Helping hands: Three Scranton Alums Head to Haiti

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Current University of Scranton students Tara Gramigna (from left), Mary Zorechak and Mary Elise Lynch helped Christopher Jones, M.D. ’02 (second from right) and Pamela Taffera, D.O. ’02 (right) pack before the two physicians headed to Haiti in January. Dr. Jones and Dr. Taffera traveled to the Caribbean country as part of The University's annual medical mission trip to Haiti.

Even before a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in January — decimating the already impoverished Caribbean island — the country and, more importantly, its people were on the minds of medical alumni from The University of Scranton.

Since 2002, members of the University’s Medical Alumni Council (MAC) have teamed with current Scranton students to travel to the Republic once a year, offering medical support, supplies and care.

Coincidentally, this year’s trip was scheduled just five days after the natural disaster.

While travel plans were initially delayed, three University medical alumni — Richard Bevilacqua, D.M.D., M.D. ’83; Pamela Taffera, D.O. ’02; and Christopher Jones, M.D. ’02 — headed to Haiti Jan. 20, the same day a 6.0-magnitude aftershock hit the country. 

“After last week’s earthquake, I couldn’t get there fast enough,” explained Dr. Taffera before her trip. “I just had this urgency to get there. No matter how dangerous, I feel like I have to be there because I have the medical training to help.”

With the country in ruins and thousands displaced, homeless and in need of medical care, Dr. Jones echoed Dr. Taffera’s sentiments.

“We have limited expectations of what we can provide, but we have another three sets of hands to help,” he reasoned.

Haiti and the University

As the world has turned its collective eye toward Haiti, the University is in a different situation, strengthening existing ties with the country and the Haitian people.

During the past eight years, the University’s annual medical mission trip to Haiti has become a treasured experience for both alumni and current students. The mission’s goals are twofold: providing much-needed medical support and educating Scranton’s future physicians.

Dr. Taffera, who made her first trip in 2009, called the excursion to Haiti “life-changing,” adding the students’ experience “will change them and make them amazing physicians in the future.”  

As he prepared for his third trip, Dr. Jones — a member of the MAC’s Executive Committee — found himself in the unique position of seeing Haiti as a Scranton student, resident physician and, now, a practicing physician.

One of the driving forces behind the annual mission trip is Dr. Bevilacqua, the third physician who headed to Haiti in January.

Dr. Bevilacqua, also a member of the MAC’s Executive Committee, has played a pivotal role in initiating the trip and continuing to promote its objectives. Following a committee meeting in October — months ahead of the earthquake — he distributed a letter urging fellow Scranton alumni to volunteer or provide supplies, in the hopes of increasing the University’s presence in Haiti.

“It has been a wonderful experience for all involved, especially for the students,” Dr. Bevilacqua wrote of the mission. “I believe it changes the way they practice medicine and certainly how they look at life.”

While students did not travel in January due to safety concerns, members of the University’s Health Professions Organization (HPO) — an association for students pursuing doctoral studies in a healthcare profession — spearheaded the gathering of donations of antibiotics and first-aid supplies for three months.

Recent Scranton graduate Christopher Molitoris ’08 — a Fulbright Scholar — got involved in the Haiti relief efforts as well, teaming with fellow Fulbright Scholar Sam Kigar and the Colorado Yurt Company to have tents specially made for the three medical doctors to take to Haiti. 

Lending a helping hand to Haiti isn’t uncommon to the Scranton alumni and students.

In 2009, a portion of the $2,000 raised from a 24-hour volleyball marathon, organized by The University of Scranton’s Physical Therapy Club, was donated to Hope for Haiti, a non-profit organization that supports education, nutrition and healthcare for Haitian people. Hope for Haiti was founded by Joanne Kuehner, H '01. 

The University’s Alumni Relations Office also helped facilitate the Haiti mission, assisting with travel plans, packing, storing supplies, seeking donations and other tasks.   

The recent earthquake narrowed the trip’s concentration and the three doctors focused more on providing medicine than materials this year.

Just hours before their scheduled flight, Dr. Taffera and Dr. Jones worked with Scranton’s Mary Engel, Ph.D., director of fellowship programs, to condense medicine and supplies for the trip, fitting the contents for four or five bottles and packages into one. 

However, not everything made the trip.

With Dr. Taffera and Dr. Jones packing, Dr. Engel showed a locker jam-packed with shoes and socks that will have to wait for the next mission.

“Because of the lack of basic sanitation in Haiti, having something between your feet and the ground is important,” Dr. Engel said. “But we need that room for medicine.”

Haiti then; Haiti now

While visiting Haiti this year, the physicians made their home base at St. Damien Hospital, a pediatric facility in country’s capital city of Port-Au-Prince. St. Damien is run by Rev. Richard Frechette, C.P., D.O., a Passionist priest and physician, and 2007 honorary degree recipient from The University of Scranton.

The doctors weren’t limited to working only with children.

In fact, Dr. Jones, a geriatrician by trade, said before the trip he planned to work far outside the walls of the children’s hospital. 

“On our last trip we essentially got in a truck with a bag full of medicines and went out to the slums, including Cité Soleil,” Dr. Jones said. Despite its cheerful-sounding name Cité Soleil is regarded as one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in Haiti’s capital. 

“It was a terrible place on a good day — and that was before the earthquake,” Dr. Jones added.

This time, the physician lowered his expectations even further. Even St. Damien, a safe haven before, is in dire straits. 

“This year’s trip will be hugely different,” Dr. Jones shrugged. “The infrastructure at the hospital is cut off. Whatever was there in terms of water is gone. Everything is powered by generators, and they run on diesel. As of two days ago, they had a two-day supply.”

Why Haiti pulls on the heartstrings 

On Dr. Taffera’s first trip to Haiti last year, it took less than a day for her to fall in love with the country.

“Within the first 12 hours of being there I realized I would be coming back many times. Many, many times,” she said.

She was taken aback by how the Haitians responded to their calamitous situations. Where Dr. Taffera expected grim faces, she encountered smiles. Where most people might expect depression, she saw joy.

“It surprised me to see how happy the people were,” she explained. “How they could wake up every day in the face of poverty, not knowing what they were going to eat or where they might sleep — the most basic things we take for granted — and yet they smiled and laughed and loved. 

“They were just happy and full of positive energy,” Dr. Taffera said.

Dr. Jones added that the opportunity to work “person-to-person,” and seeing his impact firsthand makes the mission so worthwhile. 

“Social justice: that is what this trip is all about,” he said. “It’s just abject poverty. It centers you and reminds you that your problems aren’t that big.”

While the numbers in need of help are daunting, Dr. Taffera maintains a simple vision for her service.

“When you get there and see everything you start to think, ‘I am just one person, how can I help? There is so much to do,’” she said. “But if we put our whole heart into it, we will do some good.”

The Office of University Ministries is currently collecting donations from those who wish to contribute to relief efforts for the earthquake. Scranton is working with the AJCU, Jesuit Refugee Services and Catholic Relief Services to determine how best to distribute the donations.