Monday, November 15, 2010

Dr. Charles

An hour and a half after leaving the crowded streets of Port au Prince, we arrived at the gates of the new Camejo Hospital in Leogane, a town only 20 miles outside the capital city where the January 12th earthquake was centered. After honking our car horn at the gate, an older man dressed in nurse scrubs and holding a machete opens the gate and waves us in. Like every time I pass through one of the large metal gates in Haiti, I have no idea what I’m going to find on the other side. In this case, what we see is a lush piece of land, two football fields in length, with a wooden building standing in front of a larger, mostly collapsed, concrete building. This is the site of the new Camejo Hospital that is being run by Doctor Joseph Charles and the Camejo Group, a group of Haitian doctors of various specialties.

Working in Haiti over the past ten months, I’ve constantly found myself wondering what the country looked like before the earthquake. Like so many other aid workers I’ve meet here, I had never been to Haiti prior to January of this year so I have no personal reference for the state of the country before “the twelfth,” as they say here. However, what I can do is compare what it looks like now to what I witnessed when I first arrived at the end of January. Unfortunately not much has changed. Although the rubble is finally beginning to be cleared from the streets, very few homes or businesses have been rebuilt and all of the tent camps that sprung up in the immediate aftermath remain. The cramped conditions of the tent cities are unsanitary, unsafe, and provide no real shelter from the brutal sun and constant rain. And as we all are well aware of now, these are the conditions where cholera thrives.

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get a different answer for the reason behind the slow recovery effort. Some say the government is underequipped and unprepared to deal with a recovery effort of this size. Some say that the non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which have received most of the aid money that’s been given for Haiti thus far, are short-sighted and unable to work within the government’s reconstruction plan. And some say that the Haitian people have become so dependent on foreign aid (it’s said that Haiti has more aid groups per capita than any other nation) that they often rely on outsiders to help solve their problems for them instead of taking the initiative. Clearly, there are aspects of all three at play. But Dr. Joseph isn’t using any of these excuses – and he is going to prove that Haiti can be rebuilt better than it was before the earthquake.

Dr. Joseph is a Haitian surgeon and his wife Dr. Marie is a pediatrician, however between them they have about a dozen different medical degrees and certificates. Although he couldn’t tell me for sure, Dr. Joseph thinks there are probably only one or two other Haitian surgeons working in Leogane, a town of over 250,000 people. I first went to see their clinic back in February to see if Direct Relief could help supply them with medicines and supplies because there were almost no other medical facilities that survived the earthquake--although by that time numerous NGOs and foreign armies (including the US, Canadian, and Japanese) had come into town and set up field hospitals and clinics. When I arrived at the clinic, there were roughly 20 mothers with their babies waiting to see Dr. Marie and another handful of patients waiting to see Dr. Joseph. I remember feeling badly that I was taking their time away from their patients just to show me around their clinic.

Joseph and Marie were extremely grateful for the medical support that foreign groups were providing but they knew that in time, the foreigners would leave and it would be up to the Haitian people to figure out how to care for their own people. So shortly after the earthquake hit, Joseph and Marie’s son and daughter in law, Jodel and Sulfrance Charles, started an NGO called Renewal 4 Haiti in their hometown of Aurora, Colorado. They planned to raise funds to build a new surgical, referral hospital in Leogane. They already had the land, a parcel that was acquired from a patient who Dr. Joseph treated for free in 1988, but now there was a small wooden hospital on the site that the Canadian Army had built and operated out of when they were working in Leogane. Dr. Joseph let the Canadian Army use his land for free because they were helping the people in his town. In return, they left behind the brand new wooden building that was perfect for a temporary hospital because it is not made of concrete. People are wary of concrete in Haiti.

While there are plans in the works to build a permanent hospital on the site, for now there is no rush. Dr. Joseph has capacity for 20 beds, and while we were there about half of them were filled. Two people had typhoid. One patient had malaria. But thankfully there were no cholera patients yet. Recently they built another room which will serve as the operating theater, and Direct Relief has provided them with the funds to outfit it. Because the site is on a major highway that connects Port au Prince to the Western departments, Dr. Joseph expects to see many patients who have been injured in traffic accidents.

We asked him how he expects to fund and sustain a hospital in Haiti. The majority of Haitian people cannot pay for medical services, even at a place like Camejo Hospital where the supplies and medications are often given away for free. “There are ways to do it,” he said with a smile. “If someone comes in for a surgery and he cannot pay, we ask the family what they can do to help. Maybe they can work around the hospital for a week.” “Another way,” he says, “is if we have ten patients and only two can pay, they help pay for the others.” We found out later that the man with the machete who opened the gate for us will be the first one to have surgery when the new surgical suite opens. He has a hydrocele (an accumulation of fluid in a body cavity) that needs to be removed and is working there now to pay for it.

If only donors and NGOs can do more to encourage and support these kinds of activities instead of thinking about how to spend their money in the short term, Haiti can harness the talents of people like Drs Joseph and Marie Charles and indeed rebuild better.


  1. Beautiful insight. I am interested to see how "bartering" will work in a few years. I praise Dr. Joseph and Dr. Marie for their great work!