Published February 21, 2019
Within the next year or so, UB students will have a new opportunity to contribute to health care in Haiti in a big way.
Kimberley Persons, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Science, School of Public Health and Health Professions, is working with a New York-based organization and a university in Haiti to provide occupational and physical therapy training in a country that’s severely lacking it.
“There are zero occupational therapists in Haiti and one or two physical therapists, and the PT is actually working as a massage therapist because he can make more money. Physical therapy is unheard of in the country,” says Persons.
Persons spent winter break in Miragoane, a town about 60 miles west of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. She went with Helping Hands and Beyond, a nonprofit humanitarian organization based in New York’s Hudson Valley region, which has provided service to more than 60,000 people in Haiti, Grenada and St. Kitts since it was established in 2009.
The group set up a medical clinic in Miragoane a few years ago. It’s now staffed six days a week with a doctor, nurses and aides. In addition to providing treatment at the clinic, Persons participated in a mobile clinic that visited more rural areas of Haiti — places where medical supplies had to be delivered via motorbike because they were so far from the main road.
Their patients ranged from a newborn baby, to a man who needed stitches after injuring his arm cutting coconuts with a machete, to octogenarians requiring treatment for arthritis.
Rehabilitation care is likely to improve as a new university program there expects to graduate its first class of physical and occupational therapists next year. Meanwhile, the clinic in Miragoane is set to open an extension focusing on rehabilitation this summer.
“The new rehab facility will enable us to offer badly needed acute and long-term occupational and physical therapy services to the area,” says David Merlo, a UB alumnus who serves as program director for the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program at Bryant & Stratton College in Greece, New York.
Merlo has visited Haiti three times with Helping Hands and Beyond — he introduced Persons to the organization — and has seen firsthand what health care in that country is like. “Most heath care services in Haiti focus on emergent care, or stabilizing patients,” says Merlo, who received his bachelor’s in health and human services in 1994 and an advanced graduate studies certificate in assistive and rehabilitation technology in 2003, both from UB.
“People with chronic and debilitating conditions or injuries that impact function do not have access to services intended to return them to their previous functions and roles. Consequently, there are a lot of people with significant disabilities — people now unable to provide for their families,” he adds.
UB students could begin traveling to Haiti as early as next spring. Part of the winter break trip Persons took involved scouting out locales where students could stay and provide medical and other services. Persons and Merlo both stressed that the program will be inter- and intra-disciplinary, as well as intercultural.
The program being developed will provide opportunities for UB students to work with patients with a variety of conditions and across a wide age range. “Somebody who’s had a stroke may have a physical therapist working with them on walking again and an occupational therapist assisting them with learning how to get dressed when they only have one arm that functions,” Persons says.
Students could also work with children who have cerebral palsy, helping them boost their independence, which would allow the young patients to attend school. “Unlike here in the U.S., many children with disabilities there don’t go to school,” she says. “But if they can walk and talk well enough and go to the bathroom by themselves, they’re more likely to be able to get an education.”
Persons and Merlo were both drawn to Helping Hands and Beyond because of its grassroots nature, and its efforts to create lasting change in Haiti’s health care delivery. The group’s founder, Bergson Louis Jacques, is an occupational therapist who grew up in Haiti.
“Our hope is to develop a culturally immersive service-learning program for students in rehabilitation, medicine, public health, arts, education and other academic areas,” Merlo says. “Students will be immersed within a Haitian community and work alongside Haitian workers in delivering health care, rehabilitation, education, recreation and social services. Additionally, they will engage with Haitian college students who are pursuing similar areas.”
Persons recalls visiting a school in Miragoane. The population speaks Haitian Creole, which is a derivative of French, so Persons and the other mission members often relied on translators to communicate with residents.
“The kids at the school thought it was hilarious that we didn’t know what they were saying,” she says. “They had a lot of fun teaching us words. They’d run up and hold out a leaf and say the word for leaf and get you to repeat it. We spent a couple of hours playing soccer with some of the kids in an after-school program. Sometimes those unexpected experiences are the best ones.”