 624,595). The average Haitian makes about $750 per year, and the median age is 22.6. The infrastructure in Haiti was not ideal prior to 2010, but the earthquake on January 12, 2010 that possibly killed 300,000 people, also destroyed much of what was there, such as roads, hospitals, electrical power. Despite international aid, much of Haiti remains in need of basic services.
I decided to go with an established group of PT volunteers, STAND: The Haiti Project, based out of Oregon. The group had been traveling to the northern city of Port-de-Paix for five years, and seemed to be a good fit for me. I was comfortable going to what was described as a third world country, as I had done two other trips to Honduras in the past. I did not know anyone else who was volunteering, nor did I know anyone who had gone with this group, but after following along on Facebook and talking to the leaders of the group, I decided to give it a try.
Haiti is a country like no other. Flying in to Port-au-Prince, the deforestation of the landscape is easy to see. The mountains are tall and the steep slopes lead sharply to the blue ocean below, and it seems it could be paradise.
But once you arrive and start heading out on the main roads, you realize something is missing. It took us over 8 hours to get to Port-de-Paix, with half of that time spent on roads that were comparable to VT logging roads. The “highway” is paved in parts, is washed out in others, is used by motorbikes, people, buses, bikes, and any number of other wheeled contraptions, with little towns sprinkled along the way, most with limited electriciy. We had filled our water bottles in the Miami airport, knowing that was it until we arrived at the clinic late Saturday night. I had a box of Kind bars as well.
I worked in the clinic for five days starting Monday morning and finished up late Friday afternoon. My patients varied in age from 12 to 97, and had back pain, knee pain, failed surgical interventions, old prosthetics, pelvic pain, wounds, dehydration, high blood pressure, bladder infections, yeast infections, breast lumps, testicular lumps, diabetes, undiagnosed illnesses from childhood – possibly polio, seizures (aka stroke), heartburn (more on that later) and of course the many injuries due to motorbikes, buses and pedestrians running in to each other. There was a separate room where the pediatric patients were seen by a team of 3 pediatric PT’s and OT’s, which included two wonderful women who live in Haiti and provide pediatric services alongside those of us who visit, and have clinics in various locations. We also had two nurses who kept busy with fevers, rashes, sickness and medical conditions not often seen in the U.S.
Our days were made easier by the help of some wonderful and competent local people. We had the constant help of our youthful translators, who worked hard right along with us every day until the last patient was out the door. Our delicious and local food was prepared by a group of women who seemed to know exactly what would fill us up and keep us guessing! The Haitians love their spice, and I will never eat coleslaw (known as pikliz) or peanut butter, again, without hesitating and taking a small bite first, just in case there is a bit of unexpected kick to it. This is of course where some of the heartburn comes in. There is spice in so many Haitian dishes, that by the end of the week, I had heartburn, and I have never had heartburn, even when pregnant! Tums are a regular part of PT treatment in Haiti.
I have plans to return to Haiti in May 2018 with the same group. I want to help with the skills I have, but I also want to find more ways to help the Haitian people help themselves. I am looking in to ways to volunteer to teach at the new Physical and Occupational Therapy School in Léogâne (FSRL – Faculté des Sciences de Réhabilitation de Léogâne), which welcomed its first class in 2015. I am researching ways to make a lasting difference, by helping to establish a year-round PT clinic in Port-de-Paix, rather than one that is open 6 weeks a year. We may be struggling with our own healthcare system, but we have figured out some ways to make it work, and I would like to share that knowledge beyond our little state.