By Dr. Anthony Alessi
For The Norwich Bulletin

Feb. 20, 2010

Sister Lorraine and Sister Mary Aubin, part of a Canadian order of Catholic nuns, have dedicated their lives to the poor of Haiti. They have spent years helping women develop self-sustaining businesses. Mary Aubin also writes uplifting children’s stories in Creole.

While they were away from the convent Jan. 12, everything changed. All of Mary Aubin’s writings were destroyed in less than a minute and, tragically, four women perished inside the convent. In the days after the earthquake, the two nuns returned to their mother house in Canada.

Anyone familiar with Lorraine was not surprised to learn she has already returned to Haiti. Mary Aubin, at 75, is following closely behind. Although elderly, they are eager to resume their work.

I chose to share this story as part of the last installment about my time in Haiti because it typifies the fortitude that is infectious in this country. The thought of giving up and not returning wasn’t a consideration for these two women, and that drive is something they have in common with the Haitian people.

Feelings of guilt

Over the course of the days since our return, members of our group have struggled with intense feelings of guilt. These sentiments not only originate from our life of privilege here in the United States, but a sense that we left a void in the care of our patients in Haiti.

Phone calls and e-mail messages from St. Damien’s Hospital have indicated that a sense of normalcy is beginning to return to the hospital.  Many of the adult patients have been transferred to other facilities. The Kay Germaine Center for the rehabilitation and education of children with special needs is advancing its mission.

I was pleased to hear that Cmdr. Mill Etienne has made several trips to St. Damien’s from the USNS Comfort. Other medical specialists from the ship have also begun to evaluate children at Kay Germain.

Dr. Etienne also has begun to institute an electronic patient record for each child that includes their picture and medical history. This will allow access to telemedicine from the ship or any other specialty facility.

Many health care professionals have reached out to me, inquiring about working in Haiti. The allure of this nation is not very mysterious. Experiences there provide a means of invigorating a medical career and rediscovering why we went into health care in the first place. There is a tremendous freedom in practicing medicine without bureaucracy.

Interest wanes

Although some of the public interest has waned as the television crews have departed, the most exciting part of this saga is just beginning.  Opportunities abound to build a more efficient medical care system from the ground up. The connectivity of the Internet will provide a backbone for a network of international physicians, nurses and other health care professionals to become involved. Engineers are already planning for better sanitation and more access to clean water.

After polling the members of our group, all agreed they would like to return to Haiti soon. Many had already begun to formulate a plan before leaving.  All of our lives were enriched by this experience — physically and spiritually.

Returning March 8

Personally, I will return to St. Damien’s on March 8 to continue the work we started. It will be my fifth trip in the past 18 months. What started out as a father-daughter bonding experience in September 2008 has become a new personal challenge.

Father Rick Frechette continues to work long hours caring for the living and respectfully burying the dead. When facing the immensity of this rebuilding effort, he draws on the biblical analogy of David slaying Goliath with only five smooth stones. “Maybe those stones were hope, faith, love, kindness and gratitude,” he said.

Dr. Anthony Alessi is a Norwich-based neurologist who specializes in neuromuscular diseases and sports medicine. He writes a weekly sports medicine column for The Bulletin.

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