The mission of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Haiti is to collaborate with the people of the Artibonite Valley as they strive to improve their health and quality of life.
The Origins of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Haiti
The story of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Haiti begins with a LIFE magazine article published in October 1947 about the medical missionary and philosopher Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Dr. Schweitzer’s commitment to bringing medical care to equatorial Africa had earned him the title, according to LIFE, of “the greatest man in the world.”
On the other side of the world, Larry Mellon—an heir of the Mellon banking and industrial fortune and then a successful cattle rancher in Arizona—was so transformed after reading this article that he felt moved to become a physician in a similarly challenged part of the world. From the beginning, Larry’s wife, Gwen Grant Mellon, completely supported the idea. Inspired by Dr. Schweitzer’s example, the Mellons determined to leave their lives in Arizona in order to deliver healthcare to those in need. Their work would be modeled after Dr. Schweitzer’s example and philosophy of compassion and respect for all people, but located in the Western Hemisphere and tailored to the needs of the community it would serve.
Soon after reading the article, Larry wrote a letter to Dr. Schweitzer that would begin a warm and close correspondence that would continue until Schweitzer’s death in 1965. Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his humanitarian work and philosophical writings.
At the age of 38, Larry needed to finish his undergraduate degree and complete medical school. While Larry earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from Tulane University, Gwen studied a variety of topics that would aid her in medical administration in the tropics—from laboratory research on malaria, to formal study in Tropical Medicine. Indeed, Gwen was instrumental in receiving government approval and support of the plan, became closely involved with the design and construction of the hospital, and acted as a key leader in the daily running of the hospital for decades. For the rest of her life, HAS would be affectionately known as “Madame Mellon’s hospital.”
The Greatest Need
During the Mellons’ years in New Orleans, Dr. Adrien, a Haitian physician and friend, encouraged them to visit Haiti as they scouted a location where a modern hospital could accomplish the most good. Once the Mellons visited the remote, rural Artibonite Valley—the “rice basket” of Haiti—they found what they had been searching for. Here, a hospital could serve a large community that until then had had minimal access to medical care. Work on a system of irrigation canals was almost complete, and ever more people would be moving to the Artibonite. The need and opportunity to help were clear.
Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Haiti opened its doors on June 26, 1956. Named in honor of Dr. Schweitzer, the hospital, with its modern facilities and services, became a model for effective, compassionate healthcare in the developing world. Gwen and Larry Mellon would live and work at the hospital for the rest of their lives—dedicating their time, energy, and resources to furthering the health and wellbeing of an extremely challenged region of Haiti.
From the moment HAS was dedicated as a hospital, Larry expressed his great wish that Haitian healthcare workers and the greater community would be full partners in HAS’s mission to promote the health of the people of the Artibonite Valley. Investing in the training and professional development of local hospital employees was a priority from the very start. Today, 98% of HAS employees are Haitian, including the Medical Director, Dr. Herriot Sannon, as well as other physicians and top personnel.
From the Beginning, A Focus on Community Health and Development
Through the efforts of these pioneers in public health, HAS helped to create a model of effective, patient-centered healthcare delivery that would later be adopted by health organizations around the world, including the World Health Organization. Today, HAS runs one of the most active and efficient Integrated Community Services programs in all of Haiti, screening for malnutrition in children, providing vaccines and medicines, training community health workers and birth attendants, and aiding communities with crucial wells and water projects.
A Shining Light in Haiti for Nearly 60 Years
Over the past six decades, HAS Haiti has weathered public health crises, epidemics, natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, and political instability—setbacks that have repeatedly challenged the hospital’s staff, resources, and infrastructure. In 2014, HAS still must generate its own electricity, treat and process its own water, operate and maintain vehicles that deliver medicines and supplies, and manage a busy and complex hospital—all without any nearby modern infrastructure.
All the while, HAS has never closed its doors. HAS treated thousands of patients who sought care after the devastating earthquake in 2010, including many who required emergency surgery and other lifesaving interventions. Today, it is the only full-service hospital for approximately 350,000 people.
While much has changed in the past 60 years, the philosophy of HAS—to care for those who are most in need with dignity, compassion, and respect—has never wavered. Fully embedded in its community, HAS Haiti continues to be a model for effective, efficient, and compassionate healthcare delivery in a challenged setting.