Shortly after the earthquake in 2010, I heard a report about the president of Haiti driving around Port-au-Prince. He spoke about the screams coming from the demolished School of Nursing. I was a nursing professor at Hunter College.
At our next faculty meeting I spoke about this. I asked the faculty if they were concerned about this and wanted to do something about it. My appeal resonated with my fellow nursing faculty and ten attended the meeting. One attendee, Joanna Hofmann asked me if I knew Carmelle Bellefleur, nursing professor, Haitian and member of our alumni association. I did not, but we soon became fast friends and colleagues in efforts to help. Joanna called her and told her that we were meeting and Carmelle immediately boarded a train and was with us within an hour. We resolved to go to Haiti to evaluate the nursing school in person and to understand what was possible. Ultimately four of us flew to Haiti staying in the earthquake-damaged home of Carmelle’s cousin. The family slept outside in a tent provided by UNICEF. They were too afraid of aftershocks to sleep inside.
Our investigation was based on face-to-face visits with public and private educators, government members and providers. It was as complete as the circumstances would allow. We saw the devastation caused by the quake as we moved around the city, looking for facilities and for people who cared enough to help. We found unfortunate lapses in nursing education, nursing practice and in health care delivery in general. It was so unsettling. The sights and the events in Haiti that week were an assault on our senses and sensibilities; the destroyed city, the population living in filth, sewage running along the road, so many homeless. The most dramatic for me, a dead baby in a crib, in the courtyard of a hospital we visited; there, for the entire world to see – including a terrified little boy of 4.
The team returned to Haiti frequently. We held a two-day conference in New York City for any nurse in the US and Canada who was interested in helping Haitian nursing. We brought up about 15 nursing and other health professionals from Haiti. The consensus of that meeting was that Haiti needed better nursing education if healthcare was to improve. As difficult as that sounded, we knew that the best medium/long term answer lay in educating in Haiti. After a series of meetings in Haiti and New York our group founded a nurse practitioner program in one of the private nursing schools, which had only an undergraduate program. There was no graduate nurse education in Haiti at all; ours was the first. Three of us were nurse practitioners and nursing school graduate faculty and we taught the program ourselves, based on the curricula developed at our home institutions. To effect change you need infrastructure, an organization, so we formed a nonprofit called Promoting Health in Haiti – we had not raised money, so we funded the organization ourselves. We have subsequently raised money, gained funding and expanded our faculty – the start-up grew.
We have graduated 34 nurse practitioners with Masters Degrees, and we are still going strong. These well-educated primary care providers are making a difference in healthcare outcomes and in the experience and education of their peers. Two of our graduates are now in a doctoral program at Downstate University in Brooklyn, New York. They are doing their work online They will be able to run the program eventually. By providing solid graduate nursing education in Haiti, the brain drain phenomena is avoided. These men and women are living and working in their communities in Haiti. Our next cohort of students will be graduating in the fall of 2021.