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Serving Street Medicine with a Smile

LAW students volunteer for week in Haiti

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In the slideshow above, Jonathan Glick (LAW’11) describes a medical mission trip to Haiti he, Marc Aspis (LAW’10), and Joel Schmidt (LAW’10) made with the Puerto Rican nonprofit Iniciativa Comunitaria.

Marc Aspis had two things on his mind while preparing to graduate from law school this past May: final exams and searching for a great job.

But when he overheard a student say she was heading to Haiti to help victims left homeless by the earthquake that struck there in January, Aspis—an avid traveler—couldn’t resist. He asked her for more information.

Just a week later, Aspis (LAW’10) and two classmates, Joel Schmidt (LAW’10) and Jonathan Glick (LAW’11), were on a plane to Port-au-Prince to work for a week with Iniciativa Comunitaria, a Puerto Rican nonprofit that provides direct medical services to communities in need.

“We had absolutely no idea what we would be getting into over there,” Schmidt says.

The three rode with Iniciativa Comunitaria to rural and urban communities with two goals in mind: to administer street-level medical care and bring cheer to a community struck by utter disaster.

Among the three, only Glick is a trained emergency medical technician. But that didn’t mean Schmidt and Aspis escaped scrubbing up. They helped triage patients, sort medicine, and maintain crowd control and took a crash course on disinfecting wounds and giving injections, after first practicing on mangos.

Volunteer doctors and trained medical personnel working with Inciativa Comunitaria provided free care to patients suffering everything from grossly infected wounds to urinary tract infections to apparent post-traumatic stress disorder. For some, it was the first medical care they had ever received.

Glick recalls two extreme cases he treated that still haunt him. One was a five-year-old boy whose eye infection was so severe flies had to be plucked from his socket. The other was a two-year-old girl who was treated for a sexually transmitted disease.

“In Haiti, there’s no police to call, no social worker to call,” Glick says. “You treat it the best you can, but there’s no back up.”

And Schmidt recalls one 18-year-old man who approached him with an evident eye infection, begging to be seen. But because he didn’t have a ticket in advance, the volunteers were unable to see him. “We had to turn him away, knowing that he could die.”

When Schmidt and Aspis weren’t providing rudimentary medical assistance, they provided emotional relief for children at the clinics. The two played games, sang songs, and danced with the kids to music blaring from a mobile sound system attached to one of the nonprofit’s vans.

“Our job was bringing a smile to children’s faces when they didn’t have anything to smile about,” Schmidt says.

During one stop at a rural mountain village, the BU students passed out notebooks and crayons donated from a class at the Maimonides School in Brookline. The gift received a mixed reaction. “A lot of the kids didn’t know how to hold a crayon,” Aspis says.

Each night the trio returned to a small compound and lived in conditions similar to those of the earthquake victims. They slept in tents, had no running water or electricity, and subsisted on rice and beans for dinner.

The images the BU students saw during their week in Haiti remain indelible, Schmidt says. “I have never seen anything like this,” says Schmidt, who has traveled to hardscrabble countries in Africa and Asia. “The amount of destruction was really beyond overwhelming. I don’t even think a war zone could look so bad.”

Yet it wasn’t that part of their trip that made the biggest impression on the three: it was the resilience of the Haitian people.

“It’s easy, after a disaster, to just think about the past and live in the past and not move forward,” Aspis says. “The people had a hard life, but they all wanted to rebuild and had a positive vision for the future.”

Days after returning to the United States, Aspis and Schmidt graduated from law school and began studying for their bar exams. Glick flew to California to work at a prestigious law firm for the summer.  But the three say they have had a hard time shaking the culture shock they experienced upon their return.

“There’s definitely a transition of going from a place where people have nothing and nothing is wasted,” Glick says, “to going to a country where people have everything and everything is wasted.”

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

4 Comments

4 Comments on Serving Street Medicine with a Smile

  • Randy on 07.22.2010 at 11:50 am

    Moving story

    This was a very inspiring story. thank you.

    Now that it has been about six months since the disaster, it is amazing how little publicity about the ongoing crisis is in the media. This is a very moving and inspiring story about these three individuals. Perhaps there are others at BU who could volunteer and help out though a university sponsored mission trip over vacation periods. it will be years until some return to normalcy occurs.

  • dan on 07.22.2010 at 12:17 pm

    practicing injections on mangoes? would that qualify as appropriate training to give injections to Americans–even during an emergency? Probably not. Why is this acceptable overseas?

    Additionally, giving out medications (especially antibiotics) with no ability to follow up, not only leaves patients vulnerable to complications, but antibiotic resistance as well.

    While these students’ hearts are in the right place, their “mission” is indicative of the lack of social justice present in international volunteering and the ensuing delivery of “health care.”

    I don’t wish to discourage these students from all the great work they have to offer the world in the future. But, let’s stick to our expertises and not assume that “any help is good help.”

  • Anonymous on 07.23.2010 at 12:56 am

    a comment to "practicing injections on"

    What was not mentioned was that many of the other BU volunteers are studying medicine or other health-related fields. It is important to note that all volunteers were in direct supervision of a practicing doctor. I completely understand your concern for the delivery of proper health care and the follow-up and safety of medicine; however, you do not understand how far a simple “medical” tip went in Haiti. Tips that are so day-to-day in our lives, such as the concept of germs as the carrier of illness. So many children were sick from drinking water that was not boiled first. So many women had UTI’s because of the direction they wiped in. So many people overlooked the importance of washing their hands. All of these things are facts you and I know just by living, just by experience. If you get a cut, you clean it out. There were so many cases that general health maintenance could have prevented; however, the knowledge base was not there. I understand where you are coming from, but you did not see the look of thanks in these people’s eyes. It didn’t matter what you handed to them; it was a sign of help, of relief, of love. A smile on a child’s face (or a grown man’s) is a perfect example of “any help” being “good help”. From a medical standpoint, the placebo effect absolutely occurs. A pill to a person who has never seen a doctor is much different than a pill in our society. A shot for pain to someone who has lived in pain for years may only last days, but those are precious days. We did not know if the person would be alive in one week. Please understand that I see why you thought the way you did. But please see my opinion, too. The silent “thank you’s” in people’s eyes said it all.

  • Anonymous on 07.23.2010 at 12:00 pm

    You guys are amazing. God bless the BU volunteers and the medical organization they volunteered with.

    Keep up the great work!

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