MISSION: International Outreach – Project Haiti

Instead of spending spring break lounging on beaches or sleeping until noon, 28 volunteers from UF’s College of Medicine will be working to provide health care to impoverished people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Project Haiti began in 1996, created by a second-year medical student of Haitian descent named Serge Geffrard, said Reshelle Smith, Project Haiti’s trip leader and a second-year medical student. During the trip, students help run a day clinic and a night clinic supervised by UF doctors in collaboration with local physicians.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to take what we learn in class and apply it,” Smith said. “It’s a good opportunity to see things we don’t normally see both medically and socially. And we’re providing health care to these people who don’t normally have the access to the health care they need.”

The volunteers include four pharmacy students, 12 first-and second-year medical students, six third-and fourth-year medical students and four attending physicians. Aside from providing health care, the students will hand out staples such as vitamins, clothing, shoes, school supplies and toothpaste.

Project Haiti participants saw nearly 700 patients in 2008, and they hope to see even more this year and extend the effect of their visit beyond the one week, Smith said.

“Everything we don’t prescribe we are going to leave with doctors there so that the people can still have the same continuity of care after we leave,” Smith said. “It’s true that there’s not much we can do, but we can leave medicine and medical records for the doctors.”

Kim Esham, a third-year medical student who has gone on the trip twice before, said this year the group is focusing on offering more public education, including counseling on public health.

For example, due to the tropical climate, many Haitians and Dominicans have complained of irritation related to dry skin. Esham said they discovered many people there bathe excessively throughout the day. Introducing simple interventions such as lotion and educating patients about how many times a day one should bathe helped ease the problem, Esham said.

Smith recalled a previous trip when the group was able to help a 6-month-old baby. Because there was no accessible health care in the area when the infant had been born, no one had noticed a neurological deficiency in the baby.

Although no neurologists were on the trip, Smith said they identified the problem and ensured the infant was sent to the hospital for treatment.

“It’s a very rewarding experience for everyone who goes,” Smith said.

Esham agreed, saying the trip provided a great learning infrastructure.

“Even if we don’t fix the world with one trip, each rising physician that goes can take this (experience) with them,” Esham said.

For more information on Project Haiti or to learn how you can help, click here or contact Reshelle Smith, trip leader.