For one week every year, Christopher Andres, MD, takes break from his family medicine practice at the Guthrie Tunkhannock Office and travels to some of the most remote, impoverished places in the western hemisphere to deliver lifesaving care.
Since 2012, Dr. Andres has been involved with an annual medical mission trip to Haiti sponsored by the Medical Alumni Council at the University of Scranton, in partnership with St. Damien Pediatric Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and the St. Luke Foundation for Haiti, a Catholic charitable organization started by Father Rick Frechette. Along with a team of four doctors who have connections to the school, four pre-med students are given the opportunity to participate, getting a crash course in providing basic care with minimal equipment and supplies.
“We have our brains and our stethoscopes, and that’s about it,” says Dr. Andres. “Instead of relying on labs, X-rays and electrocardiograms, we’re showing students how to detect subtle differences in the sounds they hear coming from the heart and lungs so they can make a proper diagnosis. They are learning the art of the physical exam in a way that many students never have the opportunity to.”
Loading up a truck with supplies brought from the U.S. and what local medical facilities can spare, the group head into rural areas of Haiti to set up makeshift clinics, treating several hundred people per day. Some of the more common elements include hypertension, diabetes, skin conditions, and tooth problems. Knowing that in many cases, residents will not see another doctor until Dr. Andres and his team come back the following year, they provide as much medication as they can, with the hope that it will last until their next visit.
“It’s been a very humbling experience,” says Dr. Andres. “There is an enormous amount of gratitude, and the people are cheerful and selfless despite having next to nothing.”
Over the years, Dr. Andres has come to recognize many of the patients that come back year after year. And they all recognize him and his team as well. One older woman has been coming for years to get aspirin for her hypertension and arthritis. This past year, two men had to help her to the front of the line, but Dr. Andres was glad to see her again. “Every year when I go, I know there are people that may not be around anymore, but I am always hopeful, and I know that the care we provide makes a big difference,” he says.
In order to better communicate with the people he is helping, Dr. Andres has made an effort to learn Haitian Creole. “There is usually at least one person in each village who speaks English, and who will stand by our medical team to help translate, or correct me if I use the wrong word,“ he says. “The Haitians are very appreciative of this, and it teaches our students how to interact with patients, and reinforces that medicine is a human experience. Several of them have gone on to do things like go on missions to Africa for extended periods.”
The Power of Fate
One year, Dr. Andres and his team got a late start leaving for one of their trips to a remote village because their truck wasn’t ready. Father Rick was supposed to be away as well, but his trip was canceled at the last minute, and so he decided to hold a Mass. Toward the end of the Mass, an American woman who was a schoolteacher in Haiti showed up with a Haitian woman and her child, a girl who was 8 or 9. They had traveled for three hours to see Father Rick, who is also a doctor.
Neither Father Rick nor Dr. Andres and his team were supposed to be there that morning, but somehow fate had intervened. Father Rick asked Dr. Andres to examine the girl, and when he listen to her lungs, he suspected she had tuberculosis. They arranged to have her treated at St. Damien Pediatric Hospital, and she made a full recovery.
“This girl may have ended up dying if the schoolteacher hadn’t brought her to Father Rick and we hadn’t been there,” says Dr. Andres. “It was an incredible series of events that made me feel like I was supposed to be there to treat that girl, and just one more example of how these missions fit with what I was called to do.”