Belle Glade doctor and his Haitian wife return to island nation to help
By John Lantigua
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Posted: Monday, Jan. 18, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — This is a love story. Between two people and between that couple and a country. It begins in 1992.
After finishing college, Dan Kairys had a couple of notions in his head.
The first was that he wanted to go to Haiti and the second was an inkling that he might one day become a doctor.
So he traveled to this, the poorest nation in the hemisphere. He volunteered at a hospital, doing the dirty work an orderly would do. He then returned to his home state of New Hampshire and entered Dartmouth Medical School. In 1995, during his third year of studies, he took advantage of an agreement between Dartmouth and the University of Miami to be dispatched to Haiti with a project called Medishare. He spent two weeks there, ministering to the sick and injured and his feelings for Haiti deepened.
“I loved it,” says Dan, “but that was really true from the first time I went.”
The administrative assistant for Medishare, who arranged Dan’s travel details, was a beautiful young Haitian woman named Junia. They met only briefly, but before leaving Miami for Haiti he left her a note, written in the Creole language of Haiti, asking if he could see her when he passed through again.
“He fell in love with Haiti and then he fell in love with Junia,” says Dr. Art Fournier, one of the founders of Medishare and Dan’s mentor during that visit.
Today, Dan is a surgeon at the new Lakeside Medical Center in Belle Glade. Junia is a certified physician’s assistant, although right now she is caring for their three young children — 6, 3, and 13 months — plus a 17-year-old boy they inherited when Junia’s older sister died.
When the 7.0 earthquake hit at 4:57 p.m. Jan. 12, they looked at each other and knew what they had to do. They called Fournier, who along with Medishare co-founder Dr. Barth Green, was arranging airlifts of emergency medical personnel and supplies to devastated Port-au-Prince.
“It’s a good thing you called because I was just about to call you guys,” Fournier told them. They arranged for Dan’s mother to care for the kids, flew in Friday and put in two days working almost around the clock. The Medishare emergency triage center is located at the United Nations compound near Haiti’s main airport. It contains about 200 narrow cots. The patients are largely persons who had buildings fall on them. Most of them have fractures or multiple fractures, many that have turned septic.
A space has been set off in a corner that’s serves as a rudimentary operating room. Thin blue screens separate the operating table from the cots of patients just feet away. A surgical aid stands next to an operating table holding up an IV bag because there is no rack from which to hang it.
“All they are doing is amputations,” Dan says. Head injuries that have resulted in internal bleeding are also being seen and there is just not the technology available to deal with that — no MRIs or CAT scans, not even X-ray machines. Dan goes from cot to cot checking on his patients, cleaning wounds, dispensing medication, trying to do what he can. Medical charts consist of a single piece of paper taped to the foot of the cot with some scribbling on them: a name, an age, a description of what happened to the person — “trapped under concrete” — and medication administered: “morphine, 4 mg., IV, 18:15 hours.” There is a lot of pain here and a lot of need for morphine. A couple of kids, who like to move around despite their injuries, have their charts taped to their shirt fronts.
Junia also tends to patients, making sure they are hydrated, fed, that their wounds are clean. But sometimes there is just nothing Dan or Junia can do. In many cases, the prognoses aren’t good.
“There are a couple of patients in there I have become attached to,” Dan says, even though he has only been here two days. “And you don’t know how long they can hold on,” says Junia, finishing her husband’s thought. Sunday the couple returned to Miramar where they live. Junia said the amount of suffering she saw in Haiti was “overwhelming.” But she also witnessed much evidence of people trying to help, to assuage the pain, including Americans.
“As a Haitian-American, I want to thank my fellow Americans,” she said.
The couple lived in Virginia and Minnesota before ending up in South Florida. Dan was in private practice for a time. But he prefers the county hospital because he loves the opportunity to serve needy minority populations in Belle Glade, in particular the Haitians.
“Many Haitians in Belle Glade have my cellphone number,” he says.
Prior to the earthquake, the couple had not been back to Haiti since 1998, largely due to the political instability there. “Junia’s family kept telling us not to go because it was dangerous,” Dan says. “Now I think we’ll come back here more often.” When asked to explain his fascination with Haiti, Dan finds it difficult to express. He becomes tongue-tied.
“Haiti put a spell on him,” Junia says with a smile.
And it is clear she did, too.