My name is Jennifer M. Demma and I am a Certified Nurse-Midwife living in Minneapolis and I recently had the opportunity to travel to Gran Sous, Haiti with a group of eleven people from the US as a part of a Roots of Development trip.
There were four of us (myself, Lynn Stanley-Haney – a Nurse Practitioner, Vida Kent – a Certified Nurse-Midwife, and Jennifer Applegate — a public health researcher and intern at Roots of Development) who were part of a midwifery initiative trying to work with the local midwives and the members of the community to learn about the maternal-child health needs in Gran Sous and on the island as a whole. The intention of the trip was that by better understanding the current situation and learning about available resources and current challenges then we will be able to work with the midwives and the community to help improve the health status of women and children on the island.
In making this trip I didn’t know what to expect, since I had never traveled to a third world country before. Traveling to Gran Sous was not a simple journey for the team: flying to Port-au-Prince, traveling on a harrowing truck ride for a couple hours to a hotel on the coast to stay for the night, then riding a ferry for two and a half hours and then landing on the island and taking another even more harrowing truck ride on rocky “roads” for a couple of hours to finally arrive in Gran Sous. It was exhausting and exciting and yet it is a trip that people on the island often have to make just to try to acquire food and supplies.
Upon arriving in Gran Sous, we were greeted by a warm and enthusiastic welcome and met our host families. I stayed with an incredibly generous and kind family: a man named Stevenson, and his wife Jolene and their four children. One of the highlights of the trip was sharing time with my host family swapping stories and teaching them to play games. I discovered that connections and relationships can be formed through the simplest of interactions.
Despite being incredibly hot and dehydrated most of the time, we had the opportunity to build relationships with a group of 24 local midwives. I was surprised to learn that the majority of midwives on the island are men, which is different than many other places where midwives are predominantly women. Like many other countries, most of the babies on the island are born at home. For many reasons, women often do not receive prenatal care, proper nutrition, or treatment for medical problems and the midwives may or may not have the training or resources to deal with complications of pregnancy or birth. I was also surprised to discover that the midwives we met with usually do not get paid for their services and, despite this, they described how dedicated they are to caring for women and babies and how eager they are to receive training and access to supplies (like birth kits). Women do have some access to birth control but they often have to walk for hours just to get to a dispensary where they can receive contraception.
Even though we communicated to the village when we were planning the trip that we were not coming to the island to provide direct patient care, people would still approach us and show us various medical problems and ailments just to have us look at them to see if we could do anything. It was extremely difficult to not be able to help them and to know that they probably would not be able to access any help. We did, however, have the opportunity to bring a nine-year-old girl to the hospital for medical care that she would not have gotten otherwise. We also had the chance to help transport a woman who was eight months pregnant and bleeding to Port-au-Prince to find a hospital where she safely delivered a healthy baby boy by c-section.
Overall, what I was struck by the most was the tremendous resilience of the people: their strength and determination in the face of incredible odds against them, along with limited resources and isolation, was a true inspiration. I was also inspired and amazed by the hopefulness, vision and aspirations of the people. I discovered that no matter where you live, there are universal aspirations that all people share like the ability to have a home, shelter, food, jobs, education for your children, health, safety and opportunities.
Equally striking was bearing witness to malnourished children and families who struggle just to have food to eat on a regular basis. On our first day on the island, we saw a crucial food delivery that some of the people of Gran Sous had obtained and I marveled at the simplicity of how precious a bag of rice could be.
As I have settled back into the routine of my life here in Minnesota I find myself thinking about the trip on a daily basis. I wonder how an island only about 700 miles off the coast of Florida could be home to such hope and faith and strength and yet face such isolation, poverty, hunger, and struggle. I find myself unbelievably grateful for people and things I have often taken for granted. Most importantly, I remember how it felt to receive such kindness and appreciation for something as simple as sharing time with people, listening to the them, paying attention to their needs and promising never to forget them or their stories.