I’m the senior medical director for health equity and quality services at Highmark Inc., and I’m committed to reducing disparities and promoting health equity for all. My blog will focus on ways in which we, here at Highmark, are attempting to reach these goals, and stories about how we are succeeding.

Dr. Johnson and Tracy Stubblefield at the airport

At the airport with fellow mission team member and Highmark employee, Tracy Stubblefield.

Recently, I returned from my first trip to Haiti as part of the Triumph Church International Mission Team. Our team of 12, including fellow Highmark Inc. employee, Tracy Stubblefield, RN, spent months planning, fundraising, team building, purchasing supplies, and securing, sorting and packing donations, and getting immunizations against typhoid and other diseases.

Finally, in April of 2016, we embarked upon a mission that would change our lives. We partnered with a Pittsburgh-based 501c3 organization, the Functional Literacy Ministries – Haiti (FLM – Haiti.) Our home base was the FLM mission complex in Thomassin, 45 miles south of Port-Au-Prince, where we stayed at the Kay D’Esperans House of Hope Guest House, overlooking the beautiful mountains of Haiti.

Many Missions Within a Mission

Our mission was really a series of mini-missions. There was physical work, such as painting the inside and outside of the House of David Community Health Center. We also taught practical lessons, such as our sewing class and hygiene classes. One mission team member even taught soul line dancing and salsa lessons to the school children (this was very popular with the older children!).

We held daily Bible study lessons for students and teachers at the K-13 FLM-run school, which the locals called MIPADEP (the official name is “Ecole Mixte Pasteur Deveze Pamphile”). And each day began with morning prayers and informal worship and concluded with reflections on our day of mission work — along with preparations for the next day’s work.

Donated eyeglasses on table

We set up a makeshift vision clinic and distributed eyeglasses from Visionworks and individual donors.

Our mission team set up two eye clinics, where we dispensed reading glasses donated by Highmark Health sister company, Visionworks, and sunglasses that came from many individual donors. We taught dental hygiene lessons to students using toothbrushes and dental floss donated by United Concordia — another member of the Highmark Health family of care companies.

We also conducted two medical missions — two adult pulmonary clinics at the House of David Health Center and a pediatric clinic at the school.

Providing Care to Local School Children

From our pre-mission preparations, we knew the likely health conditions we would treat in Haiti. We had prepped on how to care for infections seen infrequently in the U.S., such as intestinal hookworms, roundworms and malaria. However, no amount of preparation can prepare you for your first medical mission to an impoverished country such as Haiti.

The teachers had pre-selected the school children who needed to be seen by the American medical team. Common conditions were hunger, chronic malnutrition, abdominal pain, poor vision, eye irritation, headaches, fungal infections of the scalp and skin, and the common cold. Some children I cared for had never seen a doctor before.

Haiti classroom

A classroom at the school in Haiti.

Working with the translators who helped our mission was an enriching experience. I’d only mastered the basic greetings in Haitian Creole — like “Bonjou!” (Hello!) and “Kommon ou ye?” (How are you?). But the translators did more than translate language — they also understood the culture and provided invaluable guidance on local practices and conditions. For example, they explained to us that most of the children we were seeing came from homes with very limited access to clean water and no electricity, and many children walked two to four miles each way to attend the school.

Moments of Heartbreak and Hope

My oldest patient was a 24-year-old student in the 12th grade; another patient was 14 years old in the 3rd grade. There was no stigma or shame to being an older student — education is highly valued in Haiti, where illiteracy ranges from 40 to 70 percent.

Before and after photos of building

“Before” and “after” photos of a building we worked on.

One day of personal heartbreak involved evaluating at least 10 pre-pubertal female students for what they called “vaginal infection.” Their problems were most likely not infectious, but instead caused by the poor hygiene conditions: Some of the girls bathed in the river, while others had to use chlorine-treated water and harsh soaps. Another heartbreaking case was a child I treated for severe impetigo — while realizing that his skin infections would have never gotten so advanced if earlier access to medical care had been an option for him.

As far as our medical mission, we know that we did the best we could, treating as many patients as possible, using what supplies and resources we brought with us. We also took joy in the value of restocking the local clinic’s pharmacy with the medications and supplies we brought with us, as well as knowing we gave the gifts of improved vision and a freshly painted health clinic to that community.

Haiti: High Mountains and Determined People

Haiti mountains

The mountains of Haiti.

The word “Haiti” means “land of high mountains” or “mountainous land.” Officially named the Republic of Haiti, the country has 10 million people living in a space the size of the state of Maryland.

There is little infrastructure in Haiti. Basic provisions that we take for granted in the U.S. — such as clean water, electricity, indoor plumbing, trash removal, paved and maintained highways and roads, relatively high employment, free public education, and public transportation — do not generally exist. Shells of buildings destroyed by the 2010 earthquake still stand in places.

Yet, what also struck me was how much Haiti fed the five senses: the sight of people everywhere, and of women balancing all types of things on their heads; the smells of food from women cooking outside on portable fryers or grills; and the constant horns of the “tap-taps” (mopeds, pick-up trucks, converted school buses and pretty much anything road-worthy) as they negotiate traffic in a place with few traffic lights, signs or formal rules.

Houses in Haiti damaged by earthquake

Some of the houses impacted by Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

Of course, ultimately, this mission was about the people. The Haitian people are very warm and affectionate — hugs and kisses abound. Every Haitian that I met believed that things will get better and they don’t complain or speak negatively about their country or government. The students our team helped were well-mannered and intelligent, and they participated fully in the hygiene and Bible study sessions. They asked probing and thoughtful questions.

Despite the incredible challenges they faced daily, the friendliness, warm smiles, determination and faith of the Haitian people gave me hope — although I also cried quietly every day witnessing what they endured.

Generosity Prevailed

Although I have been on one other mission trip, this was the first mission trip that I coordinated — and I can’t say “thank you” enough for every donor and helping hand.

We received incredible donations:

  • School supplies generously donated from Walmart stores across the state of Pennsylvania
  • 250 pairs of reading glasses from Visionworks
  • 400 each of toothbrushes, dental floss kits, coloring books and crayon kits from United Concordia Dental
  • Financial support from Highmark employees, the family and friends of mission team members, and the congregations of their home churches (Triumph Church, Bidwell Presbyterian Church and St. Paul Baptist Church) … which allowed us to purchase and donate thousands of dollars of medications and medical supplies
  • Money raised by a high school student group (led by the daughter of Highmark senior medical director, Dr. Philip Majewski) that chose to help our mission trip as part of a global community service project
  • Blood pressure monitors, canes, nebulizers and medication to treat asthma from MedCare
  • Charitable donations of medical supplies and medications from the Pittsburgh-based Brother’s Brother Foundation, and Virginia-based Kingsway Charities
  • 501c3 sponsorship from the Gateway Medical Society (both of the mission’s medical team physicians are Executive Board members), which was needed to receive medications and medical supplies for the medical mission
  • Invaluable pediatric protocols and general pediatric guidance from Hands Up For Haiti
  • And, of course, the entire trip would not have been possible without the countless hours of support from our assigned FLM mission liaisons.
Plaque of appreciation

The plaque the school presented to the mission team.

Mission Accomplished

Thanks to great teamwork, we achieved everything our mission team set out to do!

The only reward we needed was knowing that we had helped the people we’d come to help — but on our final mission day, the staff at the school also presented us with a beautiful plaque and cake to express their appreciation.

Will we go again? Absolutely!