May 7, 2013 – Serge Geffrard, M.D., was eight years old the first time he visited a doctor. Suffering from a bad cough, he was taken to a Baptist mission hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti by his parents.
The experience left a lasting impression on him.
“That was the first time I ever saw a doctor,” said the Atlanta pediatric cardiologist and 1998 UF College of Medicine graduate. “And I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Decades later, Geffrard has achieved his dream of not only becoming a successful physician but also helping to care for those in need in his birthplace of Haiti. Both of those accomplishments had their start at the UF College of Medicine, he said.
Geffrard, who is married with two children, is now a physician at Georgia Pediatric Cardiology in Atlanta, which he joined in 2006.
But he was born in Haiti, moving to the U.S. when he was 15 years old and attending high school in Ft. Lauderdale. His family left Haiti for political and economic reasons, worked a variety of low-paying jobs to provide for Geffrard and his siblings.
“It was a big change—you grow up in one country and all of a sudden, you are in a different culture and environment,” said Geffrard, who is fluent in Spanish, French, and Creole. “But I was excited about the opportunity that I had here.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from UF, he went on to medical school at UF. As a first year, he was elected as one of the board members of the “Equal Access Clinic”. His health outreach work in Haiti began the following year. When he was a second-year medical student in 1996, he organized the first Project Haiti trip, a one-week UF College of Medicine international health outreach trip to Haiti, with 10 of his classmates. The annual spring break event is the longest running of its kind and Geffrard has not stopped participating.
“They do a great job,” he said. “It’s hard to believe 2016 is going to be the 20th anniversary of Project Haiti and the students are still going.”
Project Haiti Heart, which Geffrard co-founded in 2004, grew out of UF’s Project Haiti trip. The nonprofit is building a hospital in Fonds Parisiens, which is located 30 miles outside of Port-au-Prince.
In 2008, Project Haiti Heart raised money to build the obstetric wing of the hospital. Today it is staffed by three midwives and one obstetrician and delivers about 1,200 babies a year. Prenatal care is also provided to women in that region.
This year, the hospital will gain a new emergency room and outpatient center, a pediatric and medicine ward, an X-ray room and a pharmacy, he said.
Geffrard also started a pediatric cardiology clinic in Haiti for children with congenital heart defects and acquired heart defects such as rheumatic fever. . He carries a portable echocardiogram machine with him and the cell phone numbers of his patients’ families to alert them when he is in the country.
But he feels there is still more he can do. So, he is working to raise an additional $500, 000.00 to build a surgical center and several satellite clinics. The satellite clinics would provide care for residents living in the mountains. “Currently, pregnant women travel miles by donkey to receive prenatal care at the main hospital”, he said.
His dreams go even further . Eventually, Geffrard would like to build a medical, dental and nursing school for Haitians to make a more lasting impact.
“We want to do something permanent,” he said. “That way we can make it a long-term, self-sustaining project.”
Geffrard recalled many role models at UF who made a lasting impact on his life.
Jay Lynch, M.D., a UF professor of hematology/oncology who is now assistant dean for admissions, was an incredible role model for the way he approached and cared for his patients, said Geffrard. He recalled Kyle Rarey, Ph.D., a professor of anatomy and cell biology, as not only an outstanding teacher, but also as incredibly encouraging to his students. And he said he admires Eloise Harman, M.D., who has been travelling to Haiti with UF students since 1997.
“I was exposed to so many good people at UF,” Geffrard said. “There was a great support system and everyone was trying to help me succeed.”
Geffrard completed a combined residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. While doing his rotation in the neonatal unit, he became fascinated with babies with congenital heart disease and went on to complete a pediatric cardiology fellowship at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital.
“The whole physiology and anatomy of it is just fascinating to me,” he said. “The most rewarding part of my job is making a difference in people and outcomes and making sure families have a good understanding of what is going on with their children.”
Geffrard said his work in Haiti is also very gratifying to him. It feels good to help Haitian children in need, just as he was cared for as a child.
“Now I have the opportunity to go back and do the same,” he said.
To learn more about Geffrard’s ongoing work in Haiti, visit www.projecthaitiheart.org.