History, science, reality inform OT students’ mission to Haiti

The Healing Hands for Haiti facility after it was rebuilt following the 2010 Haiti earthquake
The Healing Hands for Haiti facility after it was rebuilt following the 2010 Haiti earthquake

"The problem was that these individuals were merely the vanguard of distant, massive organizations whose managers seemed less interested in nuances or painful lessons on the ground. And their – our –ability to report back those nuances was inhibited by the fact that we were viewing life through a bubble, separated by language, class, and divisions that stretched back farther than Haitian history."

- From "The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster," by Jonathan M. Katz.

An Associated Press reporter in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake, Katz was writing about journalists, aid workers and diplomats who flooded the country, ostensibly to help, but who in reality became part of the problem. The earthquake killed between 85,000 and 315,000 people.

When Cindy Clough takes students from the UWM College of Health Sciences (CHS) to Haiti in spring semester 2015, she may have them read the Katz book in preparation. It will be Clough's third trip to Haiti, but her first with students, done in cooperation with the Center for International Education at UWM.

Clough hopes her work in Haiti will accomplish at least two things: educate UWM students about the country's complex socio/political/health situation and eventually nurture a relationship between CHS and Healing Hands for Haiti.

Students asked, Clough listened – and researched
A clinical assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Science and Technology, Clough's interest in Haiti was piqued by a student's question during a seminar following the earthquake: "Professor Clough, can you take us to Haiti?" Later, a visiting physician spoke about emergency aid response following the earthquake.

He mentioned Healing Hands for Haiti (HHH) and Clough followed its website, eventually arranging to work at the organization's clinic in Port au Prince for two weeks in January 2014; she plans to return for three weeks in August.

She served as a volunteer occupational therapist at the HHH clinic, which had recently been rebuilt. Her patients were adults who had experienced stroke and spinal cord injuries, children with cerebral palsy, brachial plexus palsy and an infant with torticollis.

"The first week I did a lot of observing, asking questions.We collaborated and shared ideas and strategies," Clough said.

Needs, expertise could fuel UWM-HHH partnership
Haiti's public health problems – including lack of cleanwater and sanitation, overcrowding and infrastructure damage – can lead to stress that contributes to a high number of strokes.

"We did a lot of physical rehabilitation, helping people with mobility, standing or learning how to use an arm to perform tasks. When I go back in August, they want me to talk to doctors and help educate them on what rehabilitation services can offer [stroke patients]," Clough said.

Clough also envisions a potential partnership between HHH and UWM.

"We have all the rehabilitation services on campus, and that gives us the opportunity to help train therapists in Haiti. We also have a great deal of expertise in assistive technology and universal design, and with so much loss of infrastructure in Haiti, that could be very helpful," she said. Working with the clinic in Haiti online is also a possibility.

When Clough takes her class to work at the clinic in 2015, they will stay in the HHH guesthouse with volunteers and others working in Haiti. A common dining area and lounge will provide what Clough calls "a real educational opportunity," as the students will meet people from around the world.

In addition, students will do readings in Haitian history, culture and voodoo – a subject much misunderstood in the United States. That's where the Katz book and others will come in.

"Haiti has had a difficult history for years, and the United States played a significant role in that. I want our students to understand that,"Clough said.

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