Leogâne, Haiti–Leaving Port-au-Prince is an exercise in self-defense: the assault of sights, sounds, smells, and emotions requires closing your eyes, covering your nose, and shielding your heart from Haiti´s brutal realities.
Haitian drivers – jumping dividers on their motorcycles into oncoming traffic or taking blind curves at high speed in colorful, emblematic taptaps - are additional hazards. On the map, Leogâne is only 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince, but pedestrian congestion and car traffic combine with the earthquake-buckled road to make it an hour-long trip. The city of 16,000 isn’t far from the epicenter and according to some estimates, 90% of the homes here were damaged in the quake. The widespread destruction caused by the disaster, compounded by the pre-quake health picture has manifested in a wide array of health problems, making it a logical location for a Henry Reeve Emergency Medical Contingent field hospital.
Staffed by Cuban doctors and graduates of Havana’s Latin American Medical School (ELAM) from eight countries, plus five Haitian ELAM students who serve as translators and health promoters, the hospital in Leogâne offers free pediatric, OB-GYN, internal medicine and other services in individual tents divided by specialty; the most serious cases are referred to the hospital in nearby Saint Croix, while others are admitted to the limited-capacity tent wards on site.
“We had to adjust our strategy to reach more people,” says Dr Wilbert Barral from Potosí, Bolivia (ELAM 2007) who heads up the ELAM component of the Leogâne team. “Many Haitians haven’t seen a doctor before or aren’t sure how our services work. They think we may charge them, for instance, so we began going into the communities to provide consultations and tell people about the field hospital, explain the services, and that they’re free.” With this new strategy, the previous daily average of 500 patient visits has increased to 800. Dr Barral told me that pregnant women and children are the priority since they are the ones at highest risk in post-disaster situations. Patients with chronic disease are also a priority. “We’re seeing a lot of hyperthyroidism, but not one case of leptospirosis, which is surprising since it’s endemic in Haiti,” explained Dr María Esther from Nicaragua (ELAM 2005).
The doctors at Leogâne emphasize that the emergency health phase has passed–the challenge now is to provide public health
services that emphasize disease prevention and health promotion, including vaccination campaigns. Unfortunately, the emergency phase has also passed for the owners of the land where the Henry Reeve field hospital is located. The team has been given 14 days to vacate the grounds to make way for an internationally funded orphanage which has agreed to pay rent. The team of 60 (53 doctors, 5 Haitian ELAM students, 2 support staff) will be distributed throughout the system of 39 health centers, including hospitals, which will be established or rehabilitated in the next phase of the team’s commitment to rebuilding the Haitian health system.
But today, the current Leogâne hospital was full of song and dance, thanks to the voices, drums, and infectious energy of Agrupación Vocal Desandann, a musical group of Cubans of Haitian descent. Hailing from Cuba’s Camagüey province, the group is part of the
Henry Reeve’s mental health project, and came to Leogâne to sing traditional Creole songs, accompanied by dancing and lots of audience participation. The group first visited Haiti in 1996 and has been back over half a dozen times since to perform and deepen their ties with their ancestral roots. Many members speak Creole, including Director Amelia Díaz and composer Marcel Andrés whose 50th birthday is today. Slowly but surely, as the melodic strains came floating over the camp, community members began gathering. Before long, children were clapping, teens were dancing, and a terribly shy grandmother broke into a gap-toothed ear-to-ear grin. March 4th is the 16-year anniversary of Agrupación Vocal Desandann and what a way to celebrate – in Haiti, bringing smiles and laughter to Haitians.