Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Haitian Rhapsody

By Bill Benda, MD

Haiti Earthquake
Photo by the United Nations Development Programme via flickr, used under the Creative Common's License.

Has anyone reading these words ever been to Haiti? Do you wish to go there now? Have the pictures and stories of the past few weeks stirred a deep sense of compassion, perhaps a recognition and appreciation of communal experience, that we may not have felt since the early days of our medical education and practice?

This current crisis has brought mixed past and present feelings up for me, including humility, anger, despair, hope, appreciation, love, and fear. All have chosen to make their latent appearance because of one rather peculiar, personal circumstance of which I rarely speak, but which has apparently burrowed its way back into my consciousness after 15 years of intentional burial.

You see, in the summer of 1994, after six months of intentional unemployment during my second (in a series) medical career burnout, I was asked to travel to a small, heretofore unknown country in central Africa to lend aid following a major disaster, this one created by as well as perpetrated upon humans. I believe my little team of one American physician, two French nurses, and a French engineer, all recruited by the non-governmental agency Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), was the first collection of Caucasians allowed to step back into Rwanda during the waning weeks of ethnic hostility. And like the month of March, I went in like a lion, full of confidence and half full of arrogance, only to leave like a lamb two months later, all vestiges of pride and prejudice stripped from my bones, not only by the anguish laid upon innocent people, but even more so by the incredible grace with which they met their undeserved destiny, grace that I rarely witness within the privileged population of my own country. Refugee camps of 30,000 living in squalor, 14 year-old children with automatic weapons manning checkpoints every five miles of road, emaciated babies, orphan upon orphan with machete scars upon their heads and bodies. The truth is I was not prepared to handle much of the trauma. Today I am still not prepared to handle many of the memories.

So I have watched the unfolding of the Haitian crisis with a different perspective than most, one that takes in not only the power and heroism of our humanitarian response, but also the confusion, and guilt, and positioning, and photo opportunities that often cloud the minds of medical and media rescuers who land upon its shores as yet untouched by the immensity of the suffering of an entire population. And I know that those who have chosen to travel will return different people, carrying part of the Haitian wound within their own souls. And that by this fact they will return better people, and better practitioners, for the experience.

So, you may ask, am I tempted to travel to this island country to join in the immediate relief efforts? The answer in no, not at the moment, as there are more than enough people and supplies and assistance piling up at the lone airport and on ships waiting to be offloaded. Given that I have slipped into a different state of mind since my own distant adventure, I believe our naturopathic duties to the people of Haiti instead lie ahead, months from now, after those better prepared and better funded take care of the acute, critical needs of the people. Just as our task in this country is the rebuilding of bodies devastated by disease and prevention of future depreciation, our role in Haiti will be to restore health and comfort and to teach sustainability after the first wave of emergency care has completed its mission. It is not that we aren’t needed; in fact we will be desperately needed. Within a few short months.

There are, however, NDs who are at this moment planning for such an effort. Natural Doctors International, born in 2003 with the goal of bringing naturopathic healthcare to underserved populations while creating socially responsible opportunities for naturopathic physicians, is preparing a humanitarian response to the Haitian crisis. We (I serve on NDI’s board) are currently serving as the primary contact for North American based relief efforts within the naturopathic community. One of our initial projects is to sponsor a site visit to the island led by Sabine Thomas, ND, a Haitian-American graduate of Bastyr University who has, and has lost, family members in the earthquake. NDI is considering future team missions to the country, as well as facilitating local naturopathic care for refugees who may find their way to the U.S. and Canada. The AANP, CAND, all North American medical colleges, NABNE, and NMSA have joined us this effort, and should you choose, you can as well.

Global needs require global response, and I am unabashedly asking for your help. Tax-deductible donations can be made on the NDI website at by clicking on “NDI Haitian Relief Effort.” Updates on our progress will be posted here as well as NDI’s Facebook page. A list of suggested in-kind donations will be posted as well, and can be sent to the Bastyr University Haitian Relief Effort at 14500 Juanita Drive NE, Kenmore, WA 98028.

The truth is that the vis medicatrix naturae is not just about the human body; it is about the human soul as well. We already know how to heal the former, and this is a chance to address the latter, both in ourselves and in our Haitian brethren.

Please join us . . .

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