Students in UB's Haiti Medical Mission save lives in Haiti

Making medicine a mission


On his first medical mission in Haiti, Vincenzo Polsinelli met a woman he will never forget. She appeared to be pregnant by her large round stomach, but after running some tests, it turned out what was filling her stomach wasn’t a baby, but fluid.

UB’s Haiti Medical Mission is working to prevent the problems that arise when people don’t have access to health care from increasing. The mission is a five-day medical clinic in Fontaine, Haiti. It’s conducted and fundraised by UB’s first-year medical students through the Friends of Fontaine organization, which is dedicated to supporting community-based development in Haiti.

“There’s no health care in Fontaine,” said Polsinelli, a second year student in UB’s School of Medicine and a Friends of Fontaine board member. “There’s no clinic at all. The closest clinic is in Pignon, a two-and-a-half hour walk or a 15 minute drive, but no one has a car and only a handful of people have motorcycles.”

The mission started with Polsinelli. He first heard of Fontaine when he was majoring in biology at Siena College in Loudonville, New York.

Polsinelli had been looking for summer volunteer work the same time as Pierre-Louis Joizil was looking for volunteers to come teach English in his hometown of Fontaine, Haiti.

Joizil was looking for volunteers at Siena after the 2010 earthquake destroyed his college and much of the city in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

It was a 7.0 magnitude earthquake and killed more than 220,000 people, injured 300,000 and displaced another 1.5 million.

Although $13.5 billion was raised to help rebuild the country and provide aide, disease spread through the nation.

During his time at Siena, Joizil worked with the local Catholic church, Christ Our Light, to build St. Gabriel Middle-High School, the first-ever secondary school in Fontaine. Before this, students who wanted to further their education past sixth grade had to walk more than four hours round-trip to a secondary school in Pignon.

After overhearing Joizil tell one of the priests at Siena about his plan to get volunteers at St. Gabriel’s, Polsinelli caught up with Joizil to express his interest.

Interest quickly turned into commitment and Polsinelli took on the job of organizing the volunteer trip for a group of Siena undergraduates.

Polsinelli took his first trip to Fontaine in the summer of 2012 and returned the following summer.

Although Polsinelli said he had great experiences on his two trips to Fontaine teaching English, the complete absence of health care was something he couldn’t ignore.

The woman with the large stomach suffered from what was most likely a heart defect. Her condition progressed past the point of the possibility for surgical repair.

It was too late to save her, so Polsinelli made it his mission to treat people as early as possible.

The closest hospital to Fontaine is in Pignon. But it is generally unaffordable for the people of Fontaine, who typically live on less than $2 a day, according to the Friends of Fontaine.

This results in many people “toughing it out” instead of going to the hospital when needed, Polsinelli said.

Following his second trip to Fontaine, Polsinelli started his first year in UB’s School of Medicine. He found himself in the right place to do something about Fontaine’s health care needs.

In the first year of medical school, every student gets assigned a preceptor – a doctor they shadow and work with every other week. Polsinelli got assigned to David Holmes, director of Global Health Education at UB.

Polsinelli told Holmes about his experiences and the possibility of a spring break medical trip to Fontaine. Holmes himself had wanted to do something similar for a long time.

The two started planning the trip and, after a large response from the students and fundraising activities, a group of first-year students in UB’s School of Medicine went on the first Haiti Medical Mission in April 2014.

Over the week, the students were able to see 900 patients, according to the Friends of Fontaine. Their help ranged from being routine checkups to life-changing discoveries.

While the students and doctors were too late to help the woman with the large stomach due to the untreated heart defect, they were able to prevent a young boy from someday being in the same position.

An 18-year-old boy was one of the patients who went to the clinic for a check-up.

“We listened to his heart, and noticed a murmur, a swooshing sound that wasn’t normal … I contacted some people in the country and I was able to get him an appointment with a cardiologist in another city in Haiti,” Polsinelli said.

They ran some tests and it turned out he had a heart defect but is now being monitored. The boy will probably need surgery in a few years and when that time comes, Polsinelli and the other medical students will be able to fix it, Polsinelli said.

Polsinelli will not be able to go on the mission this year because it is scheduled during the first-year students’ spring break. But one of the students going on the trip this year is Karina Vattana, a first year student in the School of Medicine, who said she is ready to have her “mind blown.” She is excited to make a difference, which is why she is in medical school in the first place, she said.

“Med school is hard, and it is easy to burn out and lose sight of what’s important,” Vattana said. “It is important for us to remember that what we’re putting our hearts and souls into what will one day come to fruition and that we don’t have to wait for years to actually make a difference.”

Friends of Fontaine and the UB medical students plan to keep making a bigger difference with every visit. Currently they are working to improve the health clinic in Pignon and develop a healthcare presence in Fontaine where for the majority of the year, no one is there but the locals.

Despite the early stage of UB’s presence in Fontaine, Polsinelli is impressed with how hopeful the people of Fontaine are and looks forward to future medical students and volunteers being able to justify that hope.

Sophia McKeone is a staff features writer and can be contacted at