By Margie Wuebker
MARIA STEIN -- A 12-day trip in January to help
the poor in Haiti only whetted the appetite of Martha "Marty"
Mescher to do more.
"I want to do what I can for the people," the registered nurse from Maria Stein said prior to departing last Saturday for a one-year stint with the Haitian Health Foundation. "That could be anything from working in the clinic to dispensing pills to unloading supply trucks."
Mescher learned about the foundation headed by Dr. Jeremiah J. Lowney Jr. while on the January work trip. Other area residents taking part were Brother Nick Renner of St. Charles Center in Carthagena and Ben Huelskamp of Maria Stein.
In 1985, Mother Teresa of Calcutta asked Lowney to consider serving the poorest of the poor in the town of Jeremie, a 12-hour drive south of the capital city of Port au Prince.
During the ensuing 18 years, the foundation has built a 27,000-square-foot clinic/warehouse in the community as well as small satellite clinics in the mountains. Donations also led to the construction of a medical facility geared toward women facing pregnancy-related complications and the replacement of ramshackle cardboard shacks with "happy houses," $500 homes equipped with windows, doors and porches. "I was so impressed with the work being done there," Mescher said. "I knew I would go back, but I didn't think it would be this soon."
The 61-year-old nurse recently quit her job at the Otterbein Retirement Community in St. Marys to spend the year in Haiti.
Mescher looks forward to working in the four-story building that houses the clinic, pharmacy, x-ray department, warehouse and living quarters. Photographs taken from the top floor show a beautiful oceanside paradise with lush vegetation and colorful flowers. The camera lens fails to capture the poverty located below. No crops grow in the volcanic soil and much of the tropical fruit is exported as a source of revenue.
The four-story building is equipped with running water, a luxury in a country where people go to and from common wells carrying heavy jugs on their shoulders. Generators provide a limited source of electricity to run at least one refrigerator 24 hours a day for perishable medicine. There is no elevator with 50 steps leading from the bottom to the top level.
"Women come down from the mountains seeking medical attention during pregnancy or inoculations for their babies," Mescher said. "Some face a two-, four-, six- or eight-hour walk one way. Can you imagine how their arms must ache carrying a little one that distance? And yet no one complains."
The clinic receives medicine and vitamins in bulk shipments. Mescher spent time during the January trip repackaging pills into freshly washed film canisters. Nothing is thrown away -- plugs of cotton from large bottles and even used canisters can be recycled for other patients. Diabetes and blood pressure problems top the list of common maladies.
"The clinic and pharmacy rely on daylight so work ends when the sun goes down and you can't read labels anymore," she said.
Mescher said the clinic's focus is on maternal and child health.
"In an area where the median age is 15, we face never-ending challenges. A nursing mother subsisting on a steady diet of rice and beans has little nutrition to provide her baby. Malnutrition is common and so are parasites," she said.
Milk is not available in the area, making breast-feeding of infants mandatory. Some assistance programs have provided dairy goats in hopes of establishing herds to supply milk in the years ahead.
Expectant mothers are required to deliver at government-run hospitals. They are encouraged to come down from the mountains eight months into their pregnancies. They stay near the compound and return home on foot after dismissal from the hospital.
Mescher said sanitation also continues to be a problem in the country and the people are encouraged to build latrines.
"I remember having to use an outhouse as a kid growing up on the farm. It's like taking a giant step back in time," she said.
The Haitians she encountered were amazingly clean given the lack of plumbing. Women wash clothes in the river and dry them on rocks along the bank. She is not sure how they keep the garments looking freshly pressed without steam irons.
Nine hundred families come to the complex once a month for $25 assistance checks the staff drafts. The money, which comes from sponsors in the United States and other foreign countries, must stretch to cover food as well as clothing at small stores and open air markets. Unfortunately, there are not enough sponsors to go around.
Mescher wants to master French Creole in order to communicate with clients and some Haitian staff members. Americans working there serve as interpreters and sign language works quite well in a pinch.
Mescher flew to Miami, Fla., last Saturday to meet Lowney and his daughter, Virginia, who oversees the foundation's Save the Family program. Their journey continued the following day with a flight to Port au Prince.
"We get into one of those rubber band jobbies for the 53-minute flight to Jeremie," she said. "The flight follows the coastline for a breathtaking view. The runway at the small airport in Jeremie is so filled with holes the pilot prefers to set down in a pasture field."
News accounts of political unrest and fighting in the country do not scare Mescher.
"I have no fear for my safety -- whatever happens, happens," she said. "God has given me so much and those people have so little. My mission is to go and do what I can to help."