Sept. 13, 2003
Matters of Life and DEATH
A Punishing Poverty
FOND DES BLANCS, Haiti
broad smile creeps across James Joseph’s face, and his eyes, bright against his dark skin, light up as he outmaneuvers his opponent in the complicated Haitian card game “casino.”
A month ago, the simple act of smiling seemed impossible.
James is 15, but with his tiny frame and skinny arms he hardly looks 10. For almost five years, he vomited every day.
Born with a defect that severely restricted his ability to digest food, he developed ulcers at an early age. The pain became so intense he couldn’t eat; when he tried, he couldn’t keep it down.
Last month, James finally received the treatment and medicine he needs at a hospital paid for and built by an organization more than 1,600 miles away, on the South Shore.
Hidden amid the mountains of southern Haiti in a rural region called Fond des Blancs, St. Boniface Hospital is a refuge in an area where medical care is scarce and people’s ability to pay for it scarcer.
Here, at a 20-bed hospital and through services funded with donations from families in Quincy, Randolph, Hingham and other communities on the South Shore and beyond, the people of Fond des Blancs find relief from the poverty that surrounds and in many ways defines them.
The St. Boniface Haiti Foundation was initially formed by parishioners at St. Boniface Catholic Church in Germantown, a Quincy neighborhood where many people live in public housing and where parish resources are limited.
The St. Boniface foundation “adopted” Fond des Blancs nearly two decades ago. The group began with the simple goal of vaccinating residents against polio, measles, mumps and other diseases that continue to ravage Haitians.
In the years since, they have touched tens of thousands of lives. Last year alone, the group raised nearly $1 million for the people of Fond des Blancs.
In addition to medical care, the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation has built houses, a school and two churches for Fond des Blancs residents. It launched programs to feed starving children, help men and women find work and provide livestock so people can eat and eke out a living at market.
Nannette Canniff has dedicated her life to Haiti. The mother of 10 runs the foundation out of her Randolph home and has traveled to Haiti dozens of times in the last two decades.
“God has blessed me with a good mind and good health, a good husband and a good family,” she said. “I have the ability to come to another country where people don’t have what I have and try to make things better.
“I think there’s enough goods in the world for everybody, there’s enough food in the world for everybody. It’s just not shared.”
Health care remains the group’s primary mission.
Today, the hospital has a 24-hour emergency room, an operating room, a dentist’s office and a nutrition center. Serving a region of 45,000 people, the three doctors, six nurses and one dentist who work there make 30,000 visits with patients each year. Next month, a doctor trained as an obstetrician and gynecologist will join the staff.
On one late August morning, nearly every bed in the hospital is full.
In the pediatric ward, 5-year-old Fabiola Carrenat appears almost lifeless as she sleeps, her arms and legs sprawled out and her eyes draped closed. Her father sits patiently, staring at her sick body, as if willing her back to health. He has not left her side in days.
Later, he will hold her hand as she slowly shuffles around the perimeter of the hospital courtyard.
In another room, an 89-year-old woman listens as doctors and nurses making their morning rounds discuss her condition. She was admitted almost a week before with dangerously high blood pressure, and doctors suspect she has kidney problems. Now, her blood pressure has come down, and medicine can control her other ailments. She will be released in a day.
The opportunity to receive treatment for such illnesses is less than extraordinary by American standards. But not in Haiti.
Fond des Blancs is dotted with mud huts; running water and electricity remain unimaginable luxuries here. Located less than 70 miles from Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, the journey can take more than five hours by car over roads riddled with crater-like potholes. This is not a concern to most people in Fond des Blancs, who count themselves lucky if they can afford a donkey.
The Rev. Gerald Osterman, who was pastor of St. Boniface Church when the group first traveled to Haiti, sat three weeks ago on the hospital’s roof below a star-cluttered sky.
Before the hospital opened, the local parish priest, who is traditionally charged with caring for the sick in rural Haiti, had “a small little clinic with a dentist’s chair and a bottle of aspirin for 30,000 people,” said Osterman, who is is now assigned to Immaculate Conception Parish in Everett.
People here died of conditions like malaria, typhoid, respiratory infections and diarrhea because they couldn’t get to a doctor in time, or because they couldn’t afford the medicine.
They still do, but less frequently.
“For the people, it’s like God on Earth,” said Jean Baptiste, one of the doctors - all Haitian - who work at the hospital.
On Fridays, the hospital’s busiest day, about 150 people visit. They may trudge through mud 4 inches deep or wade through rivers where women scrub clothes against rocks and children bathe. For some, the journey takes more than a day. Occasionally, pregnant women in labor are carried on chairs hoisted above the shoulders of village men.
Hospital staff fan out on weekends and travel as far as 25 miles to vaccinate children in remote villages. Surgeons from the United States visit four times a year to perform operations. In the most severe cases, like a young girl who had congenital heart disease, patients are flown to the United States for surgery.
For people like James Joseph, the 15-year-old boy who could not eat, the hospital is a lifeline.
James now slurps down chicken soup prepared by the hospital’s cooks. Being sick has kept him from school, but he’s hoping to go back now.
Asked how the hospital has changed his life, James’ response in Creole is simple, but it speaks volumes: “I’m not sad.”
Karen Eschbacher may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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