First a little background into what brought me to Haiti. A colleague of mine at the Department of Public Health, Jamie Pianka, asked me several months ago if I or any other surgeons or surgical residents would be willing to sit down and talk about building a surgical program at a hospital in Haiti. Jamie had been to Port-au-Prince in January 2012 at St. Luke’s Hospital and St. Damien’s Pediatric Hospital, working on education of medical personnel with regard to respiratory support, transporting patients, suturing, and basic life support. Jamie knew that St. Luke Hospital was in the process of building an operating room but was unclear what capability actually existed. In the end, Jamie asked if I would be willing to travel to Haiti to see for myself what was there and what, if anything, could be done. Eventually, the idea would be to bring rotating teams down to St Luke ever few months or so. Naturally, I said yes, and that’s how I found myself along with Jamie and his colleague Danielle Thomas on an American Airlines flight to Port-au-Prince on January 7th.
I’ve done medical mission trips in the past, once to South Africa during medical school and once to Nicaragua with NUAID (Northwestern University Alliance for International Development). My trip to South Africa was absolutely incredible (in addition to medical work I got to do a fair bit of sightseeing as well) and Nicaragua was definitely a tough but exciting trip delivering primary care to rural Nicaraguans. But for those of us who enjoy giving back by performing medicine abroad, there’s just something special about Haiti. I won’t get into the details of the political and economic turmoil that the Haitian people have endured throughout the centuries, but Haiti remains the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and is one of the few countries in the world to maintain an United Nations presence during peace time. Haiti has garnered the nickname the “Country of NGO’s” due to the high number of non-governmental organizations operating there, a number that swelled after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. Yet despite a massive influx of NGO’s, money, and foreign aid, little has changed for everyday Haitians.
I was drawn to Haiti for three reasons, first and foremost the ability to travel, see first hand the conditions within the country, and provide medical care. Second, the opportunity to do a reconnaissance mission of sorts and plant the seeds for a surgical program at St Luke Hospital. But lastly, I was drawn to the program at St Luke’s because of what I learned about how the whole operation was run. The explanation below is long, but it details the powerful work that one man is doing to right the wrongs of the past, provide dignity to the suffering and the dead, and to help the Haitian people achieve basic services in education and healthcare as well as economic opportunities. This is the story of the St. Luke Foundation and of Father Richard Frechette.
In 1987, Father Frechette founded and developed a new branch of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos (NPH) in Haiti known as Nos Petits Freres et Soeurs (in French – Our Little Brothers and Sisters). The NPH mission has long been to develop homes and schools for orphaned and abandoned children in countries lacking adequate education and housing. To aid in this need, Fr. Frechette established a large home for orphaned children in Kenscoff, Haiti, known as St. Helene; however, many of the children presenting to Nos Petits Freres et Soeurs (NPFS) were in deplorable health. Fr. Wasson and Fr. Frechette purchased a hotel in the nearby city of Petionville, converting it into a hospice for dying children and a treatment facility for children who could eventually go to St Helene. The hospice was named St. Damien.
Once the green cross hung over the door at St. Damien, the hospice/hospital became quickly flooded by the local population – a people suffering from ill health, civil disruptions, and lack of healthcare infrastructure. The need grew for more staff, higher budgets and to aim the institution away from hospice care and toward hospital care. That dream was eventually achieved in 2007, when St Damien’s Pediatric Hospital opened in the neighborhood of Tabarre in Port-au-Prince. St. Damien’s Hospital is now the premier pediatric hospital in Haiti.
In 1992, political strife in Haiti was building, followed shortly thereafter by the ousting and exile of President Jean Bertrand Aristide. A worldwide embargo was enforced against Haiti, a period of great stress and inadequacy for NPFS. Fr. Frechette decided to study medicine so he could serve as a replacement for one of the many physicians in exile and to be in a better position to lead NPFS healthcare mission in Haiti.
While continuing his oversight of the ongoing development of St. Helene and St. Damien, Fr. Frechette took his medical skills to the poor and violent areas of Port-au-Prince, starting in 1999. Fr Frechette brought some of the young men and women from St. Helene to aid him in medical missions, hoping to train Haitian leaders for NPFS programs. These people were in a world of 80% unemployment, and Fr. Frechette had the idea of creating sustainable jobs that offered needed service to the most marginalized in society. These young adults, fresh out of NPFS, were taught to operate X-ray equipment, develop and interpret the films, run the pharmacy and complete emergency interventions on patients that needed help. The St. Luke Mission was soon born, geared toward healthcare, education, sustainable development and relief.
Disaster hit again in 2010, when a devastating earthquake struck near the city of Leogane, about 16 miles away from Port-au-Prince. Some estimates are that 90% of the capital was destroyed in the quake. Major buildings and infrastructure suffered extensive damage, including: Toussaint L’Ouverture Airport, the Port-au-Prince seaport, the Palace of Justice, the Presidential Palace, the National Assembly, the Supreme Court and the Port-au-Prince Cathedral. Three facilities of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) were destroyed, and the original St Damien’s Hospital in Petionville collapsed, killing numerous staff members. Miraculously, St Damien Hospital of Tabarre escaped with only minor damage. As one of the few standing structures and medical facilities left in the city, St Damien’s was quickly flooded by the ill and injured from the earthquake in far greater numbers than the hospital could possibly handle; only a third of these were children. Recognizing the overwhelming need for adult care, St Luke Hospital was started nearby. Originally housed in shipping containers, St Luke’s has grown piecemeal into its current facility. Plans for a full scale hospital similar to St Damien’s are in the works.
Today, leadership of the St. Luke Foundation and NPFS programs is entirely Haitian, under the guidance and general management of Fr. Rick Frechette. At present, the St. Luke Mission in Haiti includes 28 schools, three developing hospitals, multiple clinics, housing and community development programs, micro-economy entrepreneurial development, disaster relief, food distributions and various works of mercy for the destitute.