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Haiti Day Three – PM – Helpless

Today’s word is helpless.

Later in the day on Saturday, our surgeons went to the open-air clinic to see a patient. In stark contrast to a U.S. physician’s office, there were no walls, only a metal roof above rows of wooden benches. Intermittently, curtains were hung to create a bit of privacy. The clinic was closed, but a family had arranged for their 20-year-old son to see the visiting American surgeons. I hung back across the courtyard, chatting with the nurses.

Dr. Luginbuhl came to get me. “You have to see this,” he said. There was a tall young man slumped in a wheelchair. A tumor in his nasal passage had been surgically removed about six months ago, but without radiation therapy, it had come raging back. His left eye was protruding from the socket, and it looked like there was lump the size of a grapefruit under his left cheek. His limbs were swollen and rigid.

Dr. Weed was pleading with the patient’s mother and father not to subject him to chemotherapy. His sister translated. Dr. Weed explained that the young man had only had a few weeks to live and the chemotherapy wouldn’t help but would cause great discomfort. The family struggled to understand. I fought back tears. I looked the young man directly in the eyes and touched the top of his hand. He smiled. The situation was helpless, but I resolved at that moment to join the crusade to bring radiation therapy to Haiti.

Here are the facts:

  • The number of new cancer cases in Haiti, estimated by the International Atomic Energy Agency, is between 10,000 and 40,000 each year. Because the country has no cancer registry, the true burden of cancer is unknown.
  • According to the World Health Organization, Haiti has the highest incidence of cervical cancer and ranks second for death from cancer.
  • In the case of head and neck cancer, there’s an epidemic of oropharyngeal (throat) cancer in Haiti. Without treatment, younger patients with this highly curable cancer are being left to suffer and die.
  • Haitian doctors can remove tumors, but without radiation therapy, the surgery is often useless.
  • Haiti is one of the last remaining countries in the world without radiation therapy.
  • There are over 10 million people in Haiti. The Dominican Republic, its neighbor with a comparable population, has 20 radiation therapy machines.
  • The cost for Haitians to travel to the Dominican Republic for radiation therapy is about $1,500, far out of reach for the average family. By the time they can gather that much money, it’s usually too late.

Haitian medical professionals feel completely helpless. I had lunch with Dominque, a Haitian resident studying with Dr. Jean-Gilles. She told me about the frustration she faces daily. She knows radiation therapy is the answer, but instead must watch helplessly while her patients die needlessly. With her permission, I recorded her speaking with Dr. Luginbuhl about the dire need for radiation therapy.

There are many obstacles to bringing radiation therapy to Haiti. But the same grit and determination that created Jefferson’s CHANCE program has given birth to Cancer Care for Haiti: A Coalition for Bringing Radiation Therapy to Haiti.

A Margaret Mead quote comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that has.”

The Coalition presently consists of top Haitian officials, three universities – Thomas Jefferson University, the University of Connecticut and the University of Miami – and the non-profit Radiating Hope.

Drs. Luginbuhl and Cognetti are back in Haiti this week to lay the groundwork for the Coalition. In the coming weeks, we will share on this blog the Coalition’s business plan and our fundraising plan.

Radiation therapy was discovered over a hundred years ago. In recent decades, it has become a standard of care for many cancer patients, except in Haiti. Haitian cancer patients and their families, their treating physicians and other medical professionals feel helpless, but they’re not hopeless. They’re cheering on the Coalition and its dream to bring radiation therapy to Haiti.

I am confident that committed individuals like Drs. Cognetti, Curry, and Luginbuhl, together with partners like Dr. Weed and Father Rick, will make it happen. You can help. If you want to change a world of helplessness to one of hope and healing in Haiti, please contact Dr. Adam Luginbuhl at