Underneath the idyllic palm trees of the coastal village of Platon, a man pulled out an empty, worn Ziploc bag from his pocket. He walked three hours from the mountains to get here, to this isolated village along Haiti’s northwest coast, so that the bag could be refilled by a figure completely unknown to Platon just a few months ago – a psychiatrist.
I traveled out to Platon this week with psychiatrist Dr. Nick Rose and the doctors and nurses who make up International Medical Corps’ boat clinic. The boat clinic team travels five days a week over smooth or choppy waters, rain or shine to bring medical and psychological care to hundreds of people living in three coastal villages.
In many ways, the small fishing village of Platon is a postcard of perfection with gently swaying palm trees, white sand beaches, and turquoise waters. But despite its untainted natural beauty, the residents of Platon are characteristic of Haiti’s rural poor. Most of Platon’s residents live in small shacks made of woven palm trees. Most are illiterate. There is no school, no running water or electricity.
Even by motorboat, these towns are more than one hour away from the closest town, Petit Goave. For the residents of Platon and the neighboring communities, this means that medical care was roughly an eight-hour walk away through the mountains or a four-hour canoe ride.
Until International Medical Corps came.
For the man presenting the empty Ziploc bag, International Medical Corps’ arrival to Platon ended a 10-year mystery. The man’s son, Pierre struggled with seizures for the last decade. They came violently and without warning. They kept him from school. They left the family feeling cursed – even the faraway hospitals could not make them stop.
Now, at 20 years old, Pierre finally found relief.
“When we came here, we finally got a solution,” Pierre’s father said, sitting across from Dr. Rose in the makeshift mental health clinic set up beneath the palm trees.
Dr. Rose refilled the Ziploc bag and returned it to Pierre’s father. A nurse made notes of the exchange in the patient logbook. And Pierre’s father went back up the hill to bring the life-changing medicine to his son.
“Pierre could not go to school because of his seizures,” his father said. “Now he feels confident and wants to go back to school, but we do not have enough money to send him.”
A victory in one sense and a tragedy in the other, a tragedy that is unfortunately endemically common among Haiti’s rural poor.
But surprising to me, Pierre is only one of dozens seeking services in the coastal village for epilepsy, one of the most common issues seen by psychiatrists in the developing world. In Platon alone, epilepsy accounts for roughly 20-percent of the cases seen by International Medical Corps psychiatrists since June 1.
In fact, the very next patient, a mother cradling her child, came for the exact same reason. Like the man before her, the woman was there because her son, Soulouque, 3, has struggled with seizures for most of his life.
It’s been a heartbreaking battle.
Soulouque had his first seizure coincidentally while he was at a hospital for a high fever. When he and his parents arrived at the hospital after making the long, arduous trek from their village, Soulouque fell into a fit of seizures. As the doctors were unable to help Soulouque, his father decided that the fits were the result of a ‘bad spirit that only a traditional healer (or voodoo priest) had the power to drive away.’
For months, Soulouque went without seeing a doctor, only a traditional healer. When the fits did not stop, his father concluded that his son was cursed, took the eldest and healthy son, and abandoned Soulouque and his mother. This whole heart-wrenching tale ends with a two-day-long fit that left Soulouque unresponsive.
It is at this juncture that I met Soulouque and his mother.
With her husband gone, Soulouque’s mother courageously decided to change the course of her son’s treatment. She took Soulouque to the International Medical Corps mobile clinic at Platon, where others had gone for their mysterious fits, and sat down hopefully in front of Dr. Beauge. Dr. Beauge is learning to identify and handle mental health issues with the help of Dr. Rose.
Soulouque sat on his mother’s lap, dazed. We called his name. We snapped our fingers. Not a glance. The two days of seizures very likely impaired Soulouque’s developing brain. While the extent of the damage was hard to assess, we did have the correct medicines to make sure such a prolonged fit would not happen again.
Guided by Dr. Rose, Dr. Beauge administered medicines to control the seizures, along with those to take in case another very violent or prolonged seizure were to occur. With medicines-in-hand, Soulouque’s mother left, her face filled with hope for a new beginning.
When I left Platon back over the topaz-blue waters to Petit Goave, I felt incredibly inspired by what this boat has already made possible, not just for epilepsy, but for dozens of health issues, both mental and physical. I’m proud to see that our doctors and the community health workers trained by International Medical Corps are providing services in emergency care, maternal and child health care, immunizations, health education and communicable disease surveillance. And while we cannot undo damage already done, like with Soulouque, lives are being touched, saved, and changed – all because we’ve reached them.
As one woman in Platon, Gabriel, put it, “What International Medical Corps is doing is something wonderful. We had so many problems before the earthquake. We had nothing in terms of healthcare. And then you came.”