Inaugural Family Medicine Cares International Trip Changes Lives of Haitians, Delegation Members

March 19, 2013 04:40 pm Matt Brown

For a program that is barely six months old, Family Medicine Cares International( already is making a difference in the lives of both the people it helps and the volunteers who offer their time and expertise to a country in need.

David Smith, M.D., M.P.H., of Elkhart Lake, Wis., sees a young patient during the AAFP Foundation's inaugural Family Medicine Cares International delegation trip to Haiti.

Family Medicine Cares International -- the AAFP Foundation's newest humanitarian program -- already has its first delegation trip to Haiti in the books, sending a 21-member group of physicians and nonphysicians to communities throughout the island country during the first nine days of February.

According to Brenda Cherpitel, AAFP Foundation director of development and one of the delegates on the inaugural trip, the program, which launched officially during the 2012 Scientific Assembly last October, focuses on helping people in need around the world. Its sister initiative, Family Medicine Cares USA(, devotes its attentions to those in need right here at home.

Divided into three teams -- patient care, medical education, and training and humanitarian service -- the Haiti delegation worked to fulfill its mission by improving the health and quality of life of people in this small Caribbean nation still reeling from the devastating effects of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010.

AAFP Foundation President Mary Jo Welker, M.D., of New Albany, Ohio, head of the delegation and a member of the medical education team, said the group accomplished all of the objectives it had set out achieve.

Story Highlights

  • The AAFP Foundation's newest humanitarian program, Family Medicine Cares International, recently completed its first delegation trip to Haiti.
  • From Feb. 1-9, the 21-member group of physicians and nonphysicians brought patient care, medical education, and training and humanitarian services to communities throughout the island country.
  • AAFP Foundation President Mary Jo Welker, M.D., of New Albany, Ohio, said the group accomplished all of the objectives that it had set out achieve.

"We provided good patient care to a large number of people, we presented our medical education symposium to a large number of people, and we met with (Haitian) leaders in family medicine, as well as the deans of the colleges of medicine and the leadership of the (Ministry of Public Health and Population)," she said. "So I think we made some good contacts to help encourage family medicine within Haiti."

Former AAFP Board Director Laura Knobel, M.D., of Walpole, Mass., who had never been on a medical mission trip before, said she was excited to bring her experience as a practicing family physician to the medical education team.

"First and foremost, the team I was with was spectacular," she said. "I think that the mission of the program -- to improve the health care system in Haiti based on a foundation of family medicine -- resonated with the people we were involved with and served as the most rewarding part of the trip. To spend time with the family medicine residents and program directors, and to have them ask us not for equipment, but for faculty development resources that will help them teach their students, is one good example."

Welker said the medical education team met with the deans of Haiti's four medical schools to begin the process of helping them develop a nationwide family medicine curriculum and add a third family medicine residency program in the southern part of the country.

Knobel said she was encouraged by what she heard from everyone she met.

Family physician Julie Anderson, M.D., of St. Cloud, Minn., examines a young Haitian boy during the delegation's visit to Port-au-Prince.

"I believe the AAFP Foundation is on the right track with this ongoing program, and, having seen the enthusiasm of the Haitian family medicine residents, they are ready to start their own family medicine revolution," Knobel said. "I truly think we can help them on this journey.

"I also think it was helpful having a solo family doc in private practice on the team, as the remaining team members were all in academia," she added. "Going forward, I think having physicians in different practice models will help Haiti develop its health care system in a more appropriate fashion."

Family physician David Smith, M.D., M.P.H., of Elkhart Lake, Wis., worked on the patient care team, while his wife, Karen, was a member of the nonphysician humanitarian service team. Smith said he has every intention of regularly serving on future Family Medicine Cares International trips.

"The benefits and blessing came far more to us than from us," Smith said. "We felt that we were able to make a difference for the people we came to serve, who certainly showed us a resiliency, character and resolve that helps us be mindful of all that we have. I met the other physicians of our patient care team and, a week later, knew that I will count them as friends for the long haul."

Smith said he also found the experience to be professionally reinvigorating.

"I've done this work over 30 years, so to see a new case of diabetes or high blood pressure can be somewhat commonplace," he told AAFP News Now. "But there was an element with that small group of people … to see my first case of malaria or typhoid fever, to talk about what would happen if we encountered cholera. You know, these are tropical diseases that we just almost never see.

"So, I had some of the energy and excitement that I hadn't felt since I was in med school and residency. I'm approaching 60, so I don't get that kind of professional excitement every day."

FP Jacobo Rivero, M.D., of Zillah, Wash., examines a young woman during the delegation's trip to Haiti.

For physicians interested in joining the program, Family Medicine Cares International offers plenty of volunteer opportunities; as many as three physicians at a time are needed year-round to provide ongoing patient care in community clinics. Volunteers will serve an average of one week alongside Haitian medical personnel.

Licensed family physicians are encouraged to apply as volunteers. Residents may be admitted to the program under physician supervision if space permits. All volunteers are required to fund their own transportation and expenses.

Financial support also is needed to fund the work, including ongoing support of children in orphanages, facility improvements and medical symposia.

Smith said it is easy to see what a program like Family Medicine Cares International can do to change the status quo.

"There are so many things that could be done with a sustainable program like the one that the foundation has in mind," he said. "An example of that would be childhood immunizations. It is hard to just swoop in once and do that, but with a meaningful long-term partnership, it is really possible."

According to Welker, the nonphysician humanitarian service team focused much of its attention on the Rose Mina Orphanage in Port-au-Prince, helping to repair and improve orphanage facilities, delivering essential supplies and personal items to the children, and offering activities to the children, including parties and group reading sessions. Team members also met with the youth of Bel Air, a poor neighborhood in the capital city, where an ongoing vocational training program is trying to improve the quality of life for at-risk teens and young adults.

Apparently, the program is succeeding: According to AAFP Foundation staff members, one of the participants in the training program has expressed a desire to become a physician.

Knobel said the Haiti trip is an event that will be with her for the rest of her life.

"I decided I wanted to write down all of my impressions from the trip so I wouldn't forget all that I had experienced," she said. "Thinking it would take an hour or so, I was surprised that it took the entire day. What a great experience, and now knowing more than I did when I started, I hope to go back again."

For more information about the program, contact Cherpitel via e-mail or by phone at (800) 274-2237, Ext. 4452.