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American Medical Volunteers Provide Hope in Haiti

Many Americans are involved in volunteer work in and out of their country. VOA's June Soh reports from Haiti that some American volunteers are trying in a small, yet significant, way to change things for the better in the Caribbean nation that is known as the world's poorest. The story is narrated by Carol Pearson.

It's a market day in the impoverished village of Pignon, located on the North Central Plateau of Haiti. Hundreds of village people come to sell and to buy, especially food. A makeshift lunch stand does a brisk business. Soiled plates are washed quickly in the same water over and over. Nobody seems to care. In this village, with an unemployment rate of over 75 percent, bare foot, hungry children are everywhere.

Houses with holes in the roof are common. Kitchens have dirt floors but little food. There is no electricity.

In the hospital located right behind this house, gallbladder surgery is underway. 67-year-old Amelia, a resident of the village, has suffered excruciating pain in her gallbladder.

The operating room is state-of-the-art and the American physician, Barry Walter, an experienced general surgeon says, "When they asked me to come down, I thought it would be a good chance for me to give something back and share something that I have had. Certainly we have so much more in our lives and careers in the United States that they haven't had in Haiti."

Barry Walter is one of the medical volunteers who have come to Pignon at their own expense from the eastern U.S. state of Virginia. As a first-time visitor to the area, Dr. Walter found a striking contrast between the technology in the operating room and the surrounding environment. "Certainly they have some of the best equipment in the world but it's in the middle of abject poverty. The contrast between the two is something to behold," he said.

Anesthesiologist Ronald Holt has volunteered many times at the Hospital de Bienfaisance in Pignon since 1985. He says, "It's very personal to me because not only was I doing something that I was skilled doing but I met people here that I've known for almost 20 years and have been involved with in personal basis and helping them financially getting to school and medical school."

Thanks to the support of American medical volunteers and non-profit organizations, the new high-tech operating room was added to the second floor of the hospital two years ago. It is the only hospital serving more than 167,000 people in Pignon and the surrounding area. The wards on the first floor are packed with ailing children and adults on soiled bed sheets. So are the corridors, reflecting the overwhelming poverty.

Looking over a patient ,Dr. Joseph White gives him some options for treatment. In a room that looks more like a factory than a clinic, orthopedic surgeon Joseph White says many patients, like 20-year-old Elan, are victims of both injury and poverty. Elan couldn't get timely treatment for a bone infection on his right leg and had no choice but to get it amputated three years ago. Dr. White measures his limb and provides hope. Elan would like Dr. White to get him an artificial leg when he visits next time.

There has been significant improvement in public health in this severely impoverished area. According to 2003 statistics, infant and juvenile mortality in Pignon was less than two percent, compared to 12 percent nationally. Maternal mortality was also far less than the national rate.

Dr. Guy Theodore, a Pignon native, founded the Hospital de Bienfaisance with support from U.S. non-profit organizations in the early 1980s. He attributes the improvement in health to the American volunteers. "They are a real help to the people of Pignon. I've seen progress from the teaching of the Americans to the Haitians, how (they) can do the better farming, how (they) can do better in the hospital. They train doctors and nurses," he said.

Along with the efforts in improving health care, American volunteers are also increasing the level of income -- goat farming projects, developing clean water systems and supporting orphanages.

Dr. Holt says that the work of the volunteers is making a difference. "I think the thing that we are giving them mostly is not just things we are doing for them but the things that we are teaching them to do to get them hope," he says.

After a week or two of intense work, the volunteers return home. But they believe each time they come back their efforts will help put an end to the suffering, sickness, and poverty of the people in this remote Haitian village and will make a difference in their lives.