Doctor known for work in Haiti branches off in Guyana
A gaudy vendor festooned with hundreds of strands of beads around his arms, shoulders and neck drew the eye of a visitor departing Haiti by way of the Port-au-Prince airport. The beads – dyed magenta, aqua, purple, white and olive green, randomly strung – were some sort of seed, ovals about the size of a kernel of corn. And cheap. A perfect impulse purchase, worn a few times as a conversation piece and then placed in a box, forgotten.
Lifting the lid a few months later, the wearer was horrified to see white, writhing maggots that had emerged from the seeds as the weather warmed; they were devouring a leather lanyard.
Like those beads, Haiti at first seems to be a land which belies the seething within. Seen from afar – say, from an arriving or departing plane – the island nation has its verdant palms and swaths of rice paddies, shining turquoise water and dusty brown hills. But corruption there is rampant, explaining why the pain of poverty has afflicted so many people for so many years.
Who could blame those who have gone to Haiti to try to alleviate suffering if they simply threw up their hands and gave up? Or if plans for a return trip were discarded as easily as an infested string of beads?
Learning that an area doctor who has been closely identified with Pastor Vaugelas Pierre’s nondenominational New Testament Mission in LaCroix, Haiti, is training doctors in the South American nation of Guyana might make one wonder if he had moved on.
Lest anyone think that he’s refocusing his efforts, Dr. Daniel Lattanzi, 61, of Upper St. Clair, is actually solidifying his ties with Haiti, introducing Ali and Jamie McMutrie, co-founders of Haitian Families First, the organization they now operate, to those in the area who might be able to help their mission.
“People know us as the orphanage girls,” Ali McMutrie said recently at a gathering Lattanzi hosted in Green Tree. “Our mission has shifted. No orphanage anymore.”
The McMutrie sisters were in the spotlight due to an airlift that carried a planeload of children from their Port-au-Prince orphanage to Pittsburgh in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Lattanzi met the sisters over the summer when he was delivering Jamie McMutrie’s son.
Surrendering a child to an orphanage in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, is often done because a family is unable to care for the child, not because his or her parents are deceased. “We have one actual orphan,” Ali McMutrie said.
The McMutries’ objective is to help Haitians keep their children in their families’ homes, not in an orphanage, and Lattanzi asked them about their organization’s greatest needs. Infant formula was the first item that they identified. In the not-too-distant past, they had ties with a retailer that would provide them with powdered formula after it was taken from store shelves but before its expiration date. That source is no longer available.
People in the area held formula drives, but the collections posed yet another problem: how to get the formula from Pittsburgh to Haiti, where each can costs about $5 more than one in the United States.
“I would say my second-greatest need is shipping,” Ali McMutrie said.
Marisol Wandiga Valentin, program officer for the Caribbean Region at the Pittsburgh-based organization Global Links, is an expert in this field, and Lattanzi introduced her to the McMutries. Because poverty is rampant in Haiti, many people in the area are inspired to hold drives among communities that donate generously. Collections are the easy part; delivering goods to Haiti can be a challenge.
In an email, Valentin expanded on the discussion in Green Tree. “Many people are surprised to learn that shipping items via ocean freight is not cheap. For example, the average cost of shipping a sea container from Pittsburgh to Port-au-Prince is around $5,000. But that is not the only cost involved. … There is the manpower to properly pack, classify and document what is shipped. Once the container arrives in-country, there are additional costs, tariffs, port-handling fees and even taxes that need to be paid. So you first have to compare the value of what you are shipping against the costs of shipping it there.”
Selecting the right consignee and proper documentation are other concerns, she said.
During the past month, “We’ve been collecting supplies for them, and Global Links is putting together a shipping program for us,” Lattanzi said. “Teams headed to LaCroix will be hand-carrying formula and other supplies to Haitian Families First.”
Lattanzi, who, over the years, has guided literally tons of medical supplies to the rural clinic at LaCroix, about 85 miles north of Port-au-Prince, and a second New Testament mission clinic in the mountain village of Paul, could probably write a book about trying to get medical supplies into Haiti.
“There is a lot of give-and-take, which is all part of doing business in so many developing countries,” Lattanzi said. “We’re kind of expected to pay part of the income of the shipping employees in Haiti because they’re not paid enough. They depend on it.”
Ali McMutrie said the earthquake has had a profound effect on Haiti in at least one way that no one could have predicted. “Haiti has become more popular now,” Ali McMutrie said. “At one time, people would say, ‘Haiti? Where’s that?’”
When it comes to mission trips to Haiti, Lattanzi is always in recruiting mode. Someone who was interested in hearing about volunteer work in the island nation was Laura Congelio, 20, of Venetia, who will be a junior when she returns to Washington University in St. Louis, Lattanzi’s alma mater, where she is studying global health.
“I hope to go with him in April,” she said. If she makes the trip, it will undoubtedly be an eye-opener. Lattanzi described his first trip to Haiti in 1996 with the words, “I couldn’t believe it.” People there practice subsistence agriculture, and many children die because of malnutrition.
At clinics in LaCroix and Paul, physicians see about 2,000 patients per month. Dr. Abel Benjamin, a native of LaCroix who went to medical school in Haiti with the help of donations from many, is now a full-time primary care physician at the LaCroix clinic and birthing center along with Dr. Jean-Claude Georges. Visiting doctors help with the patient load.
Lattanzi’s medical missions don’t stop at Haiti. There’s also a footnote about what this guy’s been up to in Guyana. He is co-director of the Ob-Gyn Global Health Program at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. He’s also a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, teaching global studies and international health, and he’s been training midwives and doctors in the South American nation that, until it achieved independence in 1966, was known as British Guyana.
If Americans have any awareness at all about Guyana, it may be as the location of Jonestown, the place where the phrase, “He drank the Kool-Aid” originated after the 1978 People’s Temple cult mass suicide of Californian Jim Jones’ 900-some followers. (The website about.com notes that the cyanide and Valium purple punch was made with grape Flavor-Aid, not Kool-Aid.)
The population of Guyana, according to the United Nations, is about 754,000, and infant mortality is 34 per 1,000 live births, one of the highest newborn mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere. Statisticians consider this to be an important indicator of the health of a nation. Neonatal and post-neonatal mortality in the United States was 6.15 per 1,000 live births in 2010. In Haiti that year, the rate was 68.
“It’s a very poor country that’s mostly jungle,” Lattanzi said.
In 2010, its gross domestic product, per capita, was $2,996. Many Guyanans mine gold and bauxite, the ore that produces aluminum, and grow sugar cane and bananas. The population of Guyana is a diverse one, including indigenous American Indians descended from the Incas, Europeans, the descendants of African slaves, Chinese and Asians. About 12 percent of the citizenry are people of mixed races.
Unlike the rest of South America, Guyana is an English-speaking nation.
Lattanzi described his work there as “kind of building the next generations of physicians. No one trained as obstetrician-gynecologists. There was no training program for them.”
Although there is a medical school in Guyana, many medical students who would leave the country for training as obstetricians and/or gynecologists would never return.
Lattanzi, along with physicians from other parts of the United States, has been teaching surgical techniques at Georgetown University in the capital, where his stints last two weeks, about the same length of time he spends in his visits to Haiti.
Some of the doctors with whom Lattanzi has worked in Guyana are young, but others are as old as 50. In Guyana as a visiting professor, Lattanzi makes rounds with the residents and works beside them in operating rooms.
“It’s really kind of an exciting place,” he said of Guyana. “My goal is to try to recruit physicians to be part of our faculty there.”