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Reflections from Haiti: A life-changing experience

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By Kim Brown Pokorny, WVMA executive director

In February, I had the opportunity to travel to Haiti as part of a veterinary mission trip. Haiti is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere and it was a life-changing experience that I have reflected on every day since returning.

Instead of sharing what we did every day, I will share what I found to be the most eye opening. We were in the northern in part of the country near Cap Haitien where we worked with animals and their owners. Here are my reflections based on my experiences with the culture, people and animals we had the opportunity to provide care to.

• Haiti is in desperate need of jobs. People spend their days just standing around and burning time because jobs are so hard to come by. When it comes to countries that are less off, you might think you are helping the people by giving them "free stuff" but in reality we aren't helping that much. Aid providers need to help establish skills that jobs and businesses can be built from. This is important for their long-term sustainability. We all have our days when work doesn't go as we had hoped and we get frustrated or down. After Haiti, I am blessed I have a job and can provide for my family.

• The role of animals in Haiti is significantly different than in the U.S. For example, the horses are small and used to carry people and product up and down the mountains and to markets. Some have saddle sores and it puts tourists in the dilemma of do I pay for the service of the horse to carry me up to the Citadel or not? While it is natural instinct to say, "No, I will walk", the reality is, if the horse isn't working, then the family won't eat that day or week. For many families, the horse is their only source of income. It comes down to whether a child is going to eat or not, which makes those decisions even more difficult.

Thanks to Dr. Judy Batker, the Citadel horses receive veterinary care at least twice a year through her donation of time. She records their health status and shared with me that the horses look significantly better than they did a few years ago.

• Government is something most of us complain about, but after this trip, I am thankful for the government system we have.

Haiti's roads are horrible. Dirt roads with non-stop holes the size of vehicles. There is no garbage disposal and the people believe it is the government's job to collect it. Since the government doesn't, garbage is thrown anywhere and everywhere.

Other than the small garbage cans in the facility we slept at, I don't recall seeing any garbage containers. I don't think the people of Haiti even see the garbage anymore, it has simply become a part of the norm.

• There is always discussion on whether or not we have too many environmental laws in the U.S. I am not going to debate that issue, but the point I want to make is, some laws are good and help the future generations. Haiti is a country that has been stripped down environmentally and has significant erosion issues. The country used to be a major grower of mahogany lumber. Today, it is non-existent. It has all been consumed and nothing replaced. There is no planning for the future, survival from day-to-day is the goal of their people.

Water is limited and the safety of the water is questionable. We only drank bottled water and even used bottled water to brush our teeth. Coke is more abundant and cheaper for them to consume than water.

• Health care in Haiti is extremely limited, if people can even afford it. We witnessed a lady laying on a log bench while we were driving down the mountain one day. We stopped to see what was wrong and discovered that her large toe was rotting off. She couldn't afford medical care and had never had her foot medically looked at. Those I was with told me she will end up losing her life to Gangrene. That image will never leave my mind.

• Families need to pay for their children to attend school. Not all families can afford schooling, so they must make the decision of what child to send or not send any. I look at some of the kids that attend school with my three children, they don't care about learning or showing up. While in Haiti, the kids are asking tourists for money to use for their schooling and are always trying to find ways to get to school. There are a few government run schools. However, the government is typically very late in paying or doesn't pay the teachers. So, teacher motivation to show up is an obstacle.

• In the U.S. we are happy when we grow our export markets. It helps sustain and grow our commodity prices. However, I saw the other side of that equation in Haiti. While Haiti grows rice and chickens, it is more cost effective for the country to import U.S. rice, eggs and grade B chicken (meat) for consumption. Those imports do nothing to help build up businesses in Haiti. Short-term benefit versus long-term sustainability. Another not so easy dilemma.

• Animals are used for meat. Bovine are not milked, there is very little dairy products consumed. All animals are significantly smaller than their American counterparts. For the most part, they roam freely looking for food or have a rope around their neck or horns and are staked out daily and walked home at night. They don't receive supplemental feeds. What they can find to eat on the landscape or in a garbage pile is what they eat. Parasites are a big issue and we treated several animals with screw worms in Haiti.

These are some of the reflections I have thought about every day since returning. None of these issues are easy to solve. The people are extremely kind and appreciative of the care provided for their animals. (They are required to pay a small fee for the veterinary service, so they value the service they receive).

I want to thank Dr. Judy Batker for her passion and dedication to making a difference in the lives of the animals in Haiti. Through the regular animal care she provides, I witnessed the friendships she has made, trust she has developed and attitudinal shift she has created in the lives of the Haitiens.

I encourage everyone to take the opportunity to engage in one missionary trip in your lifetime. It will leave you appreciative and thankful for the small problems we have in our everyday lives.

 IMG 5894  IMG 5879
 Our veterinary care team for the week  A Veterinary Agent vaccinating a goat

IMG 5676
 IMG 5573
 Spaying a cat in rural Haiti  Preparing to vaccinate for Anthrax
IMG 5339 IMG 5359
Dr. Judy Batker reviewing the recording forms
for the horses with Dr. Mark Foley 

Fitting a horse with a saddle pad, donated by
individuals in the U.S.

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