Saving Lives, Saving Families in Haiti
In Haiti, women are the backbone of the family – many times as a single parent. So if a young woman dies of breast cancer, her children become orphans. And orphans, in this poorest country of the Western Hemisphere, have little chance to climb out of a life of extreme poverty.
The whys are unknown but in Haiti, aggressive breast cancer often strikes young women and it is often well advanced by the time of diagnosis.
Since 2002 Avera has been raising funds and sending staff and volunteers on mission trips to the Grand’Anse, which is the poorest, westernmost part of Haiti. Avera volunteers support and participate in the work of a clinic operated by Friends for Health in Haiti, a hospice and an orphanage in the city of Jérémie.
The next Avera mission team leaves for Haiti May 26.
Prevention and early detection of breast cancer is missional work for Jill Schultz in Sioux Falls, as Director of Breast Health at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center. Yet when she was asked by her friend and colleague, Kathy English, RN, if she would consider outreach to the women of Haiti, she wasn’t sure if she was cut out for such a task. English is a lactation consultant at Avera McKennan and director of the Avera mission teams to Haiti.
“I would have described myself as anything but adventurous,” Schultz said.
After being presented with this need, she led a session in Sioux Falls to educate volunteers heading to Haiti about breast cancer and self-exams. The next year, she took the next step by going to Haiti on an annual medical mission trip to educate women and establish a workflow that medical volunteers could follow for screening and for someone with a suspicious lump. I
n addition to education, she assisted with exams, ultrasounds and biopsies at a breast clinic.
Each year since, she has overseen expansion of the Haiti breast clinic and has continued to go on annual trips. The team assists local physicians and professionals in providing education, clinics, ultrasounds and biopsies for women in the region.
The latest developments include the addition of available breast prostheses, training of local nurses, the start of national cancer registry reporting, a new clinic with a donated ultrasound unit in Jérémie, and the Marie Louise Cancer Foundation led by Bette Gebrian, RN, PhD, who tirelessly works on site to further this cause.
With assistance from the National Consortium of Breast Center’s (NCBC) International Committee, of which Schultz is a member, three Jérémie professionals over the last three years have benefited from breast health education and fellowship training in the United States and Canada. The program has now gained attention and involvement of the Haiti Ministry of Health. The future hope is to add additional local surgical care.
“The first year, there was zero awareness of breast cancer, yet young women were dying of it.” Schultz said.
Now, women show up in droves for the breast clinic. “We see 200 women in a matter of a few days. Women walk miles and stand in a hot, sweaty lines for hours to be seen. Yet they are extremely grateful, giving hugs and saying, ‘mesi.’”
Schultz and team are spreading a message that breast cancer is survivable. “There are countless local barriers to overcome,” she said. “Some people think that ‘I must have done something to deserve this,’ while others think that the local voo doo practitioner can cure it,” she said.
In more recent years, Avera’s breast cancer clinic team is seeing some lesser-grade cancers being diagnosed, confirming that they are starting to catch it earlier among the population in the Jérémie region, so women can survive longer and care for their children.
Avera also provides pathology services and teams of volunteers provide Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer. In turn, Friends for Health in Haiti works with local and U.S. gynecologists to be sure that those patients who have abnormal results receive the care needed to treat precancerous or cancerous cases as early in the disease process as possible.
“The development of the breast program has resulted from pure grit on Jill’s part,” English said. “The situation there is still not perfect but it’s come a long way from where it was, and this has taken a lot of commitment and hard work. This work impacts the lives of mothers and strengthens families – it’s making a huge difference.”