Penn State Health St. Joseph Physician, Residents Treat Patients in Haiti
A recent trip to Haiti left a trio of Penn State Health St. Joseph physicians humbled to have been able to help many patients, but also frustrated by what they were unable to accomplish.
Dr. Jeffrey Zlotnick, a Family Practice Specialist, traveled with Dr. Riley Manion and Dr. Elizabeth Herrman, both residents in St. Joseph’s Family Medicine Residency Program, to the impoverished nation late last year on a week-long medical mission trip in partnership with St. Ignatius Loyola Roman Catholic Church.
They treated hundreds of patients, some of whom traveled for days to visit the free clinic. The doctors shared some of their insights about the island nation and the people they met there.
Hit by a massive earthquake in 2010 and again by the devastating Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the island has yet to recover.
“The place looked like a bomb hit it,” Dr. Zlotnick observed.
Dr. Manion and Dr. Herrman also were surprised by the extent of the remaining damage, although Dr. Manion noted that work is underway to restore conditions.
“It’s shocking that the island is still so damaged, but there is construction being done, which is promising,” she said.
Scope of Medical Need among Residents
Dr. Zlotnick estimated that the medical team treated about 850 patients over the course of the visit. He cited diabetes, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and untreated hypertension as the most common complaints. Other common conditions included skin infections, allergies, asthma, malnutrition and worm infestations, and doctors also treated patients affected by stroke, polio, spinal bifida and other conditions.
“I had never done anything like this before, and it was difficult because you wanted to be able to do more,” Dr. Zlotnick said. “To see people at the level of need these people were is just like, wow.”
Dr. Manion said that, while they were able to help a lot of people and provide quality patient care, it was frustrating to see patients who they could not help.
It is those types of cases, she said, that she cannot forget.
“In particular, I saw a two-year-old boy with a spinal cord defect that could have been fixed at birth if he had been seen, but instead, I saw a two-year-old who will never be able to walk,” she said. “Cases like that, where our hands were tied or it was too late to intervene, are what will stay with me the most.”
The Haitian People
All three doctors were impressed with the kindness and sincerity of the patients they treated during the trip. Nearly everyone they treated thanked them profusely, even though, by U.S. medical standards, the doctors had little to offer to patients.
Some people who visited the clinic walked for days to get there, and many people dressed in their best clothing for their visit with American doctors. Dr. Herrman said she especially enjoyed treating the children who visited and learning about the culture of Haiti.
“We have so much available to us here in the U.S., and to see how appreciative the population was with the little we had to offer was humbling,” she said. “But, mostly, I really enjoyed just talking to patients and learning about their experiences.”
Dr. Manion agreed that the kindness of the people they treated was exceptional.
“The people of Haiti were so appreciative and welcoming,” she said. “They were constantly thanking us for coming, and praying for us to have a safe trip back home.”
A Sad Takeaway
All the doctors expressed mixed emotions about the trip and what they were able to accomplish or not accomplish due to limited resources. Dr. Herrman recalled a sad visit on their last day of the trip that has stayed with her since her return from Haiti.
“We visited a Mother Teresa orphanage on our last day, and while we were unable to treat any patients, we were able to interact with some of the babies and children,” she explained. “There was one child who clung so tightly on to me. It was clear he was seeking human contact, love and affection. When I put him down, he instantly began to cry. It was the hardest thing I had to do all week.”