Location: Bowdoin / McKeen Center / Activity / 2009 / Caring for Health in Haiti

Stories of the Common Good: Caring for Health in Haiti

Story posted January 28, 2009

'We should never be spectators to the suffering of others'

Dr. Samuel Broaddus '73, brings medical care from Portland to Haiti. He is a recipient of the 2003 Bowdoin College Common Good Award.

By Aisha Woodward '08

Photographs of Haitian children line the walls of the office of Dr. Samuel Broaddus ’73.  One in particular, of a young boy with hollow eyes and a distended stomach, hangs at eye level by the doorway.  Broaddus’ wife, Sandi, captured the boy’s image in 1994, during their first trip to Haiti.

“Sandi saw him on the side of the road,” Broaddus recalls.  “She stopped the car and asked him through an interpreter in Creole, ‘Where are your parents?’ ‘In the fields,’ he replied.  ‘Where are your clothes?’ ‘I have none,’ he said.  Then she asked, ‘Do you have any food?’ ‘No,’ he replied.”

The image of this boy is one that I have seen all too frequently in rural Haiti.  It is a difficult image to forget.”

The picture of this young Haitian boy serves as a continual reminder of the two worlds within which Broaddus operates.  On the one hand, Broaddus serves as a senior partner and president of Portland Urological Associates, overseeing a staff of more than thirty employees.  On the other, Broaddus is actively involved with Konbit-Sante, a Maine-based volunteer partnership that aims to support the development of a sustainable health care system in Cap-Haitien, Haiti.

The Beginnings

Broaddus traces his desire to become a doctor to the seventh grade.

“I have no regrets,” he says.  “I always knew this was what I was destined to do.”

A tenth-generation Mainer, Broaddus grew up in Westbrook and attended Westbrook High School.  During high school, he made a few visits to Bowdoin and was impressed by what he saw.  When it came time to apply to colleges, Broaddus applied and was accepted to a number of competitive institutions, including Columbia, Brown, Johns Hopkins, and Dartmouth. 

However, “Bowdoin was always at the top of my list,” he says.

A biology major, Broaddus also played football and ran track.  In addition, he was a disc jockey for WBOR, and he tutored students in a local elementary school.

“I worked really hard at Bowdoin,” he remembers.  “I was not a natural academician, but through hard work I managed to do pretty well.  Senior year I finished a semester early, and I spent the last semester working at a paper mill.  From that I saved enough money to pay for the first two years of medical school.”

It was during his fourth year of medical school at the University of Vermont that Broaddus’ interest in international public health was piqued.

“I was doing a rotation in Seattle when I met a woman who worked for the International Rescue Committee,” he says.  “She had just returned from working in Thailand with Cambodian refugees from Pol Pot’s regime.  Many of these refugees had been relocated to Seattle.  I met several of them and was blown away by their phenomenal life stories.  They were phenomenal.  From then on I knew I wanted to go abroad to somewhere that needed help.”

In his final year of urology residency, Broaddus wrote letters to fifteen hospitals around the world, offering his services as a urologist.

“Looking back, I was naïve in thinking this would work,” he says. 

Even so, Broaddus did receive a few responses and in 1982, upon finishing his urology residency, he and Sandi embarked on an eighteen-month trip around the world.  Supported in part by a church in southern Vermont, Broaddus traveled to Egypt, Pakistan, Saint Lucia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, performing surgeries and medical care in mission hospitals.

“It was an intense time politically to be traveling in the world,” Broaddus remembers.  “There were so many political changes occurring and to this day I have remained interested in the politics of these places.  I am acutely aware of how the politics affect healthcare policies.”

Upon returning to the states, Broaddus settled into a position at Portland Urological Associates.  His interest in international public health, however, was in no way diminished.  In 1989, he traveled to Thailand to serve as a visiting professor of urology at the University of Chiang Mai.

Because of his experience abroad, he was appointed to the American Urological Association's International Relations Committee in 1991.  This appointment provided Broaddus with the opportunity to represent the committee at the Pan African Urological Surgeons Association (PAUSA) Congresses in Zimbabwe in 1992 and in Kenya in 1995.

The Haitian Connection

In 1993, Dr. Michael Curci, a pediatric surgeon at Maine Medical Center, approached Broaddus with a proposal to go somewhere entirely new: Haiti.  Curci was a longtime volunteer at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital (HAS) in Deschapelles, Haiti, and he had been seeing many patients with urological diseases.  Their opportunities for adequate healthcare were minimal.

“Haiti is the poor country nobody thinks about,” Broaddus says.  “It’s at the bottom of the heap in terms of healthcare.”

In April of 1994, Broaddus and the rest of his family—his wife Sandi, son Nathan, and daughter Hannah—traveled to Haiti for the first time to volunteer at HAS.  The entire family continued to travel with Broaddus as he returned to HAS for several subsequent years.

“There was a lot of political and military turmoil during those years in Haiti.  There were many U.S. and U.N. soldiers around the hospital. It was a time when [Nathan and Hannah] grew up very fast and learned that Maine was a very different and privileged place from Haiti.”

Since his initial visit, Broaddus has been to Haiti eleven times.  In 2000, he was approached by a core group of Maine-based healthcare professionals who were interested in working in Haiti.  Broaddus spoke to them about his experience at HAS in central Haiti.

Realizing that HAS was a fairly well-run facility, the group decided to begin a project at the Justinien Hospital in Cap Haitien, in northern Haiti and Konbit-Sante was born. In 2002 Broaddus was asked to become a board member of the organization.

Through his ongoing work with Konbit-Sante, Broaddus has developed what the group considers a model partnership between medical specialists in the country.  Currently, in collaboration with Konbit-Sante and Maine Medical Center’s Department of Surgery, Broaddus and colleague Dr. Brad Cushing, chief of surgery at Maine Medical Center, have brought two Haitian surgical residents, Dr. Jerry Bernard and Dr. Kissinger Fils, to Portland for six-week surgical rotations at Maine Medical Center.  The two residents participated as surgical team members, attending daily rounds, observing surgical procedures, and participating in educational conferences.

During a January 2008 visit to Haiti, Broaddus and Cushing completed an assessment of the surgical capacity at the Justinien Hospital.  The assessment, a seventy-page document detailing the hospital’s surgical services, is the first time a comprehensive analysis of surgical practices has been done in northern Haiti.

Broaddus stresses the collaborative nature of the research, and notes that the report itself was written at the request of the medical director of the Justinien Hospital, Dr. Jean Coq.  With Konbit Sante’s work, says Broaddus, “The mission is not to ‘fix things.’  Ultimately, Haitians need to be the ones to help Haitians.”

Connecting his academic interests to affecting change is something that has come naturally to Broaddus.

“We have so much here in America,” he says, “Yet all it takes is someone who cares, who will use their education and position to say, ‘I’m going to be the one who will make a difference.’”

Broaddus is quick to recall that it is the patients who are at the forefront of his work.  Given his specialty, urology, many of the patients Broaddus treats are elderly men with chronic debilitating conditions.

“These older patients I have worked with are incredibly strong- mentally and physically,” he says.  “Working with older men, I've come to realize they have often spent a significant portion of their later years suffering in silence.”

“I’ve said this to others, and I really believe it’s true: we should never be spectators to the suffering of others.”

Looking to the Future

In eight years of its existence, Konbit Sante’s partnership with the hospitals in northern Haiti has already had a significant impact.  Nine forty-foot sea containers of medical supplies have been transported to Haiti.  Konbit Sante is also currently at work building a pediatric emergency room.

“I think that there is a general agreement that things are better,” says Broaddus, comparing the healthcare situation now to that of his 1994 visit.  “The collaborative nature of our work is what makes this effective.  There are no hidden agendas or foreign policy goals.”

Given the busy schedule Broaddus maintains, it is hard not to wonder how he keeps perspective while straddling such disparate worlds.

“I got over reconciling these two worlds long ago,” he says.  “I have realized that there are basic inequities in the world, and that is something I cannot change.  It’s the way it is.  But I have to put my blinders on and do what I can to help.  I know that I play a really small part, but it’s an important part.  It’s important to those people who I help.”

Broaddus also notes the ripple effect of his work.

“Part of why I do this is to be an example to others.  You never really know the effects of your work, but my hope is that through this work, other physicians and nurses will look at me and say, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”

Heading out of Broaddus’ office, on a little stand rests a pile of pamphlets of information about Konbit-Sante.  Next to the pamphlets lies a worn copy of Tracy Kidder’s award-winning book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains.”  The book traces the activity of Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist who has spent much time working in Haiti.

Broaddus looks at the book and smiles.  “You know, the title of the book comes from a Haitian proverb: ‘Beyond mountains there are mountains.’  It means that beyond this current struggle there will be other struggles waiting for you. And it is true.  But you just keep on going.”

  • Learn more about public health through "Embodying Inequality" events that are part of the "Seeking the Common Good" series sponsored by the McKeen Center for the Common Good.
  • This story was reported by Aisha Woodward '08, a reporting fellow for the McKeen Center for the Common Good in the summer of 2008. She recently returned from a service trip to Ghana.

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Haiti is the poor country nobody thinks about. It is at the bottom of the heap in terms of healthcare.

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