Maggie Boylan, Staff Writer
Students who participated in a service trip to Haiti and the Dominican Republic last summer recalled their efforts to provide medical aid to the countries’ many disadvantaged citizens.
Haiti is one of the most impoverished and underdeveloped countries in the world. In the past couple years it has endured a cholera epidemic, an onslaught of hurricanes and the worst earthquake in the region in more than 200 years.
These various natural disasters and health crises have greatly affected the living conditions and health of Haitians and most are in desperate need of aid.
Among the volunteers were Jean Kabangu, Philip Anderson, Christina Davis, Aileen Johnson and Ben Klopfenstein. Kabangu was born in the Congo and lived in Africa until he moved to the U.S. when he was in the fourth grade.
The mission was under the direction of the International Service Learning (ISL) organization. ISL is a non-profit that “enlists medical and educational volunteer teams for the provision of services to under-served populations in Central and South America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Africa.” ISL was founded in 1992 to help those in need and make college students aware of the poverty and plight of those less fortunate.
The Gary Cieslak Scholarship helped fund their trip. Cieslak graduated from UD in 1980. It’s aim is “to honor his memory by establishing a scholarship in his name for worthy, financially needy pre-med students – those whose vision of service is akin to our friend’s.”
The UD students went to the Caribbean to get field experience in medical work. “We did this in the form of basic clinical work,” Anderson said, by “checking vital signs by taking blood pressure and pulse readings, listening to the hearts and lungs, recording height and weight measurements, and extracting as much relevant information as possible regarding the persons’ illness.”
They then strived to diagnose the patients’ ailments and presented them to the overseeing doctor, Dr. Andrey Matos, who tended to the patients and then instructed the volunteers on how to carry out some treatments or dispense medication.
“The most prevalent illnesses I saw were primarily skin infections,” Anderson said, “both bacterial and fungal, though there were cases of diabetes, asthma, and heart problems like atherosclerosis we couldn’t necessarily treat because these were chronic.”
Kabangu said he was struck by the lack of supplies and attention to the overall needs of people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He said he spent the first part of the summer working at Texas Medical Center in Houston, where the abundance of supplies (surgical tools, medicine, etc.) sharply contrasted with the limited supply available to the doctors in Haiti. “If there were no antibiotic containers, Iodine was put in the 7 UP bottle,” Kabangu said.
Kabangu is fluent in French, a skill that helped him interact with people in Haiti. “It was an eye opening experience, comparing their lives to the lives we lead in the U.S., and how privileged we are compared to them,” he said.
Anderson said language was a barrier for him, but the plight of the Haitians transcended any hindrance language caused. “I nonetheless could really get a sense for the sort of pain they were feeling, both physically and emotionally,” he said. “Juxtaposing the medical care here in the U.S. and there, one couldn’t help but to pity their living situations.”
Anderson said a little girl, about four years old, made quite an impression on him. She was covered in pustules and was suffering from a severe bacterial skin infection that had spread all over her body.
“It had progressed to the point where her pustules were both large and painful,” said Anderson. “Only 4 days prior, some members of the community had found her on the side of the road.” The problem the medical team faced was the possibility that the skin infection could have gotten into her blood stream and, therefore, incurable with the supplies that they had.
“Aileen Johnson [another member of the team] and I cleaned her up as best we could, simply using some hydrogen peroxide, and nearly covered her with antibacterial skin cream,” he said. “All the while she was writhing in pain, the slight pressure we may have applied on her skin hurt her that bad. I truly hope she has recovered from that infection.”
Kabangu described the places he visited, explaining how little everyone had. “We were in some pretty bad communities; some peoples’ houses were the size of people’s bedrooms here. And the water is reused for everything.”
Children swam in the same water used for cleaning and drinking, Kabangu said. The unclean water is a primary source of illness there. Anderson said that many people were unknowingly suffering from some intestinal parasite from bad drinking water.
“Most of them get their drinking/showering/cleaning water from the river, and God knows what’s swimming in there,” Anderson said. “But they knew no better; they were neither adequately educated nor did they have the means to find out what they may have been ingesting. It was rather heartbreaking most of the time, but only contributed to a sense of obligation I had felt to both alleviate them of their pain and educate them in preventative techniques.”
Kabangu said service trips provide a greater perspective on problems beyond an individual’s own comfort zone and all college students should consider volunteering for service organizations. Kabangu said he is eager to go back to Haiti next summer and continue to help those in need.
The juxtaposition of their privileged lives — clean drinking water and plenty of basic necessities – versus the disadvantaged lives of most people they encountered left a long-lasting impression on Kabangu and Anderson.
For Anderson, it was “a newfound, empathetic understanding of the doctor-patient relationship.”
For Kabangu, to see how people lived “with what they had opened my eyes to what is necessary to live.”