Helping a hurting Haiti

Amy Borden takes notes on a Haitian family.

Among the many memories DMU students acquired in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, the visual images stick like one’s t-shirt in the island nation’s oven-like temperatures: the once-beautiful capitol building in ruins. People eating and bathing wherever they found a working hydrant. Endless tent cities. The Haitian people, hopeful but demoralized by the devastation, living moment by moment amid monumental loss. And the garbage – growing piles, plains and mountains of it.

“We saw a garbage truck by the side of a road, and men were shoveling garbage into the back,” says Amy Borden, D.O.’13. “Where were they going to put it? And where do you even start?”

Borden, also a student in DMU’s master of public health program, was one of six students who provided care in Haiti in June. Fellow group member Kathie Palmersheim describes another image: a little girl they treated for a sprained ankle.

The DMU group treats patients in a church, while the nation struggles to recover.

“She was the happiest girl, but both her parents had died in the quake,” says Palmersheim, a second-year podiatric medicine student who also is pursuing her master’s degree in health care administration. “We gave her a Frisbee and played with her for a while. It was hard not to be able to fix all of their problems.”

Still, the students shared a tireless drive to help as much and as compassionately as they could. A non-governmental organization and the United Nations placed them in a clinic set up in a church on the outskirts of Port au Prince. With only intermittent electricity and no running water, they worked with French and Creole translators to treat patients for a wide variety of conditions caused by the quake as well as the country’s deep poverty. Wounds, dehydration, malnutrition, malaria, infections, parasitic diseases, sexually transmitted diseases and depression were among the conditions their patients presented.

The DMU group also treated more than 100 children brought to the church from an orphanage. In all, they saw nearly 850 patients. “The [local] staff and students worked great together,” says Jennifer Chambers, a student in the master of public health degree program. “We weren’t afraid to ask for help, step in if someone needed a break, assist with wound care or holding a baby during a visit.”

The group dynamic and guidance from clinic physicians boosted the students’ confidence, adds Michelle Gombas, a third-year osteopathic medicine student. “I was nervous until a few patients in – then it just goes away,” she notes. “You get into a rhythm, you realize you won’t know everything and you just go.”

The students agree the trip affirmed why they chose to pursue careers in health care. “After a really tough first year of medical school, it reminds me why we want to do this,” Borden says. “What I know is not a lot, but it was enough to help some people. The team really wanted to work; Haiti let us. I feel really privileged to have gone.”

Learn more about the global health department at DMU and about a recent trip to Guatemala.

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