NB doctors provide much-needed care in rural Haiti

March 2007

Routinely trading in the comforts of home in order to help the sick and poverty-stricken is something one Miramichi, New Brunswick, physician says she's more than happy to do.

Dr Tiffany Keenan, an emergency room physician at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in eastern NB, says she is hooked on helping the afflicted and comforting orphaned children in developing and third world countries.

March 2007

By: Carole Morris
Source: National Review of Medicine

Canadian physicians bring more than just medicine to small village

Routinely trading in the comforts of home in order to help the sick and poverty-stricken is something one Miramichi, New Brunswick, physician says she's more than happy to do.

Dr Tiffany Keenan, an emergency room physician at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in eastern NB, says she is hooked on helping the afflicted and comforting orphaned children in developing and third world countries.

In late February she led a group of 13 Miramichi doctors, nurses, paramedics and aid workers to Haiti for a two week stint. The group, known as Team Canada Hearts Together for Haiti, provides medical care for Haiti's poorest residents. The current group brings together volunteers from a rehabilitation team headed by Fredericton doc Dr Colleen O'Connell called Team Canada Healing Hands.

"I'm used to dealing with death and dying in the emergency department. It's something that happens frequently. But, when you see children that are dying because of malnutrition or poverty, it breaks your heart," Dr Keenan said before the trip. "You know it should be something that is easy to treat."

Under the stars

The Hearts Together for Haiti team brought medical supplies, water purification equipment and educational material with them to the small village of Bod me Limbe, a remote town accessible only by boat. The clinic, in a hut, had no electrical lighting so the doctors planned to use miner's lamps for light.

Dr Keenan said she and her husband planned to stay in a tent. Her husband, an engineer, would set up the water purification devices and plumbing facilities.

This trip marked Dr Keenan's fourth as an overseas aid physician. She made her first trip to Haiti in February 2006. She followed it up with another trip to Haiti in April. In June, she travelled to Point Noire, Congo, for a two-week medical clinic there.

Disaster zone

On past trips to Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Dr Keenan did a lot of work at Healing Hands for Haiti's Kay Kapab Clinic in Port-au-Prince. The Kay Kapab Clinic provides affordable care for Haitians requiring artificial limbs and those with serious ailments.

Dr Keenan said less than 10% of the population is employed and more than half of them make less than a dollar per day.

This makes paying for things Canadians largely take for granted — including medicine, food and education — next to impossible for the majority of Haitians. Many of the people live in squalor, bathing in streams used by wild animals and living in small, unsanitary shacks.

One in 10 children die before they reach five years of age, she said.

"You are overwhelmed when you are in the orphanages because there are so many kids that you need to help and you know there are babies that are dying," Dr Keenan said.

"Sometimes, there are kids that are in a bit better shape that we could help. There was one little kid that was just lying in a bed, so we got the kid up and put the kid in a wheelchair. By the end of the hour that we were there, the kid was smiling and laughing," Dr Keenan recalled.

"You go from feeling so down and low for seeing a baby die, and then you go upstairs and you know that one kid now has a better life because you've come. You have to focus on one child, one patient, at a time. If you didn't, you would feel like you weren't being of good use if you thought you could try to change everything. It's a patient at a time, a day at a time."

She said there are more than 60 orphanages in the capital city alone, each housing 15-150 children.

"You go into the orphanages and the kids just swarm you. The kids are just dying for attention," Dr Keenan recalled.

Teddies bring smiles

During her first trip in February 2006, Dr Keenan brought a hockey bag stuffed with homemade teddy bears.

Joan Somers, a founding member of the Miramichi chapter of Teddies for Tragedies, was one of the knitters. She said knowing that each teddy bear can bring joy to a child serves as inspiration to continue knitting the colourful wool bears.

"We chose to send the teddies there because we wanted to send them to a country with underprivileged children who would love to have something to hug and call their own," Ms Somers explained. "Those teddies brought smiles to many children."

Dr Keenan said the home-made teddies not only brought joy and comfort to the children, they helped break the ice when children were frightened.

Sense of duty

Dr Keenan said she saw hundreds of children in her last two visits.

"What's driving me? It's the people. It's knowing that so much poverty exists in the world. I do feel very fortunate that I am a physician, that I have been gifted with those skills. I can do my part in North America, which I feel I need to do because this is the country that I'm from... but I also feel that there are so many people who can benefit from my help," Dr Keenan said.

"Right now, we have a worldwide shortage of physicians. If I can take my skills and work in the third world for a few months a year, I think I need to. I guess I owe it to the world, to the people and the children. I feel it's my duty in a sense."

She said her husband, her coworkers and her friends are extremely supportive of her new lifestyle adjustment.

"One of my mottos is carpe diem, which is seize the day. I feel I should go if the opportunity arises, because you may not always have your health or the ability to go and do these types of projects," Dr Keenan said.


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