Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Women's Health Month in Gros Morne

"Ankourage Sante Fanm"-Promote Women's Health- March is Women's Health month
and marks the fifth year anniversary of the MFP women's health initiative

The banner that hangs in front of the Alma Mater Hospital read , "March is Women's Health Month. Free Examinations and Treatment." Medicine and treatment have always been at no cost for our patients, but in March we waved the minimal fee that the hospital charges for clinic visits, as well. During the past months, Orna, our head nurse, spoke at all the Sunday Church services, and on the three radio stations in town.

"Protect your health. Come to the women's clinic, Do this for your children, do it for yourself."

Our nurses walked through the market passing out flyers that explain that Haiti has the highest rate of cervical cancer in the world, and that it is a preventable disease if it is diagnosed early. Some women commented that they had friends who died of breast or cervical cancer.

On March first, women began gathering in front of the hospital at 6 a.m., waiting for the clinic to open at 8:30. Each women received a breast and gynecological examination, and was screened for cervical cancer, AIDS, syphilis, and other sexually transmitted infections. Each women who attended clinic received a bright red Medicine For Peace bracelet that said, "Promote Women's Health". Scores of women now walk through the market proudly sporting their colorful bracelets.

By the end of the month, two patients with cervical cancer were discovered and received potentially curable surgery, ten patients with pre-cancerous cervical lesions were treated with cryosurgery, eight new AIDS patients were diagnosed and placed on first line anti-retroviral drugs, and more than a hundred patients with sexually transmitted infections and other gynecological problems were diagnosed and treated. Most important, more than five hundred women were brought into the health care system.

There are many lessons to be learned from MFP's  women's health month. For a cancer prevention program to be successful, community education has to be ongoing, aggressive and unfaltering. In countries with entrenched poverty, even a minimal fee is an impediment to promoting comprehensive women's health. If a woman has the option of a doctors visit or a few bowls of rice, she will opt for feeding her children. All services in our program are now free. Free medical care does not promote dependency, as some assert, it just prolongs women's lives.

There is a Creole saying that explains, "Analphabet pa bet". (We may be uneducated but we are not ignorant). Haitian women understand the importance of good health, and will seek it out if it is offered to them.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Madame Beauchamp's Story

Nurse Orna Dieunane and Dr. Michael Viola making a house call.

Friday is outdoor market day in Gros Morne.  Orna, a nurse from our women’s health clinic, and I bargain with the women merchants for the best price for rice, beans, vegetables, cooking oil, and cans of fish. We insist on “diri jon”, the local Haitian yellow rice, which is more fragrant and tastier than the cheap rice from Arkansas that has flooded the Haitian markets. We encounter one of our nurses who has gathered a group of market women around her, encouraging them to come to our cervical cancer screening clinic. I put the food supplies on the back of our clinic motorcycle, and we head south out of Gros Morne  on National Route 5.

Four miles out of town, just beyond the bridge crossing Trois Rivière, we turn onto an unpaved mountain road, and wind our way until we came upon Madame Beauchamp’s small thatch roofed hut. We stop, and I carry the food into her one-room house. Madame was sitting in the backyard, tired and emaciated, looking older than her thirty-five years. Cancer had taken a toll. Also, it is a hard life for women in Haiti, and many women age quickly. She is talking with her mother while her three small children scurry in and out of the hut.

“How are you today, Madame?”

“Kenbe la, Dokte Mike, wi, kenbe la” I am holding on, Doctor Mike, yes, I am.

“Kenbe la” is a response that many Haitian women use. The phrase means more than just holding on.  It implies, “I am not defeated, not beaten back despite not having water or electricity, without a Haitian dollar in my pocket, and now battling this disease that is draining my strength.”

“How is the pain in your hip, Madame?”

“Not so bad, no.”

I don’t believe her. Haitians are stoic about tolerating pain, and her cervical cancer had spread to her bones. I convince her to take more analgesics.
After I return to Washington, Orna and another clinic nurse drive the motorcycle out to see Madame every few days, to make sure she has sufficient food and pain medicine. At  8 pm on a Friday night, Orna calls me by cell phone to tell me that Madame had died. Orna was by her side when she passed.

“She was too young to die, Mike,” she says in Creole.

Cancer of the cervix is a major cause of death of women in Haiti. Unfortunately, preventing cervical cancer is a complex social and medical challenge that cannot be solved by simply introducing critical technology,  like the Pap test, or the HPV vaccine. To establish a successful cancer control program, we needed to initiate a community cancer education program, establish hospital-based and mobile clinics, train nurse/educators to perform a range of gynecological procedures, and establish an
infrastructure of competent pathologists, radiologists, and surgeons capable of performing definitive cancer operations. Medical care is not free in Haiti, and at each step we subsidize a high standard of patient care.

Despite establishing an effective cancer control program, there are many women, like Madame Beauchamp, who come to us with advanced cancer. We assume the responsibility for their care , which often involves providing food,  and helping them to cope in  their day-to-day lives.

We can measure our success by the number of women we have screen for cancer, the early cancers we have eradicate, the other conditions we diagnosed and treated, and the overall improvement in women’s health in the community (see table). However, we take the greatest pride in the cadre of highly skilled and compassionate nurses we have trained, who often travel dark country roads to ensure that our patients have sustenance, are free of pain, and are living with dignity.

MFP nurses educating women on cancer prevention in the mountain village of Pendu in northern Haiti.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fund For Girls: A Musical Summer

Maya and her "big sisters" at Usdan.

Hispanic girls continue to have the highest high-school drop out rate of any ethnic group in the U.S. To address this national problem, for the past 24 years the Children’s Scholarship Fund For Girls (CSFG) has provided tuition and educational support services for disadvantaged Hispanic girls to attend private primary and secondary schools while living at home. All of our scholarship recipients have successfully graduated from college.

Summer is an exciting time for many of our scholarship recipients, as they have the opportunity to attend Usdan, one of the premier centers for summer programs in the creative and performing arts. Now in its 48th year, Usdan is situated on a magnificent 200 acres of woodland on Long Island. Over the past 7 years Usdan has awarded the CSFG more than $70,000 in scholarships to support  Hispanic girls to enjoy a summer in artistic endeavors. At Usdan, our girls develop a passion for music, the performing arts, painting and sculpture. All of our students have embraced the Usdan philosophy, “lose yourself for a summer, and find yourself for a lifetime”.

Our work with educating Haitian girls continues, and this year we supported more children at the Foni Bo school than ever before. To learn more about the CSFG programs for disadvantaged Hispanic girls and for children in Gros Morne, Haiti please contact Kathleen Crane at :fundforgirls2@gmail.com.

Lena, second from right, and her clarinet ensemble.