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Joe Hennig: Summer Medical Student

Joe Hennig, who grew up in Rochester, N.Y. is currently a second-year medical student at SUNY Buffalo Medical School. Joe has made St. Gabriel's School in Fontaine, Haiti his summer home where he is involved in a research project studying dietary sodium intake and hypertension in Fontaine. (He also has a small depression study linked to the hypertension study.) Joe was part of the Buffalo Medical Team's April Mission To Haiti and has been in Fontaine since June 12. In addition to his research project, Joe has been helping St. Gabriel's in a number of ways. Having been a computer science major in college, Joe has restored the Wi-Fi server a St. Gabriel's, set up wireless printing, and launched Internet-in-A-Box. He also uploaded thousands of off-line medical review videos so students can learn from YouTube videos without the web. As all of these are stored on a server, St. Gabriel students can simply connect to the Wi-Fi at the school and access all of the resources as if they were part of a computerized library. You'll find a slightly abridged version of Joe's initial report below.

I have found it to be true that when one has witnessed so much in such a small amount of time, it is often hard to know where to begin to paint an accurate picture of the experience. As such, I had no clue how to start my journal entries. This was coupled with a lack of internet, and that has been a barrier preventing me from sitting down and documenting what my summer in Haiti has been like. However, three weeks in and I think it is high time.

When I first arrived in Haiti-with two bags full of biohazard labeled urine collection tubes, glucometers, and filter paper for dried blood samples, all within Styrofoam boxes (to comply with CDC transport standards)-I was accosted by the corrupt airport personnel who swiftly let me pass after asking and receiving from me, 10 USD. I willingly paid the expected "toll" and, luggage in tow, I hustled over to the pickup bay on the other side of the airport where I was greeted by one of the most joyful 6-foot-tall men I know, Masanto. We loaded up a rickety jeep with all of my supplies, I jumped in and we started on the bumpy ten-hour drive to Fontaine, my new home for the next six weeks.

There I was welcome with the community going out of its way to welcome me, dance with me, celebrate with me, get my advice on medical problems, ask me for help, even look out for my well-being when I am being a dumb foreigner.

For a people who have suffered so much at the hands of those who have many more resources than they, I am shocked by their humility. They do not act as though I owe them anything. I have been quite vulnerable here. I am living in a land whose language I do not speak, whose mannerisms I do not comprehend, whose infrastructure leaves me without Internet connectivity, yet, there has not been one moment when I have felt even a hint of hostility. Perhaps I could explain their welcoming attitude toward me as due to my efforts to help and provide medical care etc, but that is simply untrue. It is difficult for me to comprehend the kindness these people have shown me when I do not deserve it. It is a foreign concept to me that people would just openly accept someone like myself, who is foreigner in their country with no hesitation. When I was young I lived in the city of Rochester N.Y., in a socioeconomic area of the city that was poor. It was not uncommon for me to be attacked while walking home for no other reason other than the fact that I lived on a different street than my attackers. Yet, here I am, a foreigner from a country that once was instrumental in Haiti's oppression and I am welcomed with open arms. I am humbled by the people of this country and their kindness and generosity.

I am convinced that most people here are of a different quality. I acknowledge that my perception is limited by the fact that I am living in a countryside of Haiti and that I have not really spoken to as many social elites as I have to people who are poor. Additionally, I have almost never been without a Haitian translator by my side (except when I jog in the morning, or am at the orphanage), as I do not understand the language well and I have not lived here long. Furthermore, I am living in a rural town called Fontaine. This is similar, in some respects, to the dynamic of living in rural areas of the U.S., that have far less infrastructure than the nearby cities. Therefore, I know that I have not experienced their environment in a way that I can truly understand their perspectives and culture.

However, I can recognize that the school system in Fontaine has been neglected for many decades. In fact, the closest school to Fontaine was several miles by walking, potentially in the dark, on an unreliable dirt road. This was the case, until Pierre Louis Joizil decided to found a secondary school with the help of some American donors and called it Saint Gabriel's. Like many U.S. schools, this place has become an economic hub. There is a kitchen for feeding the students, a farm that is just getting underway, and services that the school provides to the community like veterinarian, medical, and even copy services. Without the school however, the closest economic hub would be miles away on an unreliable dirt road. So, this school not only provides education but it also provides stability to the local economy.

Now that I have taken a few minutes to describe the conditions and history of this beautiful town, I'd like to circle back around to when I met Masanto in the pickup zone in Port-au-Prince. He drove me for about 10 hours on the 110-mile drive to Fontaine at an average speed of 11 m.p.h. due to the severely worn roads, or lack thereof.

Since being in Fontaine I have over 300 people enrolled in my study on hypertension/depression. As I input the survey responses into Excel, I couldn't help but feel like I was masking the hardships of those persons whose responses I catalogued with no identifiable information or context. But, in the bigger picture hopefully this work will make the proper impact, to incite research in Haiti, as well as inform future medical mission trips here.

Over the course of the past three weeks, I also have had time to set up a server for tens of thousands of Khan Academy videos, Wikipedia pages, and PDFs in French and English. Once the server is trusted to be stable for the traffic of roughly 300 students, it could be an incredible learning tool as there is no access to the Internet within miles that is strong enough to stream even a 3-minute video. Additionally, my minimal computer skills have allowed me to set up their printing services on the WI-FI, opening the avenue to improve and expand the school's printing business.

I have also been approached by countless students and persons of the village for medical advice, some of which were questions that sought to resolve resource insecurities like headaches and stomach aches, whose, history upon further questioning, coincides with a lack of food and water and after the students eat or drink, it is entirely resolved. It's quite heartbreaking when a 14-year-old kid comes to you to looking to resolve his or her stomach pain with ibuprofen because they haven't eaten in 12 hours. Beyond the countless hours of work that I could pour into trying to run a study (hiring field workers, a translator, managing wages, training, quality control, resolving miscommunication, etc) or trying to set up an offline intranet server, I also have been able to spend time at the orphanage, and gathering an echocardiogram with other medical students that came down.

I have seen 15 volunteers come and go from the school in the past 2 weeks, and I have constantly been struck by the reality that I will spend only 30 days in Haiti, then I have the privilege to head back home to my comforts and livelihood that many Haitians will never experience. I wish that I had the words that could convey what I have seen and felt. I desperately wish to incite a motivation in you to help the country that so many people have abandoned and destroyed. If you ever spent a week truly living in their shoes-where all you had to wake up to was a day in the field, classes in a foreign language, hunger, no education, total poverty, I think you would find it hard not  to be motivated to help in any way you could. My words bleed dry. With every sentence, I fear my inability to express the experience diminishes the gravity of their situation and weakens your impetus to intervene. Therefore, I implore you to consider your many blessings (like simply reading this in English) and take a moment to carefully consider how you could lend a helping hand.

I have so many heartwarming and heartbreaking stories to add, and eventually I will, but I could not start out, simply neglecting the reality of life here, and reminiscing on the ways that Haiti has given to me.

Joe Hennig

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