In 1999, Father Ephraim Radner and parishioners of Ascension Episcopal Church in Pueblo, Colorado decided to seek to adopt a sister church in Haiti. They visited Haiti and Bishop Duracin of the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti who directed them to the 3rd largest city, Gonaives. After their first visits, they decided in 2001 to recruit a few medical parishioners to field small medical teams to conduct clinics annually at the Church of St Basile (which have continued to this day, except in the years 2002 and 2004 due to revolutions and violence, and become semi-annual). In 2005, one of the team members, Jim Smith – a general surgeon, became interested in doing larger surgeries than could be done on a church pew with local anesthesia. Father Ephraim suggested he go to one of the hospitals at home in Pueblo for assistance in obtaining medical and surgical equipment to re-equip the city’s only hospital, which had been destroyed by a hurricane the year before. Tom Anderson, CEO of St Mary-Corwin Hospital of Pueblo, responded enthusiastically to the request and immediately asked local businessman Louis Carleo to put up $10,000 to ship a 40 foot container of retired equipment and beds in order to enable the hospital in Gonaives to open their operating rooms for surgery again. He then directed the president of the hospital’s foundation, Jane Robb-Rhones, to apply for a $150,000 grant from Catholic Health Initiatives to further re-equip the hospital, to send medical and surgical teams to work with the local surgeons and conduct larger primary care clinics and to build a permanent clinic at the Episcopal church and school. (We have re-equipped the hospital twice, now, with their anesthesia machines, x-ray machine, surgical instruments, beds, neonatal incubators, oxygen concentrators, etcetera. The first time was after the hurricane in 2004. The second time was after the hurricanes in 2008 again wiped out the hospital – along with all of our equipment!)
Tom and John Sanchez of St Mary-Corwin Hospital in Pueblo and Pere Max Accime and Monsieur Christof Cherry of Gonaives measured the site for the clinic next to the church and school during the hospital team’s first medical mission trip (coordinated by Lisa Drew, RN) in January, 2007.
Back in Colorado, they engaged the volunteer services of Lisa Carpenter and Mark Pelletier, architects of RTA in Colorado Springs who had just completed a large addition to St Mary-Corwin hospital in Pueblo, to design a state-of-the-art medical clinic. It was to be the first clinic in Gonaives built by Haitians as a new building – rather than by converting an existing residence as had always been done in the past.
Todd Workman, volunteer from Houston Construction of Pueblo (the contractor that had built the new addition to St Mary-Corwin), along with John, Lisa, Jane and Brooke Coleman, traveled to Haiti to supervise the beginning of construction that spring. Jim and Lisa went down that March to unload the second container (full of medical supplies and equipment for the new clinic).
Engineer Christof and his local carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and workers began the construction that spring with locally purchased materials. That summer the world prices for fuel and food rose by 40%! (This raised such turmoil from hunger and economic stand still in the country that demonstrations toppled the government, and the Prime Minister was forced to resign). The price of steel went up accordingly. It took $40,000 (of the $60,000 projected for the entire two story clinic) to put in a concrete foundation (with the plumbing and electrical pipes and conduits in the slab) and cinder block walls. They adapted the architects’ structural design to suit their accustomed building practices (which frustrated our architects, because they added over 30 support columns to the existing load bearing walls (which in the process, interestingly to those of us not familiar with modern engineering design actually weakened the design). No matter, it certainly seemed stronger!
Such an unforeseen and catastrophic overrun completely ground the project to a halt.
2 years passed, with no progress. Meanwhile, having fulfilled the job of mentoring and sponsoring the creation of a new non-profit organization started by Jim, his wife Carrie, Eric Miller, RN, and Ben Massey, MD, St Mary-Corwin’s Foundation passed the torch to them.
Health4Haiti was born just after the world record earthquake of January, 2010 leveled Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area.
Publicity from Jim and Eric and Dr. Ginger Vaughn’s immediate journey to aid the recovery and medical efforts there – followed closely by Ben, Dr Robert Hilgers of Louisville, Kentucky, and nurses Debbie Valdez, and Maryanne Wood’s arrival – garnered enough donations to launch it.
In March Jim returned to Port-au-Prince with orthopedic surgeon Ken Danylchuk and his team of Pete Sloan, PA, Greg Leyba, Maryanne, and Dentist Yvette McMullen and her team. During that visit Pere Max informed Jim that 50,000 refugees of the earthquake had arrived in the undamaged city of Gonaives, who’s medical infra-structure was already woefully inadequate to serve the existing residents.
The completion of the clinic had taken on a dire new urgency.
Jim and Max+ discussed a way to finish the first story (putting on hold the upper floor dormitory for visiting teams) with the remaining $20,000 of the original $60,000 if Jim could get a container full of all the necessary fixtures, paint, electrical and plumbing supplies and generator released by Haitian customs officials, where it had been mired down for over a year. Jim did so by spending the remainder of that week at the docks in Port-au-Prince alternately pleading and demanding, paying endless newly appearing duties and fees, and by convincing the officials that he was not leaving the country until they released it to him.
Jim convinced his wife Carrie to let him spend further time away from his busy surgical practice in Pueblo to return three more times before, on his return with another team in February 2011, Pere Max and the parishioners proudly presented him with the keys to the clinic. Ray Sims of Springfield, Missouri, Nick Sloan, and the Haitian carpenter, iron craftsman, electrician, and plumber finished the installation of the electrical and plumbing fixtures and cabinets, while the newest medical and surgical teams led by Jim and Jason Sims, DO of La Junta conducted the first patient care in the finished shell, seeing over 1500 patients during their 5 days there. (Jim’s two teenage children, Jennifer and Jacob, were there to help run the team’s pharmacy and assist Ray and the construction team. This was an experience of a life-time for them and for their father to have them both there. For her part, Carrie has taken over the mammoth job of organizing each mission and launching it successfully, since inheriting the job from Lisa Drew and Karla Prentiss and St Mary-Corwin in 2010, 3 missions ago at the time of this writing.)
The new clinic, Clinique St Basile Le Grand, was officially opened and blessed during the second semi-annual medical and surgical team mission of 2011 in a grand ceremony on May 4th. It is now staffed with Haitian physicians and nurses to run all year around. It serves the downtown area of the city, which is desperately underserved for medical care. Two life-time Haiti Episcopal missionary doctors, Gretchen and Warren Berggren MD(s), were honored at the dedication. Though they have not worked in Gonaives per se, they have devoted their lives to the people of Haiti. They are both professors at the Harvard School of Public Health. In 1967 they came to Haiti and worked at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, near Gonaives to the south. At that time neo-natal tetanus was a dreaded killer of infants in Haiti at birth. At that time there was just beginning to be some mention in the world medical literature of an idea to vaccinate the mothers to prevent this. They instituted a vaccination program at the hospital, which served a drawing area of over 200,000, saving 600 lives per year of new-born children from tetanus, also known as “lock-jaw”.
Health4haiti supplies the medications, equipment, and support for the salaries of 2 Haitian physicians, a nurse, nurse’s aid, and support staff with it’s only source of funds, an annual fundraiser dinner held once a year, in October, in Pueblo.
The proud and joyous members of St Basile Church, Gonaives, represented by the lay council of parishioners and Pere Max, met with the team on the eve of our return to Pueblo May 7th to formally ask for Health4haiti’s continued help with the support and assistance necessary to make sure that after all our combined efforts, a source of funding be found so that the clinic doesn’t fail. The partnership must endure.
A huge question looms over their heads – will it survive? Or will it go the way of so many of the tragedies of their lives – which they somehow continue to rebound from, endlessly, against all odds – with hope and pride and indomitable will?