A Steady Hand for Haiti: Iowa doctors make frequent visits to treat chronic ailments

Story by Tony Leys, The Des Moines Register
Video by Mary Chind | 4/21/2013

FONDAL, HAITI — The little band of American volunteers sat under a tree, panting and sweating from a taste of daily life in the poor rural villages of Haiti.

The group, made up mainly of Iowa doctors, nurses and other medical professionals and students, had spent an hour and a half climbing a winding dirt road up a mountain to this remote village. On the way, they’d seen Haitians making the trek while bearing heavy loads of water, fruit, chickens, firewood and homemade charcoal.

When the volunteers finally arrived in town, scores of villagers were already lined up under the hot March sun, waiting for the rare chance to share their health concerns with a doctor.

Casey Panko, a University of Iowa nurse helping lead the team, briefed her exhausted colleagues about the ailments they would treat in the small stucco building that would serve as a clinic.

“The chief complaints you’ll hear are, ‘I get tired after walking up the mountain. I get chest pain,’ ” Panko said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, no kidding.’ ”

The others laughed, then gathered themselves to start preparing to ease the aches and physical complications of a crushingly difficult way of life.

Haiti is known as a place where countless aid agencies provide billions of dollars in services, especially since a 2010 earthquake devastated the nation’s capital and brought a flock of TV news crews to the scene. The world’s attention has moved on to other disasters since then, and skeptics contend the flood of aid barely put a dent in the problems stalking the country’s 10 million people, who are the poorest in the western hemisphere.

Leaders of the Iowa group have worked in Haiti for years, and they’ve seen that most assistance fails to reach rural areas, where half of Haiti’s people live. They believe slow progress is possible, especially if basic medical care helps people avoid the chronic ailments that can sap their energy and steal their hope.

By midmorning in Fondal, the clinic doors were open, and patients started filing in. Three doctors, each with an interpreter, worked at stations in a single room. The sounds of Creole and English bounced off the concrete floor, walls and ceiling, filling the air with a din of health care discussions.

Here was a 4-year-old boy with a swollen belly who suffered nighttime fevers. He apparently had malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that can be deadly to little children but can be treated with pills.

Here were people with chronic diarrhea, probably caused by worms they picked up in tainted water. Here were people with constant stomachaches, muscle pain, skin rashes. All were given medicine and instructions on how to use it.

Here was a girl, about 1 year old, weighing just 18 pounds. A measurement of her skinny upper arm confirmed she was malnourished.

“Oh man, this really kills me,” Dr. Chris Buresh said as he examined his tiny patient.

Buresh, 37, whose regular job is as a physician in the University of Iowa’s emergency department, is the Iowa team’s main organizer. He held the girl on his knee, smiling and laughing with her as he asked her family about her life. He offered the girl’s family a special edible paste, similar to peanut butter, that is packed with calories and vitamins. He asked them to be sure to bring her back when the team returns in June.

“We really need to set up a nutrition program up here,” he said after they left. Then he turned to his next patient.

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