By Meg Robben
When was the last time you visited your doctor? I went to my primary care physician about 18 months ago for no particular reason, just a routine physical. I carefully selected a doctor from the Rush Web page, called about a month in advance, and scheduled an appointment at my new doctor’s very convenient Lincoln Park office.
On the day of my appointment I hopped on the Red Line and was in the waiting room within 15 minutes reading a People magazine article about the custodial woes of Miss Britney Spears. I was called back in to an exam room, my vital signs were checked and I was asked to step on a scale, truly the most horrifying part of my visit. When my doctor asked me why I was in her office swinging my legs off the side of her exam table I really didn’t have a good answer; because I have a PPO and it’s high time I see a big girl doctor? Satisfied with my juvenile but honest answer she proceeded with my exam, and after 30 minutes of her undivided attention she released me with a clean bill of health. As I walked back onto Sheffield Avenue I felt very confident in my doctor’s assessment of my health. I was pleased with the time she took with me and the attention she paid to my questions, even if she did tell me to lay off the caffeine. My attention turned to meandering back home and the coffee shop on the corner, cutting down on the coffee was going to be a slow process.
I didn’t give my trip to the doctor’s office much thought again after that day, until last month, when I was able to travel to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with a team of primary care physicians, nurses and a medical student to bring health care to one of the world’s poorest neighborhoods. Port-au-Prince is still reeling from January’s catastrophic 7.0 earthquake which, according to various sources, claimed over 230,000 lives, injured over 300,000, and decimated over 250,000 residences, leaving 1 million people homeless. The 10 of us — five physicians, three nurses, one medical student and me, a physical therapist — arrived on a Sunday and went to work Monday morning at Mission Rescue.
“This is Going to Be Different”
Upon arriving at Mission Rescue, located at a police headquarters in the heart of Port-au-Prince, I thought back to my cushy Lincoln Park doctor’s visit over a year ago. This is going to be different. We set up our operation in a large room with a window facing the destroyed Presidential Palace, a landmark as poignant as the Superdome circa 2005. For two solid days patients lined up in a hallway which served as our waiting room, patiently waiting for hours upon hours to see “the American doctors” as we were collectively called. From Mission Rescue, we moved on to spend a few days at two different churches with medical missions, one in Carrefour and one in Delmas (For the less geographically inclined like myself, Delmas is like Lakeview and Carrefour is like Bucktown if we assume Mission Rescue is The Loop).
Regardless of the location — Carrefour, Delmas or Port-au-Prince — people were waiting for care. My team would arrive on site, unpack our supplies, set up our individual stations and begin to provide primary care “doctor’s appointments.” Each of us worked with a translator fluent in Haitian, Creole and English who guided our sessions and provided priceless communication. As a physical therapist, I was never without a patient; from 10 days old to 94 years old, I did my best to assess mobility, assess development, manage pain, and even make ergonomic assessments for farmers and construction workers.
The physicians and medical student on our team worked efficiently to manage a variety of medical complaints, occasional oddities and routine checkups. Our three nurses distributed medication, collected specimens for urinalysis including pregnancy tests, and provided education to patients after they had seen their assigned physician. For six days, as a team, we saw an average of 130 patients a day for everything from routine checkups to immediate referrals to the nearest hospital escorted by one of our doctors.
Those six days made me reflect upon many, many things including my own doctor’s visit 18 months ago. None of our patients scheduled an appointment, nor did anyone take the Red Line to our clinic, and we didn’t provide a climate-controlled waiting room with People magazines at the ready, but I think our patients left with a sense of confidence about the state of their health. As a team we educated hundreds of individuals about the importance of routine medical care, the dangers of hypertension, how to manage back pain, and what to feed and how to hydrate an infant when resources are limited. We did our jobs as health care providers, but never once did it feel like a job.
The crisis in Haiti is not over. Health care providers are still needed to manage routine medical care and now a dangerous cholera outbreak. Volunteers are still needed to assist in the rebuilding of infrastructure and homes. Funding and donations are still desperately needed to provide food, shelter, and clothing for the thousands living in tents. For the most part, the media is no longer in Port-au-Prince and our attention has turned to Spam-fed cruisegoers, but I assure you the struggle remains. I urge you to give what you can to the people of Haiti not necessarily from your wallet, but from your hearts and your thoughts and your prayers.
Meg Robben, PT, MPT, is a senior staff physical therapist with the Department of Physical Therapy at Rush.