Eyewitness report from Haiti: Hope for nation after quake

By Michelle Costa
September 27, 2010

Children enjoy a meal donated by the What If? Foundation. Johanna Berrigan is working with these children to bring adequate health care to them in the aftermath of the devasting January 2010

Mud cookies that are eaten by Haitian children was one of the experiences shared with the ECG classes on Thursday, Sept. 23. Johanna Berrigan, co-founder of medical clinics in both the Kensington section of Philadelphia and in Haiti, explained the dire need of Haitians both before the January earthquake and even more so now.

“Children in Haiti are actually eating mud cookies. Cookies mixed of wheat and dirt is a treat? I don’t get it, I will never get it,” Berrigan said.

Berrigan, a physician’s assistant, has provided free medical care for nearly 20 years to poor people in Philadelphia through the House of Grace, founded by the Catholic Worker.

Her work with the Kensington house of hospitality has become a life filled with challenges and determination. She has chosen to live in the house since 1992 rather than living comfortably elsewhere.

“I want to live with these people in solidarity each day. What is the point of helping if I went home at the end of the day and didn’t experience each struggle?” Berrigan said.

Several years ago, Berrigan began traveling to Haiti and was confronted by its many medical needs.

On one of her many visits Berrigan had the privilege towork with Fr. Gerry Jean-Juste, a priest who worked with the poor people in his Haitian parish and formed a friendship that she still cherishes.

Gerry explained to Berrigan that his village had food supply thanks to Margaret Trost, founder of the What If? Foundation but they were in desperate need of health care.

Little did Gerry know, Berrigan was in the medical field and could soon begin to bring medical care to his region.

“All Father wanted was Tylenol and Tums. I knew we could do that and so much more,” Berrigan said.

When the president of Haiti was overthrown in 2004, Gerry was imprisoned because of his work on behalf of poor people.

“He was imprisoned on the most radical charges. All because he was helping the poor and the government did not like that. We needed to prove he had become ill and have him freed,” Berrigan said.

The conditions in the jail were inconceivable. Berrigan explained how Gerry was placed in a small cell in the basement with other Haitians, many with the most extreme mental illnesses.

Berrigan has worked with world-renowned health care advocate and co-founder of Partners in Health, Dr. Paul Farmer, during her travels to Haiti.  She received advice and guidance on starting a health care system.

Farmer spoke with Haitian officials in order to release Gerry on behalf of his recent diagnosis of leukemia.

“He is amazing. Farmer actually secretly drew blood from Father while in his cell and was able to prove he had leukemia,” Berrigan said.

Gerry’s charges were dropped and he flew to Miami to die peacefully. Berrigan knew this was not the end. She continued to work diligently in spite of his absence.

“I had to keep going and fulfill my promise of creating health opportunities for these amazing individuals,” Berrigan said.

The mission is to make sustainable conditions that can be run by the Haitians long after volunteers leave. Little by little supplies were provided, health education began and people were being treated.

“We want to get to the root causes of these issues and not serve as a band aid that only temporarily helps those in need,” Berrigan said.

Berrigan has made several trips back to Haiti since the earthquake.

“I arrived three weeks after the earthquake and it was the most shocking aftermath anyone could ever imagine,” Berrigan said.

On the day she visited Cabrini, Berrigan reported that she was able to obtain a permanent building for her clinic.

“I want a quality health clinic. I won’t be happy until I have a place to provide for the people,” Berrigan said.

Father Gumbleton (far left) and Johanna Berrigan (far right) work with the new clinical staff in Haiti on their most recent visit to Haiti in August. Berrigan recently obtained a permit to build a health clinic in the country.

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Michelle Costa

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