GREEN BAY — Friends of Haiti medical missions begin well before volunteers board the plane en route to impoverished regions of the Caribbean country. Starting three months prior to departure, a group of 30 to 40 supporters gather each Tuesday evening at a designated facility to sort, label and pack medication, personal hygiene items and other supplies.
The advance work is essential due to the large number of patients served, said Ellie Thomas, RN, one of the lead organizers of the pill packing efforts.
“We see between 5,000 and 6,000 people every time we go for a two-week period,” she said. “There are two missions per year, and for many people this is the only medical care they receive so we give them a six-month supply.”
Friends of Haiti began at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Green Bay in 2000 under the leadership of Fr. Larry Canavera as part of a twinning project. St. Philip was paired with St. Anne Parish of Thomazeau. The organization was incorporated in 2004.
Thomas offered examples of the large amounts needed, including 1,655 doses of children’s vitamins and 2,450 doses of adult vitamins.
“We have a pharmacist in our group who looks over everything,” she explained. “We are trying to get as many of the labels as we can in (Haitian) Creole, so the people have a better understanding.
“We also send toothbrushes, medicated shampoos, scales, lotion for scabies, restaurant cups that we can put portions into, pitchers, basins, cotton balls, tongue blades,” added Thomas. “We package take-home bags so they have a bag to carry it and store it. We have an employee over there, Jean Maurisset. He said, ‘You have to realize that they don’t have a shelf to put medicine on. They’ve just got a hut.’”
Thomas is also in charge of packing larger non-medicine items for advance shipment. The medication, nutritional supplements and hygiene items are packed in suitcases which are carried by mission trip volunteers. The next medical mission is scheduled for Oct. 6-17. A surgical mission follows Nov. 2-8. Dr. Jack Hale packs all surgical supplies.
High blood pressure, diabetes and malnutrition are common in the mountainous regions of Haiti. Chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus, which can cause great pain, is now found in the country. It is treated with Tylenol, said Thomas.
Paula Hunsader, RN, of Hospital Sisters Health System, will be making her ninth mission trip to Haiti. She finds it helpful to participate in pill packing because the way items are packed “has to be functional” for distribution.
In addition to caring for patients, Hunsader said that providing education is a part of the mission trips.
“We tell them things such as ‘Don’t throw garbage down the hills.’ They don’t have a concept for why that’s a bad thing,” she said. “They weren’t taught any different. The government doesn’t teach them. When we go down there, we try to instruct the people and explain why we do the things we do.”
The medical mission teams visit the villages of Thomazeau, Mahotiere, Grand Boulage, Morne Boulage, Montalais, Noyau and Denigon. Hunsader has seen progress each time she returns to Haiti.
“We are seeing cleaner water in the areas than before,” she said. “There is also less garbage.”
Pill packing has also advanced.
“When I first started, they were at St. Joseph Church in Oneida,” said Hunsader. “In the basement, they had boxes and suitcases of different medicines that were donated. We would get together and pack whatever we had at the time.”
Donna Zelazoski, RN, who also serves as a lead organizer for pill packing, recalls packing medication at St. Philip the Apostle Church. She started with Friends of Haiti in 2001 and will be making her 17th mission trip in October.
“We will start packing the suitcases the third week of August,” said Zelazoski. “It’s so nice to have our own place. We can set up our different areas. We get as much done as we can each night. Some nights, we finish early. We have great volunteers.”
Zelazoski’s daughter, Anne, and her husband, Francys Joseph of Milwaukee, joined the July 29 pill packing session. Anne, an RN, will also be making her 17th medical mission. She met Francys, who is from Fermathe, Haiti, on a mission trip. He serves as a driver and translator for Friends of Haiti.
“It’s nice to see the people who are so appreciative of us coming to help,” said Anne. “We are just there to do whatever we can to help them.”
Chuck and Patti VanderLoop of Pulaski assist with pill packing and will also be a part of the next medical mission. Patti teaches nursing at UW-Oshkosh. She takes students to various countries, including India, Russia, Peru and Nicaragua, for international clinicals. She looks forward to her first trip to Haiti for her own personal opportunity to serve.
“I will take from it whatever God wants me to,” she said. “I know that I can’t cure the world, but I want to give whatever I have to offer. I try to tell my students that the place of honor when you are caring for a patient is not the person who is giving the shot or the medicine, but it’s the person who holds somebody’s hand or gives them comfort. I want to spread the love.”
Chuck, an RN, will be making his second Friends of Haiti medical mission. He is studying Creole through Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton to better serve.
“It takes time, but it’s a blast,” he said. “It’s working out well. The goal is to be able to know it to teach there. It’s a dream of mine.”
Chuck, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish, Seymour, who was a student of Fr. Canavera’s at Sacred Heart Seminary in Oneida, also hopes to get involved in a forestry program in Haiti. “I have a mini greenhouse. I would like to ship the container over there,” he said. “Maybe someday, if I can go often enough, I can check on my piece of home there.”
Friends of Haiti purchases medication and supplies, so financial donations are needed. To make a donation, send checks payable to Friends of Haiti, Inc., P.O. Box 1174, Green Bay, WI 54305-1174. For online donations and more information, go to www.friendsofhaiti-gb.com.