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Haiti Day One – Humanity


The word of the day is humanity.   

I am in a very small unair-conditioned pickup truck traversing Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It’s hot. Three of us are crammed in the backseat. Tom Ladd, a 6'6" former NFL lineman and current executive director of the nonprofit cancer charity Radiating Hope, is on my left. To my right is Adam Luginbuhl, MD, one of Jefferson’s head and neck surgeons. Adam’s dad, Daryl Luginbuhl, is up front with the driver. Although we are only traveling about seven miles to visit a hospital, it takes two hours and fifteen minutes to snake our way through the crowded, crumbling streets.

We are here on a mission for humanity.

For the past two years, our Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery team—accompanied by residents, medical students, nurses and anesthetists—has been traveling to Haiti, a nation with few medical resources, to provide complex head and neck care and education (CHANCE). Several times a year, they pack suitcases with hundreds of pounds’ and thousands of dollars’ worth of medical equipment and supplies (everything from scalpels to drills) and spend a week there performing complex surgeries, enhancing the skills of Haitian surgeons and seeing patients in outdoor clinics.

There are three goals for our three days in Haiti:

  • Provide complex surgical care, and hope, to those who need it most.
  • Continue the surgical training for dedicated and very talented physician Dr. Patrick Marc Jean-Gilles, a local Haitian surgeon who has worked tirelessly for fifteen years to elevate the level of ENT care for Haitians most disadvantaged citizens. The funds we are raising for the CHANCE program will enable Patrick to travel to Jefferson later this year to begin a formal fellowship.
  • Partner with Radiating Hope and the University of Miami to develop a business plan and raise the funding for Haiti’s first a radiation machine. Haiti is one of the few remaining countries in the world without one; thus, most cancer patients—even if they could receive surgery—go untreated and do not survive unless they can afford to leave the country for care.

It’s only my first day, but the depth of need puts into perspective how Daryl Luginbuhl started on a path of commitment to these people a decade ago. He lived in Haiti for 3 years, finding his project management skills more salient to supporting this humanity I see today.

Leo Tolstoy wrote, “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” I think about this as I regard the Jefferson team.

The surgeries they perform in Haiti are among the most complex surgeries in their field. To be sure, the patients here would have no other chance if not for this intervention.

But beyond their matchless skill, the Jefferson team demonstrates the best of humanity. Jefferson surgeons Joseph Curry, MD, and Adam Luginbuhl are both fathers, each with three young children. Coming to Haiti means time away from family, as well as hours of intense planning and preparation.

They are joined by volunteer nurses from Jefferson, Jennifer Holzworth and Rachel Williams. This is Jennifer’s fourth trip to Haiti. Like Joe and Adam, she and Rachel had to leave their families to come to an impoverished country and work in unfamiliar, sparsely equipped operating rooms.

The respect among the physicians and the nurses is mutual, and the good will radiates.   

Back in the truck, I’m struck by how dense Port-au-Prince is. Dense with people, cars, motorcycles, unrelenting heat, vehicle exhaust, smog, and smoke. An angry man screams on our radio, which is turned up blaringly loud for the entire trip. Vendors clamor on every square inch of the curbside, selling everything imaginable under shoddy tents. Some of them approach our truck. Pigs graze on the trash that is seemingly piled on every corner and spontaneously combusting in culverts.

I count six lanes of traffic, but there’s no order to it—there are no road lines or other markings. In fact, there aren’t even really roads; we’re driving on dirt with ridges, potholes, and small boulders.

Every vehicle, like ours, seems to have way too many people crammed in it. A motor scooter carrying a family of four—mom, dad, and two kids—weaves in and out of traffic. At almost every turn, I brace for a crash as another vehicle comes within half an inch of us. But they all maneuver around us or choose to wait, and good thing—our truck has no seat belts.

Amid the chaos, small bands of children, meticulously dressed in school uniforms, walk on sidewalks that were mostly never repaired after the catastrophic earthquake in 2010.

Against this stark backdrop of humans living in desperate situations and the harshest conditions, I find myself struck by a kind of beauty.

The light, as it is on most islands, is otherworldly. It lends an intensity of color to the cityscape, like the ultimate Instagram filter. The chaos of the road seems to slow, and I see a pastoral symmetry to the flow of the traffic and the people. There is so much broken, but the people here are not.

For a brief moment in time I am immersed in the humanity of Port-au-Prince.

We return to our base of operations, the grounds of the St. Luke Foundation for Haiti. Dr. Curry, Jennifer Holzworth, and Rachel Williams have been in the operating room for most of the day. Tomorrow I go into the OR with the team.