By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published February 26, 2004
Members of a medical mission team from St. Monica and St. Benedict churches in Duluth were providing medical care in Hinche, Haiti, on Feb. 16 from the grounds of Sacred Heart Church, when they got word that rebels had burned the police station, killing three.
As smoke rose into the sky, the medical team, including four doctors, nine nurses, two physician’s assistants and two dentists, continued seeing patients for three more hours, providing basic medical care for illnesses from malaria and tuberculosis to diabetes and malnutrition to the poor, who lack essentials like clean water and electricity and live in homes with dirt floors. The team, which was on its fifth medical mission trip, also worked with two Haitian physicians; the team has been collaborating with St. Theresa Hospital to help the staff see more patients throughout the year and expand services, and has built a permanent clinic there.
Aware of the impoverished Caribbean island’s growing civil unrest, the team arrived on Feb. 13 in Hinche, a town of about 50,000 about 70 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, and was scheduled to stay through Feb. 20.
On Feb. 16 rebel forces aiming to topple the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide came into town and killed the police chief and two others and burned down the police station. So far more than 70 people have been killed since the uprising began Feb. 5, and U.S. Marines were sent in Feb. 23 to protect the American Embassy and its diplomats.
The night of Feb. 16 the medical team in Hinche heard gunfire and wailing in the streets, from mourning over the violence.
“We saw the police station burning. We could see it from our clinic, the fumes of smoke. We knew something was up,” said mission trip coordinator Dave Lockhart, who has been on all five trips. “We were in no physical danger and were told by the opposition they weren’t interested in us or most of the people in Haiti. We weren’t afraid (but) we thought if we stayed any longer then we would get stuck quite a long period of time. They were blocking the roads and we learned local airlines weren’t coming into the city.”
“The priest in the parish told us ‘you’re not in any danger,’” Lockhart continued, “(but) it is very nerve wracking to hear gunfire in the night and hear people screaming . . . We weren’t afraid they were going to come and get us, but you never know. You don’t want to get caught in the crossfire.”
The missionaries were struck by how the people of Hinche seemed relatively unaffected by the attack.
“The police station is burning up and people are going about their business like nothing happened. With the gunfire, they’re like ‘Oh, it’s only gunfire,’” Lockhart said. “They would welcome government change to improve their condition. (But) they feel that ‘we’re going to be left out regardless.’ . . . It’s getting worse every year we go down there. The roads, the infrastructure—it just seems like things have not improved.”
Political discontent has grown in Haiti, home to 8 million people, since Aristide’s party won flawed legislative elections in 2000. Aristide opponents accuse him of failing to help the poor, allowing corruption and planning attacks on opposition through armed gangs, which he denies. Rebels have now driven government forces from at least half the country and on Feb. 22 overran the country’s second largest city, Cap-Haitien. Haiti has no army, as Aristide disbanded it after being ousted in a 1991 military coup and restored to power by U.S. military intervention in 1994.
As “family members were going ballistic when they heard the news” of the Hinche attack, Lockhart said, the mission team met and decided to pull out. But they weren’t able to leave until Feb. 18 when, with planes not coming in, they got into trucks and drove to Pignon. Leaving behind most of their belongings, they flew in small planes to Port-au-Prince and left the country. They were greeted by a cheering crowd at the Atlanta airport, some wearing buttons that said “I Survived Medical Mission 2004.”
On the shortened trip they ended up seeing about 1,000 patients, half the number they are usually able to serve.
Family doctor Jim Toth, on his fifth medical mission to Haiti, said Haitians have many basic medical needs that arise from living in the poorest country in the hemisphere; clean water, sanitary food, paved roads and electricity are lacking and “sewer systems are basically open ditches on the road.”
There are hospitals, but they require upfront payment for services, and Haitians often get lost in the process, Toth said. St. Monica’s and St. Benedict’s have collected and shipped to Haiti about $20,000 in medicine yearly, and he’s concerned that they won’t be able to get supplies through with the fighting.
“I’m discouraged that the level of violence has increased. I’m saddened by the fact Haitians are not working together peacefully to solve the problems. I’m also concerned it’s going to be difficult to get food and medical supplies to the people who need it, but in terms of my commitment to help the people it hasn’t changed, it has probably gotten deeper,” he said. “It’s a very rewarding personal experience. We see many of the same individuals each year.”
He said this year they brought ultrasound equipment to better diagnose illnesses and supplies to test for HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. He feels their collaboration with the Haitian physicians is a “wonderful example of how American doctors and Haitian doctors can work together for the betterment of the people of Haiti.”
“This is something new, to work in conjunction with local hospitals to better take care of patients after we’re gone,” he said. “We want to have more of a lasting presence.”
Missionary Mary Livernois, 25, said it is “so good to be home.” She was “scared out of my mind” as she heard gunshots and heard the wailing through the night.
Yet she also felt “an overwhelming sense of calm.” She felt “nothing is going to happen to me. I think that that was really God telling me ‘you’re going to be fine,’” she recalled. “We all worked as a team to make sure everybody got out.”
Even with the turmoil she was moved by the kindness of local people who lack such basic items and by their gratitude for the care of Americans, including children at an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity they visited. She has a new appreciation for all her blessings as she contemplates the harsh reality the majority of Haitians continue to endure.
“The people were so thankful to have us there, even through we had to cut it short … I had blond hair, so they all wanted to touch it,” she said. “I would go back in a heartbeat, despite getting a concussion” when she bumped her head on the truck ride to Pignon.
Her father Tom Livernois is relieved to have her home. “A couple of nights we hardly got any sleep at all because we didn’t hear anything but heard a lot on national TV.”
Lockhart said that St. Monica’s support will remain as strong as ever, as it has a twinning relationship with Sacred Heart Church. They have also built them a soup kitchen that feeds 300 people three times a week and they are working on a water purification project.
“We’ve got lots of things planned on the twinning side. The parish has really adopted the church and we really want to do a lot with these people,” he said. “For many of these people it’s the only time of year they get to see a doctor and for some it’s the only time they’ve ever seen a doctor. It’s a very poor country. It’s in dire straits.”
Since returning to Atlanta he has been in contact with church leaders in Hinche and Pignon, who have expressed concern; with blocked roads, food can’t be delivered and medical mission groups have left, on whom Haitians depend.
“They’re all worried. Basically anarchy is starting to reign,” he said. “The longer it lasts, the worse it’s going to get for these people.”
Nevertheless, “when things settle down we’ll definitely be back in there,” Lockhart said.