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'Medicine under the trees'

Becky Enright, one of six Harrison Medical Center nurses who traveled to Haiti to work at a free clinic, takes the pulse of a Haitian woman.  - Courtesy photo
Becky Enright, one of six Harrison Medical Center nurses who traveled to Haiti to work at a free clinic, takes the pulse of a Haitian woman.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

In a poverty-stricken area where the food is scarce, rotting trash fills the streets, and clean water and proper medical care are rare commodities, it is the eyes of the children that Laurie Tinker remembers most vividly.

“It is a haunting memory,” said the registered nurse from Harrison Medical Center Bremerton (HMC). “The way they would look at you so penetratingly, with solemn eyes. They were so quiet.”

As part of a group that recently returned from working at a free clinic in Jacmel, Haiti as part of the Friends of the Children of Haiti organization, Tinker was with four other registered nurses and a nurse practitioner from HMC. The nurses on the trip were David Surber, Maureen Barta, Lynn Garber, Becky Enright and Sherri Adams respectively.

“We represent the first beginning cohort of Washington,” Tinker said, adding that the program is based in Illinois, and the team from Bremerton was matched up with another team from Illinois. “We didn’t know each other, it was the proverbial leap of faith.”

Founded by an American couple, Richard and Barbara Hammond, the Friends of the Children of Haiti organization (FOTCOH) began when the Hammonds stopped in the Haitian capitol, Port-au-Prince, while on a Caribbean cruise. Although the brief stop etched a grim memory in the minds of the Hammonds’, it wasn’t long until a return trip was planned.

One of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is only a 90- minute ride from Florida. Rotting garbage fills the streets as children play in fields that double as public latrines. The life expectancy of a Haitian is 49 due to a lack of medical care along with infant mortality claiming one in every eight, according to the FOTCOH Web site, www.fotcoh.org.

After two decades of working in Haiti on various church service projects, Tinker said the Hammonds were able to build their own clinic five years ago.

“They implemented a project that would bring down (different) medical teams for three to four weeks,” Tinker explained.

Once the group of nurses from HMC were informed of the program, Tinker said they immediately jumped at the opportunity to help and fund-raised dollars to help pay for medical supplies that would be needed down at the clinic. Tinker said by the time they left for Haiti, they had collected 10 duffel bags filled with medical supplies from Ace bandage wraps to diapers to saline solution for intravenous therapy treatments.

“The trip was self-funded, (we) had to pay our own way,” Tinker said, adding that Harrison was very supportive in allowing the group of six to take two weeks off to go to the clinic. “They have been extremely supportive of our efforts.”

Tinker said once their plane landed at Port-au-Prince, the duffel bags of medical supplies were confiscated by Haitian officials and had to be bought back.

“It is what it is. It’s a country that lives on bribery,” she added. “People living down there have figured out how to live like that.”

Once set up at the clinic, Tinker said the day began at 7 a.m. and continued until 6 or 7 p.m. with a short break at about noon for lunch. With nine full days of working at the clinic, Tinker said they saw more than 1,600 patients. Every morning, Tinker said there were 400-500 people waiting at the gate to be treated.

Treating symptoms for hypertension, diabetes, dehydration, cancer, bacterial infections and malaria, Tinker said the clinic had a well-supported pharmacy that was well-stocked allowing multiple options and a three-month supply of antibiotics. Because new groups of nurses and doctors come to the clinic almost every three weeks, local Haitians can come back for repeat check-ups.

“There’s that ability to have long term care,” Tinker said as a smile spread across her face.

Due to the high contagiousness of many diseases and infections the group of nurses would be treating, Tinker said they all took medication for worms, scabies and malaria before leaving and while they were there.

Even though many of the patients they treated had gory wounds, infected abscesses and extremely advanced stages of cancer, one of the more positive and funniest aspects of the trip was when the nurses gave the locals drugstore reading eyeglasses.

“You just felt like an angel when someone who couldn’t see is able to open their eyes again,” Tinker said as tears welled in her eyes. “This was medicine under the trees.”

Tinker added that they were able to place a 1-year-old HIV-positive baby who weighed only 9 pounds into a nunnery close to the clinic where it will be loved for the remainder of its life. She added that they also picked up a heart defect in one little boy who is now being looked at to potentially be brought back to the United States for corrective heart surgery.

“There are some very positive things that can be done, and are being done,” Tinker said with a smile. “It’s not just sustaining at a dying level.”

While at the clinic, each nurse had to communicate with an interpreter, however Tinker said her interpreter became one of her closest friends.

“The Haitian people were inclusive and warm, stoic people who dealt with the lives they have,” Tinker added with emotion in her voice.

Although the experience was mentally and physically draining, Tinker said her return was bittersweet.

“It is a tremendous privilege to have the skill base (to help), it’s a gift,” Tinker added. “And to be able to utilize that gift in these times is a gift.”

The group of six nurses from HMC who went to the clinic are intending to go back for another round of caregiving in April 2008. Tinker said by that time, she’s sure more people will want to go after seeing the pictures the group took and the stories they have shared.

“I’m in awe of the strength and tenacity the Haitian people have,” Tinker said in a whisper as tears began falling down her cheeks. “In leaving (the clinic), you know you’ll go back.”

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