Helping In Haiti: Extreme Poverty Hinders Recovery

This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of “Interchange” — By Nancy Diggs

I thought I’d seen poverty before. After all, I’d volunteered in Ecuador and rural Romania, visited Russia with the Miami Valley Episcopal Russian Network, and seen many other impoverished areas of the world, including our own inner cities. Nothing prepared me, however, for the vast misery In post-earthquake Haiti.

Trash lines the street, shacks are cobbled together with pieces of tin or whatever material is available, and miles of crowded and hot tent cities house whole families in miniscule spaces. Our comfortable rooms at a guest house, while shabby, seemed luxurious by comparison.

With its average life expectancy of 52 years, annual income of around $400 and 50% unemployment, Haiti’s abject poverty translates into little or no medical facilities, let alone dental care. South Carolina based CHAP—the Christian Haitian American Partnership—seeks to remedy this. Under the leadership of Dr. Jeanne Fourrier, a periodontist from South Carolina, our group of twelve from Arizona, Arkansas, and Ohio, as well as South Carolina, included three dentists, a pharmacist, a nurse, and an optometrist. Anglican bishop Thomas Johnston (“T.J.”) from South Carolina contributed his experience gained from many sojourns in the country.

The Reverend Fritz Valpena (“Père Val”) and his wife Carmel of St. Simeon’s Church in Croix des Bouquets represent the Haitian half of the partnership. They were responsible for the mobile clinic arrangements, where church members assisted and served as interpreters. Between them they have established six schools, a clinic and six nutrition centers.

While two people painted children’s teeth with fluoride, others assisted the dentists. It was an amazing experience to see churches and schoolrooms transformed quickly into treatment centers equipped with portable dentists’ chairs, tables arrayed with numerous dental instruments, and a sterilizing system as each patient was moved in assembly-line fashion. With special “lollipops” in their mouths to deaden gums for lidocaine injections, patients held Frisbees containing a paper cup, cotton, and the instruments required for their treatment. For the most part, the dentists could only do extractions, although if a cavity was small they would coat it with fluoride varnish. They alleviated an unimaginable amount of pain, including that of a teenager whose abscess was so bad that it was oozing through his cheek.

I was assigned to help Dr. Jerd Poston, the optometrist. He quickly assembled his darkened room for examining patients, a procedure he had down pat on this, his 13th mission trip. My task was to choose a pair of glasses according to Jerd’s prescription from among the 100 or so plastic bags of 10 or 15 glasses each, sorted by prescription numbers. It could be a time-consuming task since women, especially, wanted just the right flattering frame. T.J. explained that Haiti is a country where people have few choices in their lives, so when they do have an opportunity to choose, they take advantage of it. There were times when I felt I was living the candy factory episode in the “I Love Lucy” show, as prescriptions accumulated and I mixed up the bags in my hurry.

We had been reminded that we would not be able to help everyone, like the elderly cataract patients that Jerd examined. Rather than dwell on those for whom we could do nothing, we were told, we should focus on the 80% whom we could help. And help we did. The dentists performed 225 surgeries (including a full-mouth extraction), some 800 children received fluoride treatments, and the eye clinic treated 207 people, adding up to more than 1200 who received some sort of care.

Still it was heartbreaking to see the 8-year-old boy who was blinded a year ago when an illness left his eyes swollen and splotched with yellow, possibly from a parasite. Or the five-month-old baby with congenital cataracts. Can they be helped? I’m hoping that, with the help of God and the appropriate organization, they can be brought to the United States for treatment. Any information on this would be greatly appreciated.

To learn more visit CHAP, contact or contact Steve Hayden at Donations can be sent to CHAP, c/o Mary White, 940 Hagley Drive, Pawleys Island, SC 29576, where information is also available.

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