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Take pains to protect skin, or your skin will be in pain - The Sentinel June 4, 2014

Egg Harbor Township dermatologist brings medicine and expertise to destitute Haiti

When his flight landed in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, earlier this month, Joseph Hong disembarked with four suitcases filled with various medications.

Hong, an Egg Harbor Township dermatologist, also had a note from Crudem, the charity that brought him to the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean nation, explaining why. It was given to him with explicit instructions to use it as a last resort, he said.

“If you’re bringing stuff in, the local officials, they’ll just take chunks of it,” he said. “I was told, ‘Don’t tell anyone you have it and if they start searching your bags, produce the letter’.”

Hong’s bags, filled with donated antibiotics and creams, weren’t searched.

He spent more than a week at Hôpital Sacré Coeur in Milot, which was built in 1986 by the Center for the Rural Development of Milot, a charity founded by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart of Montreal Province.

“The patients I saw there were appreciative for everything they got,” Hong said. “They’re happier, more contented than most of my patients in America, even though their middle class live like our homeless.”

Today, the organization, its name shortened to Crudem, brings doctors from all specialties, including Hong who returned here Dec. 16, to the Haitian countryside.

According to its website, the hospital hosted 270 medical volunteers and 75 nonmedical volunteers in 2009. In the first nine months of 2010, following the earthquake, the hospital hosted 1,500 volunteers.

Many of the the illnesses Hong saw were related to malnutrition and poor sanitation, said Hong, 48, who runs Atlantic Dermatology and Laser Center in Linwood.

Children came in with wide, distended stomachs and reddish hair from kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency. Others showed signs of scabies or other fungal infections, caused by poor drinking water and a lack of sewer infrastructure. A man arrived complaining about his ear, which had been bitten during a fight and untreated for days, if not weeks.

“Diseases like congenital syphilis are common down there,” he said. “Medical care is a lot poorer and people aren’t getting treated as readily.”

But the problems go farther than that, Hong said. While he could treat immediate illnesses at the clinic, he said, there’s little he could do to address the systemic problems of basic infrastructure.

And in Milot, which is more than 120 miles north of the capital of Port-au-Prince, much of the minimal damage from the 2010 earthquake has been repaired, he said.

“I’m not going to fix the country,” he said. “All I can do is put a band aid on things, literally and figuratively.”

Tiffany Bond, president of the Woodlinville, Wash.-based Haiti Aid Network, said thousands of nonprofits organized in the wake of the earthquake. More than two years later, the group of donors and volunteers has thinned, leaving the same problems that existed before the disaster.

“The problem is there’s someone half a mile away working on the same project, but they don’t coordinate,” she said. “And everyone has a different religion or philosophy, so they don’t work together.”

While the leaders of the government tend to have “good intentions,” Bond said there’s a lot of corruption at the lower levels.

Making matters worse, she said, resources are sparse and the country has experienced a “brain drain” of skilled people seeking education overseas and not returning.

“Haiti needs economists, doctors and MBAs,” she said. “It needs people to come in to create an environment where they’re not always dealing with emergent needs.”

The best thing those without specific skills can do is purchase Haitian goods or plan vacations in the country, said Bond, 35, of Seattle.

That way, she said, the money will make its way into the economy instead of through disparate foreign charities.

Bill Guyol, a St. Louis doctor of internal medicine, has made 15 trips to Haiti over six years through Crudem, which he is also a board member. The foundation sends doctors from various fields to the hospital in Milot.

While the country still has immense infrastructure hurdles — the hospital runs off generators because of the lack of electricity — Guyol said the earthquake did help raise awareness about Haiti’s plight.

Since then, he said, the hospital built an additional operating room and an obstetrics clinic. Using donated equipment, he said, it has scheduled its first open heart surgery next month.

“It’s a remarkable place, better than any other in Haiti,” he said.

In spite of the lack of air conditioning and the presence of flies throughout the hospital, Hong said the conditions are good compared to the rest of the country.

The patients, who genuinely appreciate the work being done there, made it a rewarding experience, he said. Most people wore their Sunday attire to the doctors office, frequently arriving before the hospital opened at 9 a.m.

“It’s humbling,” he said. “What American would walk three hours to see their doctor and wait three more hours to see them?”