Seeing Beyond the Mountains – School of Pharmacy Faculty and Staff Journey to Haiti

In January 2013, Department of Pharmacy Practice faculty members Tom Buckley, Craig Coleman, and Stefanie Nigro, along with alumna Jeannette Wick, traveled to Haiti with the Great Commission Alliance on a mission team led by staff member Barbara Murawski.  Stefanie Nigro shares her journey…

By: Stefanie C. Nigro, PharmD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Pharmacy Practice

While embarking on a journey of a lifetime to Mirebalais, Haiti this past January, I was told of an old Haitian proverb “Deye mon gen mon. “ Simply translated “Beyond mountains there are mountains.” As a traveler who had never visited Haiti, and admittedly one that did not know much about the country beyond the earthquake of 2010, it was only natural that I would see the literal translation of this proverb. After all, Haiti is known as the “land of mountains.” Just stepping out of the airport, I could see the tall, majestic peaks that seemed to extend forever in the distance. Beyond one mountain, another emerged; one more vast and glorious than the next. To any observer, myself included, the mountains made Haiti appear beautiful, peaceful even; a sort of calm serenity. But as we departed the airport to begin our journey through the villages of Haiti, it became clear that “deye mon gen mon” meant so much more.

I was fortunate enough to be one of 13 travelers who journeyed to Haiti for mission work. The aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake left Haiti in need of both help and hope. It is estimated that the 7.0 magnitude earthquake affected millions of Haitians. Thousands were injured or, worse yet, dead. Homes, schools and businesses toppled to the ground leaving rubble and debris to fill the streets of Port-Au-Prince. Haitians were left homeless and jobless. One Haitian with whom I spoke told me that he lost his girlfriend on that day. He recalled with sadness, “In Haiti, if you don’t hear from someone in two or three days, you can assume they are gone.” As we drove through the roads of Port-Au-Prince, the thousands of homes replaced by tents immediately struck me. It appeared that for every few hundreds of tents, there were only one or two public toilets for use. Families of six or even more lived in tents without privacy or protection. Even after three years of restoration, so much more needed to be done.

Our travels continued 35 miles northeast to Mirebalais, Haiti where we would spend our remaining six days. For a majority of us travelers, enhancing access to healthcare was a top priority. While speaking to some locals, I learned that the average life expectancy in Haiti is about 50 years from birth. Poor sanitation, inadequate access to healthcare and malnutrition are among the top contributors to this limited life span. Haitians are lucky if they are able to eat one proper meal a day. Most rural areas and villages do not have established medical clinics or hospitals. Some Haitians therefore have to travel miles to be seen by a medical provider. Because access to transportation is another challenge, this means that most people could walk miles without any guarantee of being seen. Minor ailments are left untreated and often develop into severe disease.

Our team of UConn pharmacists was able to offer two days of medical clinics at a local orphanage in Seau D’eau, Haiti. Within minutes of our arrival, word spread quickly among the town locals. Mothers with sick children, schoolteachers, and young adults appeared out of nowhere to be seen. Most waited upwards of an hour just to talk to us. The desperation on their faces spoke loudly to me. One mother told me of her 15-month-old daughter who had diarrhea for the past two weeks. The child had lost weight and was running a fever. Knowing that this situation warranted immediate attention, I asked the mother what had been done thus far. She told me that she has been unable to do anything because she did not have the money or means to take the child anywhere. Her daily wage of $3 a day (the average Haitian salary) was not enough. Others presented with similar stories. Many complained of fatigue and dizziness, skin infections and abdominal complaints. As I offered vitamin supplements to one man, he smiled at me with tears in his eyes and said “thank you for this blessing.” Our team offered compassion, hope and even laughter at times, but I could not help but feel that we did not do enough.

Our remaining days were spent caring for the children of Haiti. Several of us were able to teach English, art class and environmental studies at a local elementary school. We also taught local orphans how to dance, jump rope, play soccer, color and sing American songs. Even though we were unable to directly communicate with one another, their never-ending smiles spoke of their wonder and curiosity. For a brief moment, they weren’t orphans with hardships. Rather, they were children experiencing joy and exploring their innocence.

“Deye mon gen mon.” Beyond mountains there are mountains. For Haiti, the mountains seem endless. The earthquake, poverty, limited healthcare, malnutrition, and other obstacles continue to impede its growth and recovery. But in spite of this, my week in Haiti left me hopeful about their future. It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes by Helen Keller. “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” Despite the obstacles and “closed doors,” there is great mission work being done to restore Haiti. Doors are opening as awareness of Haiti’s need is being spread. Academic hospitals and medical clinics are being built along with new hotels and attractions to help increase tourism. Roads are being paved to improve transportation. While the path to recovery will no doubt be an uphill battle, I am confident that one day the people of Haiti will be able to see beyond the mountains. That would be the true blessing.