Med students get invaluable education on mission to aid Haiti quake victims

By Kristen Holland Shear / Holidays 2010

What do you get when you take three faculty physicians, 12 first- and second-year medical students, 20 boxes of medications and 80 mosquito nets to a country that’s recovering from a devastating earthquake?

You get lots and lots of smiles — and a few curious glances, said Akanksha Sharma, a second-year medical student who organized the trip and spent a week volunteering her services in Haiti this summer with the Organisation Sové Lavi.

Courtney Wendel, a third-year medical student from San Antonio, interacts with Haitians awaiting medical assistance a the Centre Medical in Pont Sondre'.

“Some patients didn’t have anything physically wrong with them — they just wanted to come see the American doctors,” said Ms. Sharma.

Sové Lavi, a Texas nonprofit organization whose name means “Saving Lives” in Haitian Creole, provides medical care, clean water, education, nutritional services and clothing to those living in and around Pont Sondé, Haiti. The community is located in the Artibonite Valley, about two hours northwest of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

Volunteer and staff physicians treat patients at the Sové Lavi clinic in Pont Sondé and via mobile clinics throughout the countryside. Clinic staff members treat about 600 patients a month, but the numbers were much higher the week the UT Southwestern team volunteered.

Dr. Tess Barton, assistant professor of pediatrics and one of the faculty sponsors who traveled to Haiti, said the team saw more patients in five days than the local physicians often see in a month. UT Southwestern faculty and students saw about 180 patients on one of two days they traveled to the clinics.

“We handled a lot of acute visits as well as a lot of hypertension and chronic conditions,” Dr. Barton said. “We saw some people with psychosomatic issues and emotional trauma stemming from the earthquake — something I hadn’t really seen before.”

Ms. Sharma, a member of UT Southwestern’s Ede Jodi: Haiti Service Trip organization, said interacting with many patients reinforced her decision to become a doctor. In the Creole language, Ede Jodi means “Help Today.”

“Before I went to Haiti, medical school was very overwhelming to me. It was hard for me to see how what we learn in class is going to make me a good doctor,” she said. “Haiti was really kind of a reconfirmation of why I’m doing this and that everything I’m learning in the classroom will come back to me when needed.”

Dr. Barton said the annual trip is a great opportunity for first- and second-year medical students interested in global health to get some hands-on clinical experience.

“Students don’t begin their rotations until third year, so few first- and second-year students know what it looks like to actually practice medicine,” she said. “On this trip alone, the students saw patients with tuberculosis, malaria, meningitis and skin diseases.”

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The group’s weeklong schedule was not one for the weary.

The 15-member team spent five days working at the clinic in Pont Sondé. On two of the five days, half the team worked in the clinic while the others worked at satellite mobile clinics deep in the countryside. The team also spent a day at Saint Marc Hospital and another day trying to prevent malaria buy distributing and installing mosquito nets in homes with infants and small children.

Ms. Sharma said she hopes the UT Southwestern group eventually will be able to make two trips to Haiti a year.

“This opportunity goes both ways and is good for everyone,” she said. “Like any international opportunity, we’re going to help but we’re getting a lot more in return.”

Ede Jodi leaders are currently recruiting first- and second-year med­ical students and faculty members interested in taking part in the spring 2011 trip to Haiti. Contact the group leaders at for more information.