The waiting room of a typical community health center can be overwhelming. Doctors and nurses race about in a desperate attempt to stay ahead of mounting caseloads; mothers try to quiet upset children, whispering words of comfort in varying languages.
In my 14 years as a primary care pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston’s Martha Eliot Health Center (MEHC) in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, I’ve seen more than my fair share of scenes like this. I’ve witnessed first hand how preventable, poverty-related illness can cause suffering in children, and, in turn, their parents. Poverty produces a range of problems for people all over the world, but the effects it has on kids’ health can be the most devastating—as well as the most universal. No race, culture or nationality is more susceptible than another. It’s a global problem with global consequences.
With this in mind, I’ve spent the past few years involving myself in the realm of global health. Many of our patients and their families at the MEHC aren’t native to United States, and in working with them I’ve come to understand the need for more cohesive health care in their homelands. I’ve worked hard to forge ties with health providers in other parts of the world and together we’ve developed programs that improve the quality of care in their areas.
Though my work now has a broader audience, many of the core principles I try to impart in others are based on things I first learned at MEHC. Whether at a community health center here in the States or in a struggling Dominican Republican hospital, it’s my belief that prevention, screening and early treatment are the best ways to keep kids healthy.
Nowhere have I seen these principles put into action more clearly than on a recent trip to Haiti. As a member of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Global Surgical Team, I recently traveled to Haiti as part of the massive relief effort following the devastating earthquake that rocked the island in January. Most of my time there was spent at HUEH, a critically understaffed Haitian hospital in Port-au-Prince, where many of the staff were injured or homeless after the earthquake. In just two nights, my colleagues and I treated close to 100 kids for problems like severe dehydration, typhoid fever, pneumonia and sickle cell anemia. Most cases involved poverty-related, preventable diseases whose effects were only exacerbated by the earthquake. I feel enormous respect for the Haitian clinicians who’ve been doing this for months and I learned a lot working alongside them.
It was often frustrating to not have the supplies and medications we needed, but I learned to be more patient and flexible. It was also hard to watch patients die for conditions we probably would have been able to treat successfully in the United States, but I still feel like our team made a difference. There were some kids who wouldn’t have made it if we hadn’t been there.
Even though the working conditions and symptoms I saw in Haiti were often more severe than those at MEHC, I got the sense that many of the solutions could be the same—reducing poverty and providing families with equal access to basic health care. I returned to the United States inspired by the efforts of my Haitian medical colleagues and with renewed faith in my belief that early identification of treatable problems like malnutrition, gastroenteritis and respiratory infection are the most important steps in providing quality medical care to children of poverty, both in America and the rest of the world.