Dr. Josh White’s work in Haiti dates back to 2005 while he was a medical resident in Springfield, Massachusetts, and he received a call from University of Iowa medical school pal, Chris Buresh. “Calls from Chris always result in something interesting,” says Josh, “from ice climbing in Washington to scaling desert cliffs in Nevada, to running 125K races through the Canadian Rockies.” But this time Chris asked Josh to help staff a mobile medical clinic for the Children’s Nutrition Program in Haiti.
Just a 90-minute flight from Miami, Haiti is a place with no running water, electricity, or community sanitation, and virtually no medical system. It is deforested, the heat is oppressive, and the mosquitoes carry much nastier things than in the U.S. Disease is rampant, from malaria, tuberculosis and typhoid to elephantiasis and intestinal worms. And starvation is a daily reality. “You see a lot of that in Haiti,” says Josh. “A typical Haitian family earns a little less than $400 annually, less than the airlines charge us to come and go.” That’s roughly a dollar a day with which to feed and clothe their children, much less pay for school and other needs.
The small city of Léogâne is just 20 miles from the international airport in Port-au-Prince—but it is a journey of two to four hours if you have a car. Most Haitians travel by tap-tap, a sort of taxi, typically a brightly painted pickup truck belching black smoke and struggling to haul cargos of as many as 20 people or more. “We sit on duffel bags bursting with medications and pray as the Jeeps teeter around the mountainous countryside,” writes Josh.
In recent years, Josh began questioning the efficacy of the mobile clinics. “We would give people a three-month supply of medication and be aware that when it was done, it probably would not get refilled. So Chris and I started looking at a different model—to establish long-term relationships with a few villages that really needed help.” To that end, the two physicians entered into a partnership with World Wide Village to direct its Community Health Initiative in Haiti. White hopes that, “in making a deeper impact, these villages will be healthy enough to address other needs, and begin to make steps out of the poverty cycle. We can make a real difference.” Josh pledged to return at least once every six months—his luggage stuffed with donated medical supplies each time.
Josh had returned home from his latest volunteer trip just 72 hours prior to the January, 2010 earthquake that ravaged Haiti killing nearly a quarter million people and leaving more than 1.5 million homeless. He thought of his friends and wondered who had survived. Seven sleepless nights later, he had assembled a 10-person medical team for a return trip. They knew the area, the resources and what to expect. “As emergency physicians, wounds and trauma are in our purview,” says Josh. Working alongside volunteers from Japan and Doctors Without Borders, sometimes forced to use kitchen knives and hand tools in the crudest of conditions, Josh and his team saw more than 1,400 patients over the course of a week—some of whom would doubtless have perished without that care. “We did some good things,” he says simply.
The Community Health Initiative agreed to operate World Wide Village’s 50-bed mobile hospital for six months when it was donated. When it closed, more than 30,000 individual patients had been served, and over 700 surgeries and 250 deliveries were performed. Having spent more than 12 weeks away from his wife, Kim, and daughter, Corrine, that year, Josh had to put his MBA studies at the University of St. Thomas on hold. “I’ve made some sacrifices I would rather not have made,” says Josh, “but sometimes you don’t have that choice.” And through it all, he says, “I have not found a Haitian who felt the need for pity. They are an amazing people, vibrant and joyful and grateful for the small things in life. They love their children, care for their elders, and are quick with a smile. I always leave Haiti feeling that Haitians have given me more than I have brought to them, and I always return wondering why it has been so long.”
(In a recent update from Josh: Community Health Initiative has since filed the paperwork for 501(c)(3) status and is independent from World Wide Village. “ Exciting stuff”, he says, “We are back to running clinics in the mountains and loving it!”)