World health issues brought into perspective

Dr. David Walton describes his experience working with Partners in Health at a health clinic in poverty-stricken Haiti.  The presentation was one of the International Week events.

by Paul Mullin

In an attempt to make students more aware of health care struggles around the world, Dr. David Walton spoke in the Bart Leudeke Center Theater on Tuesday about the efforts of Partners in Health (PIH) in Haiti.

Created by Dr. Paul Farmer in 1987, PIH is a non-profit health care organization dedicated to doing whatever it takes to provide medical care and social services around the world.

As the keynote speaker for Rider’s International Week, Walton introduced the audience to the present situation in Haiti, which he said is “by all accounts the poorest country in this hemisphere.”

Walton, currently on the staff of the Division of Social Medicine and Health Inequalities at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, makes frequent trips to Haiti to try to expand the relatively fledgling health care system there, a feat made all the more difficult by the country’s financial situation.

“Where people are reduced to eating mud cakes, you can imagine the poverty there,” Walton said.

The effort to bring health care to Haiti started in 1985 with just a small community clinic. Since then, Walton was a part of a bolstered project that resulted in the Zanmi Lasante (“Partners in Health” in Haitian Creole) Sociomedical Complex, a full-service hospital that serves more than half a million people living in this Central Plateau region of the country.

According to Walton, 78 percent of the population in Haiti is forced to live on less than $1 per day, preventing a great majority of the citizens from seeking care.

“One of the major things that we had to do is make health care free,” Walton said. “So when you remove that barrier — and that was the biggest barrier — people came.”

And it would appear that the efforts are making an impact. Walton presented the case of a peasant farmer who came into the hospital in March 2003, already horrifically sick and so thin that every one of his bones was visible. All he could do every day, Walton said, was lie on his bed and listen to the sounds of his coffin being built outside, as he had already resigned himself to dying.

A photo of the same man five months later showed a complete transformation and an individual completely unrecognizable compared to his earlier portrait. He had gained weight and was now standing on his own, holding his young niece.

“People look at this and say, ‘It’s a miracle!’” Walton said. “It’s not a miracle. It’s the fruits of science and medicine in motion.”

Walton expressed his frustration with the claim that the U.S. cannot afford to worry about the rest of the world when individuals at home suffer similar circumstances.

“If we can come up with $700 billion to help Wall Street, then no one can ever tell me any longer that there’s not enough money to address domestic and international issues,” Walton said.

He also urged students to do whatever they could to assist humanitarian causes, be activists and start “getting other students engaged.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to go marching and create a lot of noise,” Walton said. “I think [situations like Haiti’s] a lot of times go unnoticed. [Students] are at the prime stage of their lives where they can really engage in these issues and not only engage their colleagues, but their parents as well.”

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