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Doctor reports Haiti’s heath care system in need

By Carla Mozeé Special to the Daily Planet
Friday November 17, 2000

Dr. Paul Farmer is allergic to policy-wonk solutions to helping sick and poor people in Haiti.  

In fact, the noted founding director of Partners in Health, a nonprofit health care group, gets irritated when he hears other physicians and activists offer abstract ways to get medical attention to Haiti and other impoverished places in the world. 

"[People in Haiti] are not asking for appropriate technology, or sustainable development," Farmer told a nearly packed house at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley Wednesday night.  

People in Haiti, he said, are asking for things like clean drinking water and medication.  

Farmer and his group have been answering the call for help in central Haiti since the late 1980s.  

Partners in Health built a hospital in the middle of Cange, a village that is home to about 100,000 people, many of them peasant farmers. The hospital provides multiple services, including dental care and treatment for tuberculosis. The care is provided for a nominal fee or for free. 

Cange is some 4,000 miles away from here, but it has ties to Berkeley.  

One of its biggest links is to the Hesperian Foundation. The nonprofit organization publishes books that provide medical information and instruction for to those living in poor areas. The books include illustrations and written in clear, simple language so that a lay person can easily identify an illness and be able to treat it. 

One of its books, Where Women Have No Doctor, has been translated into 87 languages and is distributed in about 40 countries.  

The Creole edition of “Where Women Have No Doctor” came out a few months ago. The foundation recently shipped out 4,800 copies of the book to Haiti. It is being distributed by Partners in Health.  

“I think it’s a very useful tool. It’s practical on so many levels,” said Farmer. 

Pierre Labossiere, board member of the Hesperian Foundation, said that help to comes from not only non-profit organizations. It also comes from people in the greater Bay Area with blood ties to the island nation. 

“People with relatives [in Haiti] send money and medical supplies. They also travel back home with equipment,” said Labossiere, who said about 3,000 Haitians live in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Local physicians and pastors are also active in giving time and money toward health care assistance in Haiti, said Labossiere.  

One physician-in-training from the Bay Area who has worked with Farmer on the front lines is Suzette Chaumette.  

The 28-year-old woman is a pre-medical student at the University of California at San Francisco. She acted as emcee at Wednesday night’s event, which was sponsored in part by Global Exchange and the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant. 

Chaumette, who is Haitian, worked at the Cange hospital as part of a 1998 Partners in Health delegation to Haiti.  

She said it was an eye-opening experience.  

“People don’t have shoes, clothing, water, doorknobs. When I saw a couple of patients, they didn’t know how to get out of the door because they didn’t realize how to turn the knob,” she said.  

Farmer feels optimistic about the future, although he said the present health care situation in Haiti is still dire. 

“I think something new is happening. I’ve seen it more and more from inside Haiti, or inside universities,” he said.  

“People are getting tired of the seeing equality. People are worried about it.” 

To get into the event, spectators donated between $5 to $15 at the door.  

But after Farmer’s speech, about half of the crowd voluntarily rose from the pews to donate even more money out of their pockets.  

The funds will be given to support Partners in Health.