By Sister Marie Vittetoe, CHM
In December 1999, Dr. Ted Dubuque, president of CRUDEM, the sponsor of Hopital Sacre Coeur (HSC), called and asked, “Could you help improve our hospital laboratory in Haiti because their lab results are incompatible with life!”
He located me through Project Hope, where I had worked with the Université d’Haiti in Port au Prince in the 1980s.
After five years of retirement, I was asking, “Is this God calling?” I answered the call and found out why the results were so poor: no functional refrigerator or distilled water source, cupboards or boxes and the instruments had cockroaches, among other problems. With no functional microscopes, a chemical analyzer out of order, contaminated reagents, no gloves or wastebasket liners, no needle disposal, it was like starting from scratch!
More space, equipment and better-trained technicians were essential. With grant money in hand, an architect and I planned the new laboratory, but had no way of getting equipment into it. Providentially, by 2002, most everything in the lab was donated. A New Jersey company donated old lab cabinets, which we refurbished. When Marycrest International University in Davenport closed (where our Humility of Mary Sisters taught), they offered laboratory and office equipment. The University of Iowa Surplus Store had a stainless steel laboratory refrigerator, a household side-by-side refrigerator, desks, chairs, etc.
I rented a truck and enlisted my brothers, Bill and Leo Vittetoe, and men from John Lewis Shelter in Davenport to load the items. In June 2002, the late Sister Becky Dobbels, CHM, and I drove from Davenport to Fort Lauderdale where all was loaded onto a container and shipped to Haiti. Even now it is a miracle that after all that jostling on highways, seas and the rough road to Milot, those second-hand refrigerators made it to the lab and are still working!
That first day I told the nine eager-to-learn technicians that my goal was to teach them all I knew so they could become the best techs, and in turn they could teach others theory and correct techniques. They are still employed, plus six more technicians, who received continuing education and training during my several-months stay each year.
Another obvious need was for more automated equipment to perform the many tests requested by the local and volunteer medical teams. In response, an instrument vendor came to Haiti several times to install such donated equipment as chemistry and hematology analyzers. Consequently the test volume more than quadrupled from around 20,000 tests on patients in 2000 to 78,572 in 2008.
A program for HIV treatment and prevention has also added to the workload and proved the value of an excellent laboratory in diagnosis and treatment of patients. The Haïtien Red Cross Blood Bank established in 2007 prepared 500 units of blood for transfusion in the first year, also demonstrating the great need. The number of poor people who have been helped via this laboratory is enormous. This hospital is now known throughout the island for its diagnostic and treatment facilities, and people come from all over to be seen by local and volunteer specialty physicians.
The staff is enthusiastic and eager to learn, but the best part of working with these Haitians is that they are God fearing and faith filled. Even though of different denominations, they always open their class meetings with hymns and prayers. What wonderful voices praising God! And Providence was so very evident at every step of the way in the new lab’s development by putting all the “right people, equipment and other resources in the right place every time.” This hospital lab has been designated “the best little lab in Haiti” by many doctors and others who use it — a heartening story of how people can gain pride and be taught to become the best despite many obstacles.
Hopital Sacre Coeur is funded by donations to CRUDEM, an organization founded in 1968 by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. It began as a small clinic and expanded to provide a 60-bed medical/surgical hospital, and now obstetric and pediatric services. Overflow is often in halls and porches — and when pediatrics overflows, multiple patients are seen in one bed, and two to three preemies in each incubator! In the clinics, up to 600 outpatients are seen each day by local physicians and visiting specialists. Patients come from miles around by bus or by foot over the mountains where there are no roads.
(Sister Marie Vittetoe, a member of the Congregation of Humility of Mary in Davenport, has been involved in clinical laboratory sciences at different levels for years. She has also worked in several other countries, most recently as HSC laboratory consultant from 2000-2008 and still has a vested interest in the well being of HSC and its laboratory. To learn more about CRUDEM, visit its Web site at www.crudem.org.)