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Secrets Revealed

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti PART II Secrets Revealed

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti This page intentionally left blank.

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti Titid October 15, 1994 I HAD FINISHED SATURDAY ROUNDS and was looking forward to going sailing. While changing clothes in my bedroom, I turned on the television to catch the weather forecast. To my surprise, a special event was being broadcast. President Aristide was returning to Haiti. The television station was flipping back and forth between Little Haiti, in Miami, and Port-au-Prince. I sat down on my bed, arrested in the process of changing clothes by the spectacle unfolding before me. The plane carrying President Aristide back to Haiti had just landed in Port-au-Prince. He stepped off the airplane, waving to dignitaries and American troops. When the camera flashed to the presidential palace, tens of thousands of Haitians were outside, awaiting the president’s return. Then the camera switched to Miami. Haitian-Americans were dancing in the street. Joy was everywhere. Back in Haiti, President Aristide entered one of five helicopters that would simultaneously depart for the palace. For security reasons, no one was told which helicopter would land first. I watched as the five helicopters left within a minute of each other for the short trip between the airport and the palace. The crowd outside the palace roared when the helicopters appeared. President Aristide left his

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti helicopter and entered the palace. Several minutes passed, and the cameras focused on the crowds pressing outside the palace fence. The military estimated the crowd at 200,000 people. The masses of people in the center of the crowd pressed the people on the fringe against the iron bars of the palace fence. They didn’t seem to care. They were singing and waving palm fronds. When President Aristide finally stepped in front of the bulletproof glass podium, the crowd exploded with noise and song. The camera flashed back to Miami. The Haitian-Americans continued to dance in the street, chanting “Titid! Titid!” The president’s words were soft and difficult to understand, as he first spoke in French, and then in English. He could say anything and it wouldn’t matter. Democracy had returned to Haiti. I was transfixed by the event. A few hours passed, and I was still sitting on the bed, watching the television. I didn’t go sailing that day. The Haitian embargo was over, and I had witnessed it on the television screen. I had become somewhat acquainted with Haitian politics over the 14 years I had been caring for Haitian-American patients. That had been a particularly turbulent period in Haiti’s history. The decadence of “Baby Doc” Duvalier and his exploitation of the Haitian people ended in 1986 when he fled the country under threat of a popular uprising. He was succeeded by a series of equally undemocratic and repressive military men until 1990 when, to everyone’s surprise, a parish priest from Cité Soleil, the poorest slum in Haiti, won the first fair election in Haiti’s modern history. “Titid,” an affectionate Creole abbreviation that means “little Aristide,” campaigned on the premise that the poor were the overwhelming majority and that it was about time they ran the country. “Peace in the heart, peace in the belly” was his motto. He survived three assassination attempts during the time of the generals. Nine months after his election, the army staged a coup and sent him packing to Venezuela. American Democrats, particularly key members of the Black Caucus, loved Aristide. Republicans believed his liberation theology

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti was uncomfortably close to communism. Fortunately for Titid, Bill Clinton was president. In response to the coup, a two-year economic embargo was orchestrated by the United Nations. When that failed to dislodge the junta, an armed intervention led by the United States finally restored Aristide to power. No wonder his return created such a spectacle. For two years the Haitian peasants had endured shortages, price gouging, falling tourism, and the black market, all to get their Titid back—their leader, perhaps even their savior. And now, thanks to some U.S. Army helicopters, there he was, back in their midst. At the time, my younger daughter, Suzanne, was in the ninth grade at a private school in Miami. I shared carpool responsibilities with my neighbor, Barth, the newly appointed chair of neurosurgery. The following Monday I was passing time with Suzanne in the driveway, waiting for Barth and his two sons. When Barth arrived, he rolled down his window. “Do you have any interest in Haiti?” he asked. “Yes!” I responded immediately. “Come to a meeting in my office on Wednesday morning. We are going to get into Haiti in a big way.” “Do you mind if I bring some of our Haitian-American faculty?” “No, bring whoever you want. I’ve got some doctors from Haiti who are coming up who want to work with us.” “I’ll be there,” I answered, as I threw Suzanne’s book bag into the trunk. As they drove off, it struck me as odd that Barth would have any interest in Haiti. He had recently started the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Surely that must be a full-time job in itself, I thought, not to mention the challenges involved in running one of the medical school’s most prestigious departments. I later learned that Barth’s good friend from college worked as a missionary in Haiti. His friend’s brother was rumored to be the fourth-wealthiest person in Texas. Barth had asked the family for a sizable donation to his paralysis

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti project. The family complied but with a condition: Barth had to get involved in health care in Haiti. I arrived at Barth’s office 10 minutes early the following Wednesday. Three men had arrived before me. One was American. The other two were speaking French. All three were subdued, with somber expressions on their faces, as if they were in church. “You must all be here for the same meeting that I am,” I said in French. Danny T. introduced himself in English as the director of a nondenominational Christian missionary group that works in Haiti. Barth’s friend from college was his boss. Marlon and Jerry were twins, distinguishable only by the fact that one had a Shakespearean beard, and the other a goatee. I spoke to them in French, learned from a combination of college classes and a vague recollection of lullabies from my French Canadian grandmother. Upon hearing my French, their expressions changed to broad, relaxed smiles. “These fine young Haitian doctors want to invite you to come to their country to see what the conditions are there, so that your school can help them,” Danny T. explained. It seemed as if he had known them for years. I later learned he had met them for the first time just before I arrived. Barth was over an hour late, but it mattered little. We were soon joined by Henri, one of our Haitian-American faculty members, and Junia, a Haitian-American student who had worked for me while applying to medical school. Junia was from the same part of Haiti as Marlon and Jerry. With the arrival of these two, the conversation became even more animated and changed into Creole. Marlon and Jerry speak English but were thrilled to have the opportunity to tell their story without the struggle of having to translate it and were delighted to find other Haitians at the meeting. There were times they were speaking so quickly and simultaneously that I couldn’t follow what they were saying. Other times, by focusing on the French words I recognized, I could get their meaning. Marlon had trained in obstetrics and gynecology and Jerry in internal medicine. Both,

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti however, spent most of their time performing surgery, since there was a critical shortage of surgeons. The embargo and politics under military rule had left their hospital in ruins. They wanted our help in rebuilding it and an opportunity to come to Miami to learn better operating techniques. When Barth arrived, the discussion switched back to English. Prior to the embargo, Barth had come up with a plan to provide medical assistance to Haiti with his college friend, but the plan had been put on hold during the embargo. “The need is even greater now,” the twins told us. Agreement was quickly reached. There was much that our school could do, but the first step would be to put together a team to visit Haiti and assess exactly what the problems were and what we could do about them. The trip would be in December, just two months away. That’s how “Project Medishare” was born. At this time, doing international humanitarian work was not a traditional role for an American medical school, even one with as strong a tradition of community service as ours. And candidly, our school, as is true of so many medical schools, was struggling to meet the demands for service in Miami. It was hardly in a position to take on the daunting challenges of Haiti. We would need an independent charity to raise funds and support volunteers until we had enough of a track record to compete for grants and major donations. Barth and his college friend chipped in the start-up costs and asked me to put together a team to go down to Haiti and figure out how we could help. As the meeting officially ended, the twins, Henri, and Junia informally lingered with much laughter, smiles, hugs, and cheek kisses. It seemed like a family reunion, even though they had just met. The twins’ goodbye to me was, “Dr. Fournier, we’ll see you again in Haiti!” At dinner that evening I announced to my wife and daughter Suzanne that I was going to Haiti in December. “No, you are not!” my wife scolded. “Yes, I am,” I calmly replied.

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti This interchange was repeated at least 10 times. Suzanne looked back and forth silently between the two of us as if she were watching a tennis match. “Barth put you up to this, didn’t he? He is going to suffer. Wait until I tell Kathy [Barth’s wife]. What are you going to do there?” “Meet the doctors there, see what the conditions are like.” “Who’s going to pay for it?” “We’ll raise the money from contributions.” “Who’ll do the morning carpool?” “That can be your contribution.” “Why would you want to go there, anyway? They’ve got diseases on top of diseases. It’s not safe. They’ll put a tire around your neck and ignite it.” “That won’t happen. Don’t be silly. You can’t stop me. You might as well accept it.” “Just make sure your insurance is paid.” So first there was AIDS, and now there would be Haiti. My professional and personal lives seemed to be spiraling in ways I could not control. I blamed myself for my part in the article that stigmatized Haitians for having AIDS. Beyond that I was haunted by memories of Régis and all my other Haitian patients and shamed by the fact that I hadn’t been able to do more for them. Janet would probably never understand. After 14 years of involvement, I had to go. Somewhere down there, perhaps I’d find some answers. Perhaps I could make up for past mistakes.