It started in 1989 as a partnership between two Vienna churches, Vienna Presbyterian Church and First Baptist Church of Vienna, to repair homes and assist the elderly. But by the mid-1990s, they’d fixed all the homes they could find in the small town. Some of their members were doctors who had traveled to Haiti, and they suggested the Vienna Christian Coalition for Housing turn its attentions to the impoverished island.
So the group began medical missions to Haiti in the late 1990s, and they stayed. One of their members was present during the January 2010 earthquake. And more of the Vienna group, now known as Community Coalition for Haiti, rushed in and stayed. Last year, they opened up a fully modernized surgical clinic in Jacmel, Haiti, with two state-of-the-art operating rooms, and this week another team from the coalition, half of them from Inova Fairfax Hospital, is in Jacmel performing surgeries and equipping a third operating room to save more lives.
In addition to medical help, CCH has also launched programs to help Haitians start and maintain businesses, to develop clean water systems, to grow crops and healthy animals, and has built or repaired several schools in southeast Haiti. The coalition organizes trips where volunteers from around the country spend a week helping with building projects, in addition to the medical trips which are bringing new technology, and new hope, to a country still recovering from a devastating disaster four years ago.
“It’s common that an American group will parachute in,” said longtime CCH board member Brian Hays, “do what they can do, and leave. The mere fact of our longevity is significant to the Haitians.”
It’s significant to the medical community in this region as well, which has donated time and equipment generously. Wayne Reichman, a vascular surgeon from Baltimore, said he began offering his services to various organizations in 2012 with the idea of opening a vascular and heart surgery center in Haiti. “Most organizations thought I was nuts,” he said. “Then I called CCH, left a message, they called me back in five minutes. They said go for it.”
Reichman is in Haiti this week, performing surgeries from early morning to late evening, as well as setting up a third operating room. He said last week his team of 14 doctors, nurses, technicians and a pharmacist each would transport 11 checked bags full of medicines and other supplies, while other equipment including three dialysis machines and a VenaCure laser system to treat varicose veins and thrombosis were being shipped separately. The CCH clinic, called the Jim Wilmot Surgery Center, is named after a longtime CCH member and architect from Potomac, Md., who helped design the center before his death in 2012. The coalition also operates the Isaiah 61 House for its visitors year round, and its 36-guest capacity is “usually mostly full,” Hays said.
Reichman said he had “cut back on my practice so I could devote more time to this. Over the past year, I’ve been able to approach different community hospitals. We now have enough capabilities to run an interventional suite,” which can perform angioplasties, relieve aneurysms and solve a variety of serious vascular problems. The Haitian Ministry of Health estimates a minimum of 12,000 lives are lost each year from untreated end stage renal failure alone, CCH officials said.
The coalition recruits teams of doctors and surgeons to travel to Jacmel each month, both to operate and to train local doctors. “We’re one of the very few non-profits operating in Haiti that hasn’t run out of funding,” Reichman said. “That’s why our missing is sustainable training. Our goal is to attract local surgeons and teach them to do what I did.” He said four Haitian doctors would be spending the week with him.
CCH operates on the south side of Haiti, far from the more frequently seen northern side where the capital, Port au Prince, is located. The coalition had originally been located in Pignon, and has built a school there, but when the earthquake hit in 2010, Pignon wasn’t hit nearly as hard as Jacmel, Haiti’s fourth largest city. CCH focused its medical efforts in Jacmel, and clinics from around the region refer patients to the Wilmot Center to save the clinics the expense of doing operations themselves. “We still have many earthquake issues,” Reichman said. “We still see cholera, we still see fractures from the earthquake.” Hays said medical staff from Fairfax recently saw a fatal case of tetanus, and that American “doctors and nurses get exposed to things they wouldn’t otherwise see.”
The Wilmot Center partners with the main hospital in the region, Hopital St. Michel, but its rebuilding efforts are moving slowly, Reichman said, and “that’s why it’s very important that we expand our capabilities by putting in a third operating room.” He said Inova Fairfax “has been wonderful to work with. If I need something and I can’t get it, I call Larry Walker and he gets it.” Walker, Inova’s manager of surgical services, was in Haiti with CCH when the quake struck in 2010, flying into Jacmel from Pignon to provide emergency care. Reichman said Daniel Knobel of MST & Associates of Chesterfield, Va., a medical equipment distributor, had donated about 80 percent of the operating room equipment.
Though improving medical care is one of the central missions of CCH, it is also involved in improving education and nutrition. In 2009, CCH built a school near Pignon and renovated the plumbing at another school on the north side of the island. Now, with completely donated design work from the architecture firm of Perkins and Will, CCH is building a school and community center in Mont Fleury, outside of Jacmel. The coalition hopes it will be finished this year.
In addition, Hays helped found a Haitian-American company called Bel Soley Foods, which is growing peppers, dried fruit and juices for export to the U.S. “In order to be sustainable, it has to make a profit,” Hays said, so the company is developing unique products and preparing to introduce them to a large market. Another CCH project involves donating a goat or pig to a Haitian family, with the understanding they will raise and breed the animals, and share the wealth within their community.
“The important thrust is not to do for the Haitians,” Hays said, “but to do with the Haitians. Remember our focus is education. The doctors work with the Haitian doctors and show them what we’re doing. Our agricultural people train people with goats or gardens. We train the trainers.” There are 11 faith groups around the country, in Minnesota, Arizona, Indiana and Arkansas, who are partners in the 501 (c) 3 coalition. CCH trips are either medical, or targeted toward education, agriculture or housing. If you’d like more information on how to help this inspirational Northern Virginia operation, check out their website here.