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Coffins crossing me… The Haitian mountain people, forgotten by the world

Every mission through the Haitian mountain landscape ends with the following sentence: “NEVER AGAIN!”

Many of you know that I have long been active (and still) in one of the most difficult to reach and dangerous regions of Bolivia (Cordillera de Madinga in Chuquisaca, Potosí, …).
Yet, the dangers I have encountered in Haiti far exceed those I ever encountered during my decades of work in Bolivia.

Both countries need a lot of energy, courage and miracles of God to provide dedicated medical care in such a desolated regions.

Ominous signs

The beginning of our most recent mission in Haiti was rough. Our second-hand Jeep (bought thanks to donations after the earthquake of January 2010) finally broke-down after serving us well for numerous missions. As a result, we had no choice but to hire a second-hand Jeep from the capital, Port-au-Prince.

The scattered and sharp stones on the steep sandy tracks (no real roads) quickly left us with two flat tires after only a few hours of driving. Soon after, we were confronted with a fault break system, which manifested itself during an unexpected heavy storm in the mountains. It added the elements of mud and debris to these already dangerous and winding tracks.

Thank God, the hand-brake I could use as co-pilot proved to be our saving-grace in this muddy and dangerous situation. We managed however to move forward in our journey this way…at least for a while. Eventually we had to abandon our hired (faulty) Jeep in the middle of the road because the high amounts of mud didn’t allow us to go further. We left the jeep to some people who were willing to take care of it.

While we may have underestimated the obstacles presented in such a situation, some Haitian youth we encountered from some smaller villages did not…

Onwards and upwards…with motorcycles

Out of options, we rented some old motorcycles from a group of young Haitian boys. This mode of transportation, however, was extremely uncomfortable. The obstacles and mud in conjunction with the winding tracks made the small, iron seat bounce uncontrollably – a torturous experience.

These “roads” were truly beyond all imagination…. It’s a pity, we couldn’t take many pictures because we were too fast out of batteries and it became – due to all the hours of delay – already dark (around 6-7 PM).

But then, even the motorcycles could not move further through all the mud and water on these slippery tracks.

On foot…

Haiti in the summer is usually extremely hot (around 100 degrees Fahrenheit by the sea, and 110 + in the inland) but in the mountains the temperature can fall dramatically due to stormy weather and the height. They dropped below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. We continued our expedition for hours in the mud through the storm. Our clothes were soaked and our muscles exhausted and tense because of the cold. Courage and motivation was beginning to fail us..

Out of the blue, God provided horses to move on…

Suddenly, we came in the dark across a kind man who was willing to offer us his horses…. We gratefully accepted his offer and could continue our journey. While we were thankful for this new mode of transportation, I remained alert, very aware that I was sitting on the back of a malnourished animal that I did not know. The protruded backbones made the whole expedition even more torturous. I was reminded of the accident of my friend and colleague, Dr. Marcos, who fell with his horse down a steep ravine in the Bolivian mountains some 15 years ago. Thankfully some trees saved the life of Dr. Marcos and the horse.

Some coffins crossed us downhill…

An unprecedented scene in the West, yet an unfortunate recurring reality in Haiti….

It was at this moment that I spotted a group of men carrying some coffins coming downwards from the darkness to a place I don’t want to know. They got to burn the people and knock out any bad ghost (by knocking on the ashes). My team told me that some families literally sell the bodies to such a “gangs of youth” to get rid of evil spirits of the death that might return. Christians are buried the normal traditional way. This was a very confrontational experience.
I had seen on other Medical-Pastoral expeditions on these same mountain tracks babies and children in small coffins too. It was always a horrible sight. Certainly, another person or child with feelings, hopes and dreams died again in sickness and pain as no Doctor is around in these mountainous regions.

Exhausted, we arrived around midnight at our first village…

Thankfully, the violent storm that raged since the beginning of our journey did not last all night. The bright moon and dancing fireflies led us along a misty path to our first destination, the village of Manceaux where we build a few years ago a small clinic and went to help out numerous times.

The villagers, who are now almost all Christians expected us with anxiety for many hours. They received us so kindly. We could eat some nuts and water at our arrival, a welcome treat after a day of fasting as there was no place nor time nor desire to get a break during the storm.
Physically and mentally exhausted that we were, we gratefully accepted the few beds that the village could offer us. Before falling into a deep sleep, they kindly washed our feet and lower legs – a gesture which truly illustrates the kindness and love of the people in this village.

The medical work…

The next day our work began at the break of dawn till sunset. This way, we could see as many patients as possible during our stay. We needed to organise as good as possible. The consultations were marathon sessions with ten to fifteen patients per hour. Long lines of adults and children were waiting, some of which had travelled for days to see “el Blanche” (“the Doctor”). Also, our Haitian pastors did a lot of prayer with the locals and could give these people new hope by explaining the Gospel.

Referring patients to a hospital is very difficult because of the costs. First, you have the transportation that’s often around 1000 Haitian Gourdes (US$ 15), then you have a first consultation that’s often around 600 Haitian Gourdes (US$ 10). If the case is serious (the reason why they need a real hospital with electricity and some relatively advanced medical equipment), they need lab tests and sometimes surgery. Often, you come around 10.000 Haitian Gourdes (about US$ 150) for one patient. Only the very ill people are sent but this amount gets of course higher and higher if you have numerous serious ill patients.
In our clinic in Manceaux, we only can do the essential things (too far away, no electricity, no drinking water, etc..) and our stock of medicines is empty as for now. To equip the clinic with medicines, we need some 100.000 Haitian Gourdes (US$ 1,600.00) and keep paying a Doctor to stay there (about 10.000 Haitian Gourdes of US$150 a month).
Another target, we have is to have another 4*4 Landcruiser Vehicle to reach the mountain villages in a better way (much needed!) as it is almost impossible to reach the people there as written above. With an amount between 15,000.00 and US$ 20,000.00, we could buy a fairly good 4*4 Toyota Landcruiser (year 2010) that would not only serve to transport our medical personal but also as a long distance ambulance to transport the sick.
It’s already a big amount if the locals have a few 100 Haitian Gourdes (US$ 1.5 = 100 Gourdes). Five hundred Gourdes (US$ 8) is often the maximum they can offer. Of course, we see all these people for free.
It’s very frustrating for a Doctor if you know what’s going on and you can’t help the people because of a lack of funds, especially after such an expedition.

As I have been doing for decades, I attempt to treat all sorts of diseases based on my clinical experiences, epidemiological and tropical diseases knowledge, and the medication I have on hand in our big suitcases we carry with us. This is how we help, to the best of our abilities. On the same time, the Good News is given to give new hope to these people, not known by the world but certainly known by God.
In many cases I am the first Caucasian and the first Doctor that people have seen since I visited these villages after the devastating earthquake of January 2010, which left over 800,000 destroyed homes, 600,000 severely injured, and more or less 255,000 dead (they never knew the exact number of death).
Sadly, the many millions of dollars that were donated to help the Haitian people are not visible in the rural areas where they are most needed. The lack of a network of clinics, hospitals, schools (education) is enormous.
It’s no wonder that many children and woman die in childbirth. UNICEF reports that in Haiti, of all the deaths of children under 5 years of age, 34% died in the neonatal period, with approximately 90% of these deaths occurring in the first week of life. In these mountainous regions, death rates must be still much higher as they far exceed the rates of the coastal cities.
I believe that the best way to mitigate this injustice is through direct, targeted action for those most in need. Further, the need for better infrastructure is almost too obvious.

Incredible to think that all this is happening on an island not two hours away from Miami.

When we ran out of medication after visiting several villages high away in the mountains from St. Marc toward the Dominican Republic, we went down again in the heat of the sun to buy more medicines in some pharmacies of some coastal cities. This way, we could carry on to the next set of neglected villages located now lower between the ocean and the mountains. It always feels like a never-ending coming of patients who want to be cured and are like waiting for news that brings love, hope and faith.
Thanks to a generator in one village we could recharge our batteries a bit. Pictures can be seen at my Facebook “Rik Celie”.

The only doctor…

This time, there was no other Haitian doctor to accompany our mission because some had immigrated to Florida and others from the team had found work in the city (Port-au-Prince) as we cannot continue to pay their salaries, even if these are such a small amounts. This way, we almost force them to look for other work. Anyway, we will find new (young) idealistic Christian doctors again who want to join our mission.
In Bolivia it has been this way too during many expeditions with exception of Dr. Ino, the leader of our team there. These young doctors, nurses, para-medics, translators (the people speak only Creole there and no French anymore) and Pastors have made – just like in the USA – many debts due to their studies on the University in Port-au-Prince. They are desperate to get some paid work and can’t go back alone to their villages (no money from the locals to pay them) . They have often already a small family themselves too.
Fortunately I had several brave Haitian nurses, paramedics, pastors and interpreters by my side. They are young, driven Christian professionals Haitian people led by their Christian idealism. For example, Miss Eliane (“Miss” means only that they are nurse, nothing more…). She has been very loyal to our team for years. Because of her abilities, honesty and sincere personality, the Doctors On Mission Haiti team decided to make her team leader.

FAQs:

Is there really much need?

In short, yes!

Your donations do not have to be focused on Doctors On Mission but make sure you give to trustworthy people/ organizations who are dedicated to making positive change physically and spiritually in areas where there is virtually nothing which is in many regions. A lot of these villages have not enough food supplies for adequate nutrition either.
In addition to the lack of infrastructure and medical supplies, there is also a lack of transportation and many times we just don’t have the possibility to pay even a simple salary to our native personal. Our modest clinic still exists in this region.
This in contrast to the village of Morency where our local clinic and orphanage was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew at the end of 2016 (See Newsletter beginning 2017).
Medicines and basic medical equipment can be easily bought in Port-au-Prince or in the neighboring country Dominican Republic (same island or officially called “Island Hispaniola”).

Where does much of the money go?

Many ask me where the millions – given during the earthquake – are gone. To be honest, I don’t know either nor the people where I am working with. We do see rebuilding of government buildings and some roadwork in the cities but it’s for sure that nothing came to the far away regions. In the lower areas, you can find Haitian or Foreign NGOs who are well equipped but they don’t target the mountainous regions. I think that it’s very important to think critically about this situation.

Do you need Western staff?

Not really. Thousands of professional and non-professional Haitians pray for (paid) work. I want to stress “paid” work. If not, they will do whatever is possible to escape to Florida or to stick to the biggest cities in Haiti and find work there.
After all, these Haitians know what needs are the greatest. The earlier mentioned huge structural need demands attention from the West and it should be their focus to enable and empower Haitian professionals with vision.
Luckily, we have a brave Haitian medical staff. It looks like almost all talented girls go to study for nurse in Port-au-Prince but then, they get stuck. Without payment from outside, these young professionals cannot return to their own villages. So, there are nurses and doctors enough. This, despite the fact that around 400 nurses died at once when their “Campus” collapsed during the earthquake in Jan. 2010. I heard this story myself from a nurse who came that day (Earthquake – Jan. 2010) luckily too late to her miserable classroom. As for me, the earthquake was an “eye opener” and led me to copy almost the same kind of work I have doing in Bolivia since I started in 1990 as a Medical Missionary. We got that time severe aftershocks up to five months afterwards. There were many dead bodies which could not be excavated due to a lack of heavy machinery. The immense heat and rotting bodies attracted insects, and thousands of babies and children who died due to a Cholera outbreak shortly afterward the earthquake. This because of a low immune system provoked by malnutrition. It led my teams and me to these regions where nobody was taking care off and – again just like in Bolivia – God send me the right people to form local teams. In this case, it wasn’t difficult seeing a white Doctor working with the local churches in the middle of nowhere.

The reality of a doctor in these situations is difficult to describe or to capture in any way.

Aren’t these incredible adventures?

I can honestly say that these missions I go on are no adventure at all. They never have been. Rather, it is a ‘calling’ that I followed when hearing the stories of Dr. Schweitzer and Dr. Livingstone as a child. God then opened the ways to go and make a difference in this world and for eternity. Local medical-pastoral teams were established and clinics/churches were build.
It all started in Bolivia during my first trip in 1986 of 6 months (still as a Medical Student) as I got the opportunity of the University of Brussels, Belgium to do an internship in the poor state hospitals.

What’s the motivation?

Every life matters to bring love, hope and faith. 1 John 3:16-18 was my calling verse to bring reality to my dreams, to trust God and go out to help. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people have been saved or helped out of their pains since my teams and I began our work some decades ago.

To what extent is the Western population informed on the true state of these people?

Despite social media, I think there isn’t enough focus and information on the most vulnerable regions in our media. Yes, fundraising events are organized. Yes, people give but unfortunately, the money usually does not go directly to the Doctors or other professionals who are on the ground, and have dedicated their lives to the wellbeing of others and bring new hope.
We often do not have time to do much advertising or promotion. We are too busy working almost 24 hours a day (certainly in the aftermath of nature disasters). At best, we can use some material from large-scale organizations who are present only a few weeks in the wake of natural disasters, under the spotlight of CNN and the BBC…

Do you have enough funds?

This will be probably read by the few ones who are donating but honestly I can say that I am a little disappointed after working for so long to bring Health Care and The Gospel to devastated regions (because of natural catastrophes) and to the poorest regions in inland Haiti and inland Bolivia.
I still thank God and the ones who are doing something seriously in sending donations and who are praying for the ministry (me, local teams, patients, clinics, medicines, transportation, etc…) but just a few churches and a few individuals are really making the difference that we can further exist. This is not a “normal” ministry either as it’s a Medical Ministry. A lot is needed to heal also physically our (material) poor brothers and sisters in Christ in regions where there is no healthcare at all.
If everyone who is reading this mail could set up even a small monthly donation according to his/her ability through www.doctorsonmission.org/english/donate/ or by sending a check (address is on same page below “Doctors On Mission USA”), our financial situation could bring so much more relief, save lives here on earth and for eternity.
If I take a quick look through Social Media, I see so many discussions about “interpretations” of Bible verses but it seems that nobody talks about Acts 2:45-47, 1 John 3:16-18, the letter of James or the words of Jesus to the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-22), etc.. If it not was from one man, a few churches and a few couples these last few months, Doctors On Mission could as well close his books… something, we do not wish as we know and have experienced first hand the suffering of these people. This ministry is already (since 1990 official) working with the poorest of the poor… Also, there are no administration costs.
Money for “projects” can be still obtained if you do a lot of administration. But how can you bring the Good News if people are dying in their pains without taking care of the body first?
A Doctor cannot make a project of each person in great need. It’s all about the daily medical needs that my teams and I encounter every day. Moreover, as a Missionary Doctor, you just don’t have the time to make projects all the time, something I did during years with moderate results. Also, every project brings again more daily expenses (for example to run the clinics).
The daily medical relief of our brothers and sisters in big need can only be met by monthly donations, even if they are small. With many who do the same, great results can be obtained and countless people can be healed and can know the truth of the Gospel.
Most Missionary Doctors (be it locals or foreign people) don’t even have the time to make projects. During catastrophes, they are working day and night and – if there are no catastrophes – they want to go out, many times on risk of their own life, to the most needed regions where there is most of the time even no Internet connection…
With monthly donations, we can make the necessary budgets and work in a predictable and stable manner.
It would really make a big difference for which we would be very grateful to anyone who want to invest in our efforts. All donations are tax deductible and we do not have administrative fees.(doctorsonmission.org/english/donate)

To conclude: some great news!

During the last eight months, my team managed to give the many orphans of Morency new (safe) housing in several locations. This was necessary after the destruction of the orphanage (and the clinic) in Morency during the passing of Hurricane Matthew (Category 4-5 in the “Ocean Street” between Haiti and Jamaica) on the end of 2016.

God bless you all!

Rik and the local ‘Doctors On Mission’ teams in Bolivia and Haiti.

PS: Pictures of this mission can be viewed on Facebook, add or follow “Rik Celie”.

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