Hello from Haiti: My Journey on a Women’s Healthcare Team

By Graduating OTS Kate Luger

Something on the road, cut me to the soul
Your pain has changed me
Your dream inspires
Your face a memory
Your hope a fire
Your courage asks me what I’m afraid of

-Sara Groves, “I Saw What I Saw”

The author in Haiti

The author in Haiti

My experience in Haiti so far has been practice-changing! I am studying abroad/volunteering for 2 weeks with an organization called Midwives for Haiti, an organization that educates Haitians to become midwives or skilled birth attendants in Hinche, Haiti. I am the only rehabilitation professional on our team, or for that matter, to ever serve at Midwives for Haiti as far as I know. I traveled here with students and professionals from the following disciplines: OB-GYN medicine, nurse midwifery, social work, and health psychology. Now that I have presented an inservice/case study to my team, they are excited to hear about what OT can do and have been asking me for my input on cases!

I am learning an incredible amount of practical information about how poverty affects children’s development. I volunteer at a nutrition clinic in Haiti, which is not the same as a feeding clinic in the states. At this clinic, children who are malnourished live and receive nutrition until they are healthy again. Then they return home to be with their families. As soon as I walk in the door, I can see that these kids are showing social skills and emotional regulation deficits. They fight each other and pull at my clothes so that I will hold them, pushing weaker children to the side. I walk into the feeding rooms and I see children who are delayed in feeding and eating skills. Some are so malnourished that they are swelling with edema, a sign of organ dysfunction due to severe malnutrition. My heart breaks knowing how much I could do if I was here for longer and reminds me how important feeding specialists are for supporting malnourished children.

The focus of this trip is on women’s health, and every day I am learning how occupational therapy can play a role in this area. At the clinics, I am helping to take vitals, and the midwives are showing me how to feel for babies’ heads, backs, and hands. Women’s health is a huge concern in countries like Haiti because women have limited access to birth control and limited access to education on reproductive health. For this reason, women have children too early, have more children than they would like, and experience more illnesses and injuries related to reproductive health (e.g., STIs, vaginal injuries/tears, incontinence, and pelvic floor muscle weakness). While I am here, I learn how women can address these issues in ways that can cause further injury. I learned that a common practice after giving birth here is vaginal steaming, where a woman boils herbs and places the boiling pot below her vagina to cleanse the vagina and tighten it, especially after giving birth to 5-10 children. This practice can cause 3rd or 4th degree burns and infection. It breaks my heart to know that as an OT I could teach these women how to safely strengthen their pelvic muscles and vagina to prepare for sexual activity and bladder/bowel management. Women in Haiti are very interested in learning about these issues and will come for miles to learn more. If only I could stay longer to teach them!

This trip is completely changing my priorities when it comes to OT. I am seeing how life-saving women’s health OT could be, along with OT related to other common conditions here (e.g. malnutrition, stroke, burns, TBI). I am inspired and humbled by the chance to serve alongside Haitian midwives and Skilled Birth Attendants, who save the lives of thousands of women every year in Haiti. With everything that I am, I hope to share the stories of these brave women and to equip myself to come back and serve overseas as an OT one day.