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Clayton Bell: Humanity First Medical Reconnaissance Mission

Saturday, Feb 13 – Monday, Feb 15

Up to this point no NGOs had ventured deep into the unknown mountains of Haiti to assess the medical, food, water and shelter needs of the people.  All the attention had been on Port-au-Prince with limited support in Gressier, Leogane and Jacmel.  I had been working in close coordination with the Medical Director of the greater Jacmel region since delivering 200 lbs of medicines and surgical equipment on behalf of Humanity First on Feb 2, 2010.  Jacmel Medical Director, Dr. Tiffany Keenan of Canada, was in charge of the healthcare needs of 80,000 citizens and informed me that she wanted to begin sending teams into the mountainous regions of the country but did not have sufficient logistical information.  The Canadian Military was working in conjunction and had assessed the area from the sky but no one had actually been on the ground to speak with the people.  We acquired a topographical map from the Canadian Military Base in PAP and began planning our mission.  We would go light and quickly, backpacking from Kenscoff south through 25 miles of rugged mountain roads and trails to the small coastal community of Peredo. 

On Saturday, Feb 13 Humanity First Volunteer and translator, Daniel, and myself set out by foot to discover what everyone wanted to know but nobody had yet ventured to find.  On the first day we visited an orphanage called Brothers & Sisters which resided in the town of Santillon.  The orphanage had 500 children and incredible facilities including an on-site medical clinic.  By speaking to the nurse we were able to acquire that they were in need of several medications which the Humanity First Clinic had in surplus.  We promised to return later with the medicines. 

Further down the road we passed through the villages of Obleon, Furcy, Timusca and Badio.  Along the way we encountered Haitians with ailments ranging from scabies and fungal infections to hemoptysis (bloody sputum).  We treated who we could with the limited medications we had in our packs and found that Badio would be an excellent site to hold a mobile medical clinic.  By speaking with the local “Leaf Doctor” we discovered that doctors had never before set foot on this land and white people had only been seen every few months.  We were literally bringing medicine where none had served before.  After Badio the road ended and became impassable by vehicle.  We hiked on through the sweltering sun and arrived in Ti Boucon at nightfall where we were fed and given shelter that night by a local named Foufoun. 

The next morning we arose with the sun and were off by 0630 down the trail.  The path paralleled the Mon le Selle (the greatest peak in all of Haiti at 2282 meters or 7487 ft elevation) for many miles before finally arriving in the remote mountain village of Kayjack.  Here we heard a great crash at 0830 and turned around to see a giant boulder the size of a large truck hurling down the mountain towards the village below with many smaller boulders following closely behind.  We yelled to the villagers below and luckily all the people and shelters were spared.  Later we would discover that an aftershock had been felt in Peredo at that exact time.  Since we were so close we took the Park LaVista Forest route to Seguin via cresting the Mon le Selle.  This is one of the last sacred sanctuaries of Haiti which has not been devastated by clear-cutting trees for charcoal and shelter.  The vegetation was very different from that we had discovered previously.  The old growth pine forest was reminiscent of a scene from the movie Avatar with giant plants the size of a man with budding flowers 10’ tall and giant ferns which reached well above my head.  On the way down the mountain we were led to the water source for the people of the mountains.  A great underwater cave held thousands of gallons of clean potable water which was piped all the way from the mountain to the sea providing life sustaining water for many villages along the way. 

Next we meet at Winnie’s Place with the founder of Foundation Seguin.  Winnie tells us of the organization’s reforestation work and Bamboo Project which is helping to prevent soil erosion and subsequent mudslides.  Foundation Seguin is also teaching people job skills such as beekeeping and sustainable environmentally friendly agriculture.  We learn that there are no doctors in the area and people are forced to either hike north to Fermate or south to Peredo and Marigot.   These medical options are unacceptable as it could take a sick and weary person up to two days to hike to the nearest doctor. Most of the medical problems are chronic in nature such as hypertension, acid reflux, ulcers due to H. pylori infection and diabetes.  Many illnesses are more specific to poor hygiene practices and unsanitary living conditions such as scabies and fungal infections of the skin.  More series diseases such as malaria, typhoid, dengue and tuberculosis are also endemic to the area.  In Seguin many of the children were getting typhoid fever from drinking the local contaminated water supply.

The children’s faces of Seguin will forever be burned in my mind.  Their innocence and lack of material possessions is spellbinding to say the least.  The school is so poor that the students do not have pencils or paper.  Schoolbooks are even more rare a commodity.  430 kids attend the school in Seguin for pre-kindergarten through 6th grade.  Currently all the schools in Haiti are closed due to the overwhelming disturbance of the January earthquakes.  Some schools like Seguin are lucky to not have sustained any substantial structural damage and are expected to reopen classes in March.  After leaving Seguin we hiked down the mountain through Chaudry, Bas Chauta, Macary and eventually to Peredo where we stayed the second night with new friends.  Several women from the family we stayed with in Peredo had large goiters and exhibited classical signs of hypothyroidism.  We would later acquire levothyroxine and treat these women in the upcoming week.  While in Peredo many people came to us to explain their medical hardships.  We even diagnosed a young man in feverish rigors with an acute case of malaria.  Luckily I had just enough Chloroquine pills with me so we began treatment immediately.  When we visited again in 3 days his fever had broken and he looked much better.  

Upon our arrival in Jacmel we debriefed Jacmel Medical Director, Dr. Tiffany Keenan, and a representative of the Canadian Military.  They took the official map off the wall and had us hand write in all the villages we had passed through which were not on the map.  In the meeting we discussed the need to establish a primary medical care system in Seguin and told how doctors had never had a presence in these mountainous areas.  No teams had come through to assess the situation since the earthquake and luckily there was limited structural damage compared to the devastation of Port-au-Prince, Leogane and Jacmel.  Dr. Keenan expressed her desire to send out mobile medical teams to the areas we described especially Seguin.  Within one day a medical team and an assessment team had been dispersed from Jacmel to visit Seguin and help the people.

Our three day Medical Reconnaissance Mission proved exceptionally fruitful.  We discovered several areas of major need and were able to pass that information on which resulted in quick action to help those people.  On behalf of Humanity First we identified three areas which required follow-up: 

1. Distribute vital medications to the Brothers & Sisters Orphanage.           
2. Send out a mobile medical clinic to the remote village of Badio, where doctors had never been. 
3. Return to Seguin with Humanity First Team Leader, Waleed Khan, and Humanity First Official Photographer, Ajaz Khan. 

The day following our return, we accomplished the first two objectives by taking a medical team of 7 members (including 4 doctors) to the village of Badio where we treated several hundred patients.  On the return back to the Humanity First Basecamp we stopped at the orphanage and donated several life saving medications.  The next day we (Daniel & I) took Waleed (Humanity First Team Leader), Ajaz Khan (photographer) and Dr. Khalifa to the village of Seguin.

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