Bringing Needed Medical Care to Remote Areas of Haiti
Urgent care doctor at Sutter Health PAMF works with medical volunteers to treat diseases linked to poverty, malnutrition and lack of water
For the last several years, David Sofen, M.D., Sutter Health PAMF Santa Cruz, has traveled to Haiti and other developing countries where he and a team of medical professionals have worked as volunteers treating countless numbers of people who have little or no access to health care.
Dr. Sofen, an urgent care doctor and medical director of patient experience for PAMF, recently returned from his sixth trip to rural southeast Haiti, a trip he made with The Flying Doctors/Los Medicos Voladores, a nonprofit that works to improve the health and well-being of geographically diverse people.
This year, the team consisted of Dr. Sofen, a Haitian physician and nurse, dentists from Haiti and the U.S., and interpreters.
Everyone on the team pays their own way, and money that is donated goes to medical care and paying the Haitian team members. The volunteers traveling from the U.S. bring several suitcases full of medical and dental supplies.
“It’s an exhausting trip, but we do good work,” Dr. Sofen said. “I return acutely cognizant of all the wonderful things we take for granted here at home and am always so grateful to have been born in this country.”
The team was based in the town of Bleck where they stayed in dorm-style accommodations. Every day, they traveled in a four-wheel drive truck over rough roads to villages in remote areas. They packed all sorts of supplies including medications, dental equipment, a generator and compressor. Word traveled about their arrival, and typically about 200 people were waiting to be seen in one location. They triaged the most serious cases to local hospitals.
The team treated an assortment of diseases linked to poverty and malnutrition, lack of clean water or sanitation and neglect that results from living in a remote area with no medical care other than care from a local herbalist, Dr. Sofen explained.
The team also carried 1,000 pairs of reading glasses donated by the Lion’s Club, and anybody with poor near-sighted vision received a pair. Illiteracy is common so the providers use pictures or has people thread a needle to check on the best magnification.
The patients typically have had no dental care at all, and the dental team mostly did extractions, Dr. Sofen said.
“The dentists discovered that many patients had no idea how to brush their teeth with the toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste we give them,’’ Dr. Sofen said.
Haitian adults, thanks to their genetics, he said, have a high rate of hypertension and diabetes, though most are thin and get far more exercise than North Americans, as most walk as their form of transportation, carry water often great distances, and do hard manual work.
Childhood illnesses that should clear up are often fatal, Dr. Sofen explained. Skin infections – scabies, fungal, and bacterial – are common.
Women in the area deliver their babies at home and there are complications and a high incidence of maternal mortality, he said.
Below are some excerpts from Dr. Soren’s blog about particularly sad cases:
“A woman we saw was two months postpartum and presented with fever, anemia, and hypotension – post-partum infection, possible retained placenta, and had not gotten medical care. No lab or ultrasound in this dirt floor church. We tried to transfer her to a hospital in Port Au Prince, a five hour drive. My Haitian physician colleague made the calls and arrangements. But the husband took the $40 we gave her for transportation and took her home to try herbs and use the money – more than a week’s income – for other things. She died.
Dr. Sofen recounts another case of a two-month-old baby who had had a fever and total body skin peeling, probably scalded skin syndrome.
“I end up seeing things I have only read about,” he wrote in his blog. “Mom was reluctant to make the five- hour trip to the capital as she had never been out of her village and didn’t know how to talk to people there. So we offered to pay for her mom, the grandmother, to go as well, but she similarly had never been out of the village and was very uncomfortable. After a couple hours of negotiation they agreed to go. The baby died within 2 hours of arriving at the children’s hospital, in spite of a large dose of Ceftriaxone.”