Catholic medical community, parishes, donors making a difference in country hit hard by poverty, lack of resources
By Emily Booker
A pregnant woman rides a donkey down a dirt path. An elderly woman sits in the shade while her children and grandchildren work the fields. A group of men carry their paralytic friend on a stretcher for miles to see a healer.
It’s easy to imagine that these scenes belong tucked away in Bible stories. But they are happening in present-day Haiti in the remote village of Bouly, where health-care providers from the Diocese of Knoxville offer care and hope to a needy community.
A recent medical mission to Bouly took place in December. Dr. Drew Dirmeyer, Dr. Kelly Rouse, Leslie Adams, Steven Dirmeyer, and Billy Stair provided care to hundreds of Haitians in the rural clinic that is supported by Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish. The Americans were accompanied by a Haitian team of nurses and translators who helped with the language and cultural divides.
“We heavily rely on them,” Ms. Adams, a physician’s assistant and Sacred Heart Cathedral parishioner, said of the Haitian team. “Without them, it wouldn’t make our mission very possible at all. Our relationship with them has to be very strong.”
Upon arriving in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, the team was met by Father Michenet Duportal, the pastor of St. Michel Parish in Boucan-Carré, who escorted them to the town. Boucan-Carré is the major town of the Central Plateau region and serves as the headquarters for the medical mission team when they visit.
Dr. Dean Mire, medical director of the clinic and a Sacred Heart Cathedral parishioner, has been traveling to Haiti since 1999. He first helped with establishing a medical clinic in Boucan-Carré, which is now operated by Partners in Health.
When he began his mission work in the region, people had little to no access to health care.
“The parish took a real commitment to helping Haiti. Sacred Heart stood behind everything we were doing,” Dr. Mire said.
With the support of parishioners, Sacred Heart is able to support a primary school, a high school, and a vocational school in Boucan-Carré as well as the Bouly medical clinic.
Just getting to the clinic in Bouly can be challenging.
Bouly is a small village of subsistence farmers near the Dominican Republic border. The only way to reach the village is by foot, more than 10 miles from Boucan-Carré over steep mountains. The trail is white limestone that reflects back the intense Haitian heat. Many of the locals travel the path barefoot. The 75 pounds of medicine the medical team brought with them were carried in by donkey.
“It’s difficult, but I have to say I love that part of it, the traveling in Haiti, because as you’re walking along, you see farmers working in their fields, you see children walking on the same trail on their way to school, you see women bring goods to market. Everyone is so friendly,” said Dr. Dirmeyer, who is a family doctor and a parishioner at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa.
It is the remoteness of Bouly that makes the clinic there so necessary. Ms. Adams pointed out that a sick person cannot make the strenuous hike down the mountains to Boucan-Carré. People have to rely on what they have, which isn’t much. Even simple medicines, like prenatal vitamins or Tylenol, are hard to come by.
“They don’t have a Walgreens or something to go to to get over-the-counter meds,” she said. “They solely rely on people like bring appropriate supplies and meds to them.”
“In the community of Bouly, there is no infrastructure at all. There is no plumbing. There is no running water. There is no electricity, certainly. People are farmers, and they are just barely getting by, often going hungry. They just have almost nothing. They have hard lives. Their lives are often desperate, but they have joy. They love their children, they have fun. There’s a sweetness about them,” Dr. Dirmeyer said.
The clinic is a source of community investment for the people of Bouly. The villagers built the clinic themselves, with financial support from Sacred Heart. The concrete had to be carried in on mules. Stones were collected from a nearby river. One thousand pieces of rebar were carried in on foot.
The clinic has thick concrete walls to withstand the tropical storms. There are four rooms, two back rooms where the missionaries live when they visit, a room for seeing patients, and a room that serves as a pharmacy.
The people of Bouly have their own committee for the clinic, too. Recently, the committee secured wooden posts for a fence around the clinic property. However, they still are awaiting funds to purchase the barbed wire.
“Their committee is very interested in maintaining and protecting the clinic and getting the most use from it that they can,” Dr. Dirmeyer said.
When the medical team arrived at the clinic, there already were patients waiting for them. News that doctors were coming had spread, and people had walked for miles to see them. Over the next few days the clinic saw more than 400 patients.
Many of the patients suffered from ailments related to malnutrition. Acid reflux, parasites, high blood pressure, and respiratory problems were common. Many of the women were pregnant, but they still walked for miles to see a doctor and receive vitamins.
“You see a lot of terribly sick people and a lot of desperate people,” Dr. Dirmeyer said. “You see parents who have already lost some of their children.”
Although they lack electricity, clean water, or a testing laboratory, the medical team worked to diagnose and care for each patient the best they could. Simple antibiotics or pain relievers can make a striking difference for people with so few resources.
Even when the medical team could not fully treat a problem, they made sure to give each patient advice and attention.
“I feel like one of the things we’re doing by going there is we’re showing our compassion,” Dr. Dirmeyer said. “We’re going and seeing them and being with them. We feel like it’s important to carefully look over every patient. Even if there’s nothing we can really do to be of help, we want to look at them carefully, examine them carefully, listen to what they have to say, treat them with dignity and respect, because even though they’re uneducated and poor, they’re human beings, and they’re deserving of that respect.”
Through the power of American support and local efforts, the clinic no longer has to shut its doors when the doctors leave. The clinic has hired a Haitian nurse who can provide care and medicine to dozens every week.
The building has been wired for electricity so that in the future, it might be able to run on solar panels.
“In the past 15 years, that community has changed dramatically…and a lot of it has to do with Sacred Heart and community support that they’ve given. So it’s really a success story for that area of Haiti,” Dr. Mire said.
“It’s remarkable what the church has done up there,” he said. “And with limited funds it’s really been able to help a lot of people. It’s been a good experience for me and a lot of the people that have been involved. You know, you gain more by going than you give, I think.”
Several churches in the Diocese of Knoxville have connections to Haiti, supporting health and education.
“I would encourage anyone who attends a parish where there is a Haiti project to give to their Haiti project, because all over Haiti people are hungry, people are in need. I’m so proud of our church for the emphasis we’re placing on educational ministries. The long-term solution to helping people in Haiti is education. The medical work we’re doing is important, but it’s short-term work,” Dr. Dirmeyer said.
Part of mission work is bettering the lives of those you serve. The missionaries to Bouly hope that the clinic will continue to be a source of healing and pride for the village for years to come.
“We hope that eventually this will be a Haitian clinic, and we’ll just be visitors there. We want to turn it over to them,” Dr. Dirmeyer said.
Until then, the missionaries will continue to make the trek and answer the call to serve the poor and the sick.
“I just finished my fifth trip, and so far it’s just been amazing. I think what keeps me going is that, you know, I don’t think anybody else will go. And you just don’t want to leave those people without,” Ms. Adams said.
“It’s not just helping them; it’s helping us. It’s helped us realize what we’re supposed to do,” she added.