Green Bank Observatory education assistant Sophie Knudsen first learned of the Paul Meyers Foundation Mission to Haiti through her boyfriend – now fiancé – John Saint Georges, whose mother, Kathy, is one of the mission’s co-leaders.
Knudsen joined John, along with several doctors, nurses and volunteers, on the mission in 2016, and recently returned from her third trip to Haiti, where she helped provide medical and dental care to the locals.
The mission began as part of a parish twining program with a church in Tennessee and a church in Haiti. The program has since expanded, thanks in large part to Paul Meyers, who wanted to ensure that the mission continued each year.
Knudsen, a certified EMT, said the 11-day mission is packed full of travel and visits with patients, with ailments ranging from headaches to old injuries like broken bones and infected wounds.
“We get to Moron [pronounced Ma-rone], unpack the clinic, make sure that all the antibiotics are together; make sure all the pain meds are together,” she said. “Once that’s all finished, we wake up the next morning about 6:30 a.m., eat breakfast and get started by 8 a.m. We normally don’t finish seeing people until about 5 p.m., but when we finish really depends on when the crowd is gone.
“There are people that, after waiting for long enough, will go home and come back the next day, but if we have people outside the gate, we will see them, even if that means taking dinner later,” she continued. “We’ve finished as late as 8 p.m., as well.”
The clinic is set up at the church’s Father’s home, which is an old French fort with a courtyard and gate. As patients come to the clinic, they are escorted through the gate 50 at a time and sent through triage before meeting with a doctor or nurse.
The volunteers have interpreters who help move the crowd along and will even suggest to individuals to come back if they foresee a long wait.
“If there’s something really wrong, they’ll come early in the morning,” Knudsen said. “We normally see those folks early and by the end of the day it’s things like ‘I get really dizzy during the day, and I have headaches all the time.’ We have interpreters that are really great as far as triage goes, where they’ll talk to the crowd and ask them, ‘did you travel very far?’ If not, and it’s not very serious, they will tell them come back tomorrow because it’s getting late. For a lot of people, the only light source is their phone screen.”
The closest hospital is in Jeremy, a town approximately two hours away by vehicle, so Knudsen said emergency patients are sent there to get treatment they can’t get at the clinic.
“Sometimes getting transportation costs as much as their whole month’s pay,” she said. “If they are waiting in a waiting room all day and they haven’t been seen, it becomes an issue of, ‘why would I pay to go somewhere and not get treatment and then go home?’ We’ll pay for their transportation to the hospital and make sure they are seen by good doctors there.”
Moron doesn’t have a walk-in clinic or doctors like small towns in America do. The nearest thing to medical facilities are pharmacies, which provide medicine to those with prescriptions, but they are unable to get help with any serious injuries or illnesses.
The average income of a Moron resident is $25 – American dollars – a month, so it is not uncommon for individuals to arrive at the clinic with old injuries or bad infections because they were unable to seek treatment at the time of the emergency.
“For instance, this year we saw a man who, two years ago, had broken his upper arm bone – his humerus – and the bone never fused back together, so his arm was almost half a foot longer on his right side than his left and you could move it any which way because his shoulder and his elbow were not connected except by muscle keeping it in line,” Knudsen said. “That was something wild to see – imagining the pain he was in for the months it took to heal is something.”
Seeing people with severe injuries or illnesses, from babies to the elderly, is difficult for Knudsen, but she reminds herself of why she is there and that she is helping people get healthier.
“It is extremely difficult to see people in pain – a lot of children will fall into open cooking fires and that’s really tough,” she said. “The reward comes from seeing them come back three days later after we gave them a few antibiotics and seeing their skin is so beautiful – it’s not infected and they’re hardly in any pain at all.”
As an EMT and seasoned medical volunteer, Knudsen said the sights don’t get to her as much as the odors.
“I’m most sensitive to the smells that come in, especially to the dental clinic where I do have to take a step back and take a breath or just kind of find that zone where, again, the reward is greater than what I might be feeling right then,” she said.
In addition to treatment and medicine, the clinic also provides glasses – a big deal in Haiti.
“Glasses in Haiti are a sign of social status,” Knudsen said. “So when we give out the first pair, everyone says they’ve got problems with their eyes, and they all need glasses. Every single one of them. That happens with other things, too.”
Knudsen said it’s entertaining to watch the patients leave and walk past those who haven’t been seen, yet. They all ask what he or she said to get glasses and ask what the doctors did for them.
“If you watch someone leaving through that first gate that’s keeping them the furthest away, everyone is asking, ‘what did you get?’” she said, laughing. “ The thing is, they all have these headaches. They all have backaches. Some of them just need a chiropractor, so it’s not like they’re lying for the medications, but they want to know ‘what did you say to get seeds?’ ‘What did you say to get glasses?’
“If they can get glasses, they want them,” she continued. “We give them all seeds. We don’t run out of those, but medications, it is tough sometimes. We don’t withhold any medications, but we’ve got to look at them and say, ‘okay, could this be treated with this medication?’ because we brought more of that and we need to balance out how we can conserve to do our best for all these people.”
The volunteers also bring clothing, food and toys for the villagers.
“Peanut butter is a huge food that we bring because of the protein and its affordability,” Knudsen said. “A lot of children have orange or rusty looking hair because of protein deficiency so showing their parents that peanut butter can give them the protein that the kids need and they can afford it – it’s pretty cheap even in Haiti – they’ll start using that.
“We bring a lot of seeds so they can grow gardens – squash, cucumbers are very big, beans, etc.,” she continued. “Clothes – shirts and pants are great. So are flip flops, but –you could buy a pair of flip flops at the Dollar General and you could wear them for five years here. If you go to Haiti, they don’t last five minutes. The roads and the places that these folks have to walk will destroy any shoe.”
They also take lots of soccer balls and toys for the kids.
Simple items like flashlights are also a hot commodity in Haiti because there are no street lights.
For the nearly two-week mission, the volunteers are exposed to the culture of Haiti and learn a lot about the people they are serving.
The children of the villages are sometimes shocked when they first meet the volunteers because they have never seen a white person before, but it doesn’t take them long to warm up to the newcomers.
“One of our interpreters brought his two baby girls this year – they’re two years old and they were very afraid,” Knudsen said. “They had never seen a white person ever in their life. So they were really apprehensive at first. They warmed right up to us, though, especially when we were giving them gifts.”
When Knudsen would see children carrying water into the village, they would say “blanc,” to her because she is white. Haitians speak Creole which is a mix of French, German and English and “blanc” is Creole for white.
Along with the medical mission, the Foundation also funds a construction mission which built a well in Moron and repaired homes damaged by hurricanes.
While the mission trip is a long journey from home and chocked full of long days and hard hours, Knudsen said she and John are ready to go back next year and will probably continue to go as long as the Foundation takes missions to Haiti.
“I know John and I will be going next year,” she said. “Either with the construction team that goes before the medical mission trip, or with the medical mission. It depends on our schedule and what we’re doing because we’re getting married in 2019.
“We will be going back to Moron,” she continued. “We’ve made a lot of friends there. We’ve watched a lot of kids grow up and go from having Tinea, where your hair is falling out, to having ponytails and little ‘bubblys’ – those plastic beads – in their hair. In such a short amount of time, it’s just been an incredible journey through the lives of these people. We really feel a strong connection to them, and we’ve got to go back.”
Knudsen and John have also made a strong connection to Pocahontas County and while they aren’t certain if they will stay forever, they’re here for a while.
“If not a permanent residence, this will always be our vacation spot,” she said. “This will be our retreat. A lot of people say it’s a retreat from the real world, but I think it’s a retreat to the real world because this has really developed my ability to problem solve, think on my feet and be more prepared in life in general. I really love that.
“John’s originally from Tennessee, and I’m from Virginia,” she continued. “So I found my way to ‘best’ Virginia, don’t you worry.”
For more information on the annual Mission to Haiti project, visit www.paulmeyersfoundation.com/mission-to-haiti
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org