By Marina Pérez Sastre
I am a junior doctor from Spain. I recently returned from Haiti where I spent six wonderful months as part of a sabbatical year. I decided to take this time after graduating from medical school to experience medicine outside of my familiar European world.
Ending up in Haiti was the consequence of a series of coincidences. Considering Europeans hardly ever hear about this country, I didn’t know what to expect of my time there. I was, in a way, excited to be surprised by the experience.
What first struck me was the intensity of Haiti — everything is intense: you’re suddenly surrounded by bright colors, loud voices, music, old cars and motorcycles. The smells are also intense: fried street food, perfume, sweat, pollution, dirt, and then, of course, there is the ever-present heat, humidity, and sun-rays burning your skin mercilessly. It feels as if life envelops and overwhelms you with joy, beauty, and occasionally a certain sadness that caresses you.
It is a great challenge to work in a setting where the lack of resources — both human and material — make you question each and every decision you’re faced with. It is a constant struggle against economic injustice — all the raw aspects of reality too often hidden in places like North America or Europe. Cultural differences, including the Creole language, are barriers too. But if you have the privilege to be guided across that border by Haitians, it becomes an extraordinary source of growth.
As I hoped, my time in Haiti was a profound process of learning both medical science and more about myself. It was a path into the core of medicine—to listen closely to, and to care, for our patients. It was surely a powerful way to grow as a doctor; in this setting, there is no way around the intense suffering of human existence, no back up plans, nor tests or treatments, behind which doctors can hide. Instead, you come face-to-face with disease, suffering, pain, body fluids, screaming, crying, laughter, joy… ultimately, life, and unavoidably, death.
Throughout this experience I’ve had the best teachers. The local professionals working for Hôpital Albert Schweitzer have no choice but to work in this setting; it’s their country, their people. Western doctors can learn a lot from them.
Haiti is a magical place in how it swallows and digests you, but then brings you back to life with a new perspective, and if you’re lucky, a whole new family.