Life in the Western hemisphere’s poorest country is a daily struggle.
Clean water, health care and economic opportunity continually evade the Haitian people, who this decade alone have suffered earthquakes, hurricanes and political instability.
In Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, densely packed neighborhoods of ramshackle tin-roofed homes line narrow roads. Garbage is pervasive and sanitation is scant.
A country about the size of the state of Maryland, 80 percent of Haiti’s 10.4 million citizens live in lamentable poverty, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.
About 70 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, across derelict roads and though the island nation’s rugged terrain, the small coastal outpost of Côte-de-Fer hugs the Caribbean sea. There, you’ll find a church, a school and a small clinic where a lone doctor serves 80,000 people in the region. In the coming weeks, you’ll also find eight volunteer health workers from Coastal Georgia.
Helping Hugs, a nonprofit based on St. Simons Island, is sending a doctor, a nurse practitioner, a pharmacist and five nurses to spend one week in Côte-de-Fer starting Feb. 18.
Diane Smith, a registered nurse and medical mission coordinator with Helping Hugs, said once she and the other volunteers land at the Port-au-Prince airport, the 70-mile trip to Côte-de-Fer will take about five hours.
“We’ll have transportation there by pickup truck,” Smith said. “The roads, although they’re being repaired (from earthquake and hurricane damage), are very rough. There are no traffic lights, no stop signs.”
Once the team arrives, Smith said she expects to spend the week providing free medical care to as many as 500 patients.
“That’s our usual number. We start early and end late,” she said.
Most of the volunteer crew is from the Golden Isles, and they all are paying their own way to Haiti. Dr. Jason Joseph, a Brunswick OB-GYN, will lead the team.
This month’s trip will mark the fourth mission Helping Hugs has made to Côte-de-Fer. The regular aid visits were sparked in 2008, when members of St. William Catholic Church on St. Simons Island began a “twinning” program with a sister church in Côte-de-Fer. The local parish, St. Joseph, is home to the Rev. Islaire Faustin, who visited St. Simons Island in November.
At St. Joseph — and two other locations in Côte-de-Fer — clean drinking water stations funded by Helping Hugs provide locals with precious access to uncontaminated water. It is one of the few amenities, if you would call it that, Côte-de-Fer has to offer.
While on the ground in Haiti, the Helping Hugs team will provided acute primary care and dispense medications purchased with donated funds. The team will use medical supplies given by Southeast Georgia Health System, but most importantly, relationships will be built, Smith said.
“You learn about their culture, their history, who they are as people and individuals,” Smith said. “We’ve made very close friends with many of the people in Haiti.”
Although the team will spend just one week in Haiti, they have been preparing for months, Smith said.
“The team is very dedicated,” she said. “They came to training sessions once a month for months. They’ve done a lot of training to get ready.”
Part of that training will continue Thursday at Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick. The system is hosting a “Medical Links to Haiti” seminar to educate potential health care volunteers about what to expect while working in Haiti.
The free seminar, presented by the health system in conjunction with the Brunswick Chapter of the Links, will be from 8 a.m to 12:30 p.m. in the Linda S. Pinson Conference Center, 2415 Parkwood Drive, Brunswick.
Dr. Shirley Wilson, a OB-GYN with the health system and Links member, said the seminar is open to the public and can help outline the conditions and needs health care volunteers may experience in Haiti.
“This seminar is a wonderful and educational opportunity for both the community and medical professionals. Attendees will walk away with a better understanding of the challenges of providing overseas medical relief and learn how they can help,” she said.
Wilson, who traveled to Haiti in 2015, said providing health care in Haiti is uniquely challenging.
“For one thing, they don’t speak English,” she said of the patients. “They speak Haitian Creole, so that’s probably the biggest challenge. On top of that, you’re working with the bare basics.”
Although working conditions for health care providers are difficult in Haiti, Smith said the efforts are not lost on the Haitian people.
“The Haitian people are very resourceful,” Smith said. “It’s amazing what they do with what they have. I have a great deal of respect for what they do, and they are appreciative.”
For more information on Helping Hugs, visit www.helpinghugsinc.org. Donations can be made on Helping Hugs’ website, or by mailing them to P.O. Box 24477, St. Simons Island, GA 31522.
For information about the upcoming “Medical Links to Haiti” seminar, or to register to attend, visit www.sghs.org/medical-links-to-haiti.