Having volunteered in medical missions in Haiti for 14 years, Dr. Daniel Burzon (bottom left) has forged special relationships with the nurses, technicians and support staff at the hospital in Milot, as well as with other volunteer physicians from throughout the United States.
For the Asbury Park Press
Nurse Regina Foley of Ocean Medical Center in Brick is seen on her latest mission to northern Haiti. Here she comforts a young child prior to a surgical procedure at Hôpital Sacré-Coeur in Milot. The mission is part of a self-funded, multidisciplinary medical team headed by Dr. Daniel Burzon, a physician at Coastal Urology Associates in Brick and an attending urologist at Ocean Medical Center. / PHOTOS COURTESY OF MERIDIAN HEALTHCARE
HAITI IN CRISIS
• Haiti has a population of 9.8 million residents, just slightly larger than that of New Jersey.
• The average Haitian makes less than $300 a year and nearly 80 percent of all residents live in abject poverty, rendering Haiti the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
• Half of all children born in Haiti won’t live to see their second birthday
• Only half of the population in Haiti can read or write.
• The U.S. State Department routinely issues travel advisories for Americans visiting Haiti based on the frequency of violent crimes such as murder and kidnapping, and the prevalence of infectious diseases.
• After Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, a widespread outbreak of cholera, an infection of the small intestine that causes diarrhea and vomiting, has killed more than 8,000 Haitians and hospitalized hundreds of thousands others. Since the outbreak, One out of 15 Haitians has contracted the disease.
• There are nearly 10 times as many doctors per 1,000 people in the U.S. as in Haiti.
Source: Index Mundi, 2012
Regina Foley took her first medical mission trip to the remote town of Milot in northern Haiti in 2002.
The level of poverty that surrounded her stood in stark contrast to the abundant resources she’d been accustomed to during her 26 years as an OR nurse and, more recently, as chief nursing officer/vice president of operations for Ocean Medical Center in Brick.
But her experience providing urgent care to people living without electricity, running water and other amenities considered standard in the western world changed her — and she’s been hooked ever since.
The mission is part of a self-funded, multidisciplinary medical team headed by Dr. Daniel Burzon, a physician at Coastal Urology Associates in Brick and an attending urologist at Ocean Medical Center.
The team of 30 to 50 specialized doctors and nurses volunteers its time at Milot’s Hôpital Sacré-Coeur for one week each year.
“We bring the additional care and resources that they wouldn’t otherwise have but so desperately need,” Foley said.
That’s been especially true since a powerful earthquake devastated Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince in 2010 and sent residents scattering throughout the country in search of better conditions and medical care.
“Haitians speak of pre-earthquake and post-earthquake now,” Foley said.
She noted that the tiny village of Milot, located 65 to 75 miles from the capital city, has become a “big metropolis” ever since the earthquake, based on its distance from the epicenter and the presence of the 26-year-old, 120 bed Hôpital Sacré-Coeur, considered one of the premier healthcare facilities in the struggling nation.
An intense itinerary
Because the town alerts its residents to the arrival of foreign medical personnel, “there are over 100 patients waiting to be seen as soon as we get there,” Foley said of her annual week in Haiti every January.
“Doctors do a clinic on the first day to assess the status of all the patients, and then we address all of the necessary procedures throughout the rest of our stay,” she said.
It’s a rigorous week for the doctors and nurses, who treat patients struggling with everything from malnutrition to cholera contracted from dirty water to the effects of the bacteria that cause elephantiasis.
The team completed 29 surgeries during its most recent visit this past January.
But the days didn’t end there.
“After each day’s surgeries, we return to the hospital to help educate the Haitian staff on how to care for these patients after we’re gone,” Foley said.
“We discuss everything, from the specific procedures that were performed to the importance of hand-washing and hygiene so that they’re not cross-contaminating one another. It’s rewarding because they truly want to learn and take care of their own community after we leave,” she added.
An inspiring experience
Like Foley, Brielle resident Burzon, 49, who has made 17 trips to Haiti since 1999, finds the annual experience fulfilling and inspiring.
“Once you go and see the need and the poverty there, it’s indescribable,” he said. “Even the worst scenario here in the U.S. is better than anything in Haiti.”
The same is true of hospital practices, where standard disposable instruments are in such demand that they’re cleaned and re-used on the next patient.
Medications such as antibiotics are in short supply, and, with no formal means of garbage disposal, items like needles, medical waste and amputated body parts are routinely burned outside in bonfires, the remains of which often leech into the water supply.
“We often have to go on a scavenger hunt to treat patients, improvising with whatever resources we can find,” Burzon said.
Despite the extreme conditions, Foley describes her annual trip as “the best week’s ‘vacation’ I have,” while Burzon agrees that he “looks forward to it every year.”
“You always get more out of it than you give,” Foley said. “You have to be the ultimate patient advocate. It’s a journey and a calling to provide care to people who would never have access otherwise. I know it’s just a drop in the ocean, but if we weren’t there, they wouldn’t have that drop.”
“What keeps us going back is the sense of reward we feel and their appreciation for our support,” Burzon said.
“Haitians have gotten knocked down so many times and have no reserves left, but they never lose their spirit even though they have every right to. They’re just happy they’re alive. It’s hard to go there and not go back. My wish for Haiti is that their doctors and nurses can be trained and given access to proper supplies so that they don’t need us anymore,” Burzon said.
“If we can enable them to meet their own needs, that would be the ultimate accomplishment.”