There were hundreds of people waiting outside — some since the night before, others who had walked for hours to get a good spot in line for something the average Haitian struggles to secure: a simple medical checkup.
Stevenson Chery, Yves-Dany Accilien and Samuel Jean-Baptiste, three medical school students from Florida International University, joined a team of 17 other students and medical professionals to provide physicals, dispense prescription medicine and leave behind basic instruments such as blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes. During their trip last year to Cap-Haïtien, a city on Haiti’s northern coast, they set up a clinic in a school and saw 368 patients over two days.
For the three Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine students — Chery, Accilien and Jean-Baptiste — the medical mission was a chance to return to their home country and help. Through a nonprofit the three formed, KORE Haiti, they’re facilitating trips for medical school students and healthcare professionals to Haiti, a country where 40 percent of the population lacks access to essential healthcare and where only 45 percent of children are vaccinated, according to a January Health Fact Sheet from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
“A lot of times, nonprofits travel to Haiti and say ‘OK, this is what we’re bringing,’” said Chery, 24, a second-year medical school student. “What we found is that the most important thing is to go and talk to people and find out what they need and what they want.”
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KORE returned again in April, with two groups of almost 50 students, medical professional volunteers and hired staff. They also began offering dental services for the first time, recognizing how poor oral health can impact cardiovascular conditions.
“Haiti needs a lot when it comes to healthcare,” Chery said. “Public health is a big concern. Unless the person is really sick, they’re probably not going to seek medical help.”
For Chery, his decision to become a doctor was rooted in Haitians’ lack of access to healthcare. His mother lost a baby after she was turned away at a local hospial because she didn’t have the money to pay for her care. He was about 4 years old.
“It was devastating, knowing that I could have lost my mother,’’ he says today.
The average Haitian, who lives on $1 to $2 a day, can expect to pay anywhere from $10 to $50 to be seen by a doctor in a small clinic, said Marjorie Lozama, current chair of international affairs for the Haitian American Nurses Association’s Florida chapter.
Lozama, who has traveled to Haiti as a nurse since 2005, said there is no free care available in the country.
“So the Haitians, they usually rely on their home remedies,” Lozama said. But herbal remedies — usually taken as a tea or soup— are usually ineffective against most diseases and illnesses.
“We’ve seen some people who don’t know what hypertension, diabetes or a stroke is,” Lozama said. “Yes, we can give them three to six months of medication but what about after that, after we leave?”
In its 2016 report, USAID found that government expenditures represented only 10 percent of the funding toward healthcare in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world.
Haiti still “reports some of the world’s worst health indicators” and the country’s infrastructure was worsened after “the 2010 earthquake, which demolished 50 health centers,” according to USAID.
The earthquake, while devastating, was only part of the problem. Ten months after the Jan. 12, 2010, quake, the first cases of cholera began appearing, soon leading to an epidemic. Studies have concluded that cholera, which spreads through contaminated food or water, was most likely introduced by U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal, where the disease is endemic.
The Zika virus, too, has also impacted Haiti. In fact, researchers at the University of Florida have theorized that the mosquito-borne virus had entered Haiti in December 2015, three months before Brazilian scientists confirmed the virus in the South American country. And the KORE team encountered a rare and contained case of leprosy last year during their trip.
The KORE team hopes to combat some of these issues by persuading medical professionals to work in the country. Attracting and retaining medical professionals is a large problem, according to the USAID report, with “as few as four health professionals per 10,000 people.’’
“The professionals who are educated in Haiti are going to the [United States], Canada or going to France. They’re just leaving Haiti in general,” said Jean-Baptiste, 24. “We are coming to the country to educate people but we also want to empower people to stay and give back.”