South Charlotte doctors return from Haiti
by Kara Lopp
That was the word, at least, that Dr. Michael Johnson had received about an elderly woman with pneumonia he had treated the day before at Immaculate Conception Hospital in Les Cayes, Haiti. But returning to the hospital Johnson, of south Charlotte’s Raintree neighborhood, was shocked to discover that his frail patient was not only alive and responding to antibiotics but had been reunited with family and was dressed in her finest, her hair perfectly combed.
“I left this lady in the (emergency room) covered in a paper cloth, not expecting her to be alive the next day. We weren’t allowed to stay overnight at the hospital because of safety issues,” he said. “She had no family, there was no one there advocating for her. That night my thought was ‘Well, at least she had someone take notice and love on her; someone to show some compassion.’ When I saw her again it was just one of those moments where it was like ‘Wow, she’s alive’ and you think ‘you know, for this person, maybe I made a difference.’”
An infectious disease specialist at Carolinas Medical Center-Pineville, Johnson was one of 80 area medical professionals, students, local musicians and others on a return trip to Les Cayes and a nearby 200-child orphanage and clinic in Cambry, Haiti, this month. During the two-week mission trip, volunteers provided medical care, music and sports camps for kids. It was the second trip to Haiti for many of the volunteers, who traveled to the Caribbean country about a year ago after earthquakes hit.
Trip organizer George Collins, a physician assistant with OrthoCarolina’s Matthews office, spearheaded the creation of local nonprofit Bless Back Worldwide. He envisions several trips a year to the orphanage bringing help and hope and a lasting relationship with professionals there.
The earthquake did not harm Les Cayes, but thousands of people from hard-hit areas such as Port-au-Prince fled there following the devastation.
‘Such a difference’
Just like last year’s trip, there are thousands of stories to tell. But perhaps the biggest story of all, Collins said, is that of Haitian resolve.
“People in Haiti understand so many things are a privilege, where here in the United States we see so many things as entitlements. As your sense of entitlement goes up, your gratitude goes down,” he said. “Their gratitude is enough that they’re so grateful for anything you do for them or with them. I think I’m entitled to so much, I stop recognizing that something is a gift.”
That reminder, Collins said, speaks to why he and other volunteers launched Bless Back and are so eager to give. During the trip, volunteers gave the orphanage’s clinic a cosmetic overhaul, painting and making repairs. Each orphan received a physical exam and now has the beginnings of their own medical chart. Each child at the orphanage also received a pair of tennis and dress shoes in their size and a bag of school supplies, hygiene products and toys, Collins said. The crew performed the first surgery the Cambry clinic had ever seen – hernia repair for 9-year-old Jeff – and volunteers also helped deliver a baby boy at the hospital. Averaging about 100 patients a day, volunteers also treated gunshot wounds, skin conditions, broken bones, diabetes and hypertension.
“It started off as a relief effort, but now it’s different. Now, it’s like we can make such a difference there if we invest in it regularly,” he said. “We want to partner with the professionals there; to work alongside them. We can learn from each other.”
Haitians in Les Cayes aren’t guaranteed there will even be a doctor at the hospital when they go, the volunteers said. Dangerous city streets, including an increased number of shootings in the area, force staff to leave the hospital at nightfall, leaving patients to fend for themselves, even for basic needs such as drinks or using the restroom.
That fact wasn’t lost on Johnson.
This was his third trip to Haiti. His first was after high school graduation in 1986 and “nothing’s really improved there,” he said. “There’s just a lack of resources, a lack of anyone in control. I love the Haitian people. I definitely feel like we made impacts for individuals, but unfortunately, for the situation as a whole, you kind of feel like it’s a dent in the bucket.
“With cholera now, it’s just gotten worse. Cholera was almost like the new leprosy, people are fearful of being labeled as having it. There’s a fear of people who have it being brought back into your village; it’s just so hard to see.
“I’m a doctor and I do this everyday. I go down to Haiti and I come back and my motivation to do this is changed. I’m ins pired to work a little harder,” he said.
Want to help?
Bless Back Worldwide needs financial donations and volunteers, especially medical personnel, to travel to Haiti in the future. To donate, mail checks to 2102 Lytton Lane, Matthews, NC 28104. For more information or to volunteer, go to the group’s website, www.blessbackworldwide.org.