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Pharmacy Major and Dublin High School Alum Alicia Tran on Hands Up for Haiti

August 11, 2016

It was always my dream to travel to impoverished countries and help people through healthcare and education. My grandfather passed away due to a skin infection during a trip to Vietnam, a country without great healthcare, and I was inspired to provide healthcare to those in need. My weeklong medical mission trip through Hands Up for Haiti was easily one of the best and most life-changing weeks of my life. Hands Up for Haiti is a non-profit and medical humanitarian organization whose mission is to provide healthcare, guidance, and education to those of Northern Haiti. As an upcoming second year pharmacy student I’ve had doubts about being in pharmacy school  because I was not a big fan of giving drugs to people. I was always interested in providing disease prevention through nutrition and health education to avoid taking drugs. However, Hands Up for Haiti opened my mind to the wonders of medicine and helped instill a passion for helping children and their families through clinical pharmacy and health education.

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For our first six nights in Haiti, we stayed at the Open Door Ministry hostel and the place immediately became like a second home even though the living conditions were very different from my home in the United States. For instance, the sink water was not safe to rinse our mouths in so it was crucial to use bottled water when brushing our teeth. Showers were like military showers since water is very limited. In addition, mosquito repellent was to be worn from day to night, and we slept with mosquito nets. Before we knew it, putting on mosquito repellent became second nature. Living in these conditions opened my eyes as to how fortunate Americans are to have easy access to clean water.

From the hostel’s entrance, I loved watching the children walk to school in their adorable uniforms and having the beautiful view of the Open Door Health Clinic next door. I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in the Haitian culture as we prayed before every meal by holding hands and listening to beautiful prayers in the Haitian Language, Kreyol by Mwa Pas (the Pastor’s wife). Every day we would enjoy the delicious Haitian meals prepared by Mwa Pas and other incredible women. I will never forget one night after dinner when some of our Haitian friends made music out of their silverware and made up lyrics that included the words, “Put your Hands Up for Haiti!”. My whole medical team was up dancing to the music and the women from the kitchen even came out to show us their fun dance moves.

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My trip would not have been life-changing without my medical mission teammates. I loved getting to know them, being inspired by them and working together to make a difference in others’ lives. It was so rewarding being of help to the doctors, nurses and nursing students whether it was through helping ease the flow of patients going from the the triage nurse to the doctor and then the pharmacy, or helping the pharmacist, Thermitus. Thermitus, a Hands Up for Haiti pharmacist was an incredible pharmacy mentor. I started the trip with having no real knowledge of medications and no pharmacy experience. Now I am familiar with giving medications to patients, preparing medications specifically for children, and writing medication instructions in Kreyol. One of my favorites parts of working in the pharmacy was learning how to give Albendazole to children who aren’t old enough to chew. This was done by using a crusher and mixing the crushed medication with peanut butter or jelly. It was so fun feeding Albendazole with peanut butter or jelly to the precious kids. Also, I loved interacting with the Haitian children. I will always remember a health clinic at Blue Hills where these two kids climbed the mango trees to curiously watch me work in the pharmacy as the pharmacy was organized outside. When the pharmacy wasn’t busy, I went towards the clinic’s entrance and interacted with the kids. It was so fun playing hand games with them and counting the number of Mickeys on my scrubs in Kreyol! Also, because the waiting area was outside right across the pharmacy, I could see all the patients patiently waiting. One of my favorite moments was watching a loving father fan his son with his hat as it was very humid. It made my day letting him borrow my automatic hand held fan and seeing him use that fan to cool his son. Precious interactions that consisted of me reaching out to new people made my trip so beautiful!

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I find it incredible that my medical team was so welcomed to Haiti. I will always cherish the delicious homemade meals provided by the Open Door Ministry and friendliness of the Haitian Hands Up for Haiti Staff. At Open Door, I made friends with a sweet kid named Muanto who was adamant in helping me learn Kreyol as he wrote translations from English to Kreyol for numbers and body part words. He even welcomed me to a few basketball and soccer games! I will never forget playing soccer in the rain with the kids. I only lasted 30 minutes but I was in awe as to how the young boys played for two hours straight in the pouring rain. Some of them wore no shoes! They were so fast and I admired their passion for the game. This soccer experience definitely opened my mind as to how little some Haitians have. In the United States, some may be concerned with what athletic shoes are “in” while there are those in Haiti who are content with having no shoes at all.

All the Hands Up for Haiti translators that I met were so sweet and fun. My friend Kristen and I really bonded with Haitian translators through our passion for music. I will always treasure this one night when Kristen and I were jamming music with other volunteers, Zachary and Samson as well as translators, Sonel and Petersen. We watched a Christian Church Sermon and were amazed as to how the church members sang and danced so beautifully. After the church sermon, we all jammed to music throughout the night. I was blown away the whole week by how beautiful Haitian music is and how musically talented many Haitians that I encountered are. For instance, it seemed that Sonel, Peterson and Samson could professionally play three musical instruments (the guitar, the piano, and drums) as they were constantly switching. It was such a joy dancing along to Samson’s silly and creative lyrics that consisted of “come back, come back (to Haiti)” . It was also so enjoyable seeing Kristen, an incoming NYU music education college student share her beautiful musical talent and sing with our talented Haitians friends.

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From Monday to Friday, my medical team was split up to provide free healthcare to patients in outreach health clinics and provide health education throughout Northern Haiti. We woke up around 6am every morning to get ready for a busy day ahead. The medical team saw hundreds of patients at the outreach health clinics throughout our whole week in Haiti. In addition, my team taught Haitians about important subjects from newborn care to dental care. It was so rewarding to provide free healthcare to those who may have never had healthcare before. I got to witness a baby that was  just ten minutes old and watch my teammate and emergency doctor, Carol Ann help the mother breastfeed her newborn. The compassion that we provided was truly heartwarming! For instance, Kristen used her Polaroid camera to provide the mother with photos of the mother with her newborn, and I prepared donated lotions and baby body wash bottles for the family. On Thursday, I was given the incredible opportunity to teach youth groups from ages 15 to 25 years old about a topic that I am passionate about, Nutrition. Many of the young adults were so attentive and some were even taking notes. I was inspired by their questions and thirst for knowledge. It was so rewarding to educate these students with information that could potentially improve their health. For instance, when I asked how many teaspoons of sugar they thought were in a Coca Cola can, many guessed under the actual amount of teaspoons like two or three teaspoons. They were so surprised to hear that there are ten teaspoons of sugar in a Coca Cola. It was cool having the students become interested about nutrition as I had a group of young men start checking the nutrition facts of their soda bottles to see how much sugar was in each.

On some days after health clinics, we were given opportunities to explore Haiti. I loved walking up the steep mountain hills with my teammates to see the mesmerizing green views. There were kids who lived on the mountains who simply wanted to climb up the mountain with us and hold our hands. I had two girls hold my hands the whole time and I was astounded by how brave they were as they didn’t wear any shoes the whole time we walked up the steep mountain hills full of mud, rocks, and twigs. Although we couldn’t communicate well because of the language barrier, it was so fun singing tunes together. In addition, visiting the Open Door Orphanage was an incredible experience. I will never forget holding a precious girl’s hand the whole time I was there and carrying this adorable three year old boy. He had trouble walking down the stairs of the boys’ dormitory and I just had to help him by carrying him down the stairs! I remember thinking that I wish I could adopt the boy right then and there if only I had a stable income! Those moments with the precious Haitian children definitely made me have a greater appreciation for the the simple things in life and want to adopt kids even more in the future.

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Our last two days in Haiti were breathtaking and extremely sad. On Saturday, the medical team besides the two doctors on our team had our first day off of health clinics and health education lectures. We jammed to fun Haitian music on the way to the Citadelle Laferriere, a stunningly large stone fortress in Northern Haiti. We climbed the steep trails towards the Citadelle and learned about the history behind it. It was definitely a tough workout but the views and learning about the Citadelle’s history were worth it! On our last night in Haiti, we stayed in a hotel which was so different from the bunk beds and mosquito nets we were used to at Open Door. Many of us wished we could actually go back to Open Door as we missed our second home. At our last medical mission team meeting before our flight, I couldn’t help but cry as I was so moved by the actions of the people I had met and was going to miss them so much. I truly have never met people as giving as my medical team. Now I know for a fact that I want to become a pediatric clinical pharmacist so that I can help children and their families through teamwork with other healthcare professionals. I am now more determined to dual degree in a Masters of Public Health this school year to help educate others in health. I can still remember Kristen candidly telling me, “I am going to be upfront with you. You have to do something with kids, Alicia.” I fell in love with the Haitian kids and their families. I can only hope that one day I can work to help kids alongside people as amazing as my Hands Up for Haiti medical mission team.

What I admire about the non-profit Hands Up for Haiti is the dedicated people involved from the translators to the drivers to the medical team volunteers. None of the help towards those in need could be possible without the teamwork and dedication from everyone involved in Hands Up for Haiti. In addition, I love that the non-profit promotes sustainability. Hands Up for Haiti medical teams from the USA or Canada do not merely come once in a blue moon. Instead, many Hands Up for Haiti medical teams led by different leaders from pediatricians to optometrists come multiple times in a year. Hands Up for Haiti also strives to educate the Haitian healthcare professionals and maintain close connections with the Haitian HUFH staff. I will be forever thankful for my trip leader and pediatrician, Dr. Jill Ratner for leading the team with such passion and dedication. She is a true role model along with the rest of my teammates! As cliché as it may sound, I feel that I have found my purpose in life as I want to have a lifestyle that helps kids and their families globally through healthcare and education. I am already looking forward to volunteering next summer for another Hands Up for Haiti pediatric medical mission trip led by Dr. Jill Ratner. I am excited to challenge myself in intensely researching and preparing a lecture about pediatric pharmacy dosing to help educate the Haitian healthcare professionals. They say that “you may leave Haiti but Haiti will never leave you” and to “think of Haiti every day”. Even during my vacation in the Bahamas, you could find me talking about my Haiti experience! I can’t wait to put my hands up for Haiti with my team once more.

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I would recommend any high school student to try to find their passion early through experiences alike a volunteer mission trip or an internship. I know it can be hard to determine one’s purpose in high school but gaining experience definitely helps! I am so thankful for my Dublin High School teachers, Mrs. Sundstrom and Ms. Vallejo for not only supporting me in high school but during college as they wrote letters of recommendation for my Hands Up for Haiti trip. I am a student at MCPHS University and love helping incoming college students as I am a Resident Assistant and Orientation Leader. Feel free to contact me at atran5@stu.mcphs.edu with any questions you may have about college transition or being a part of a medical mission trip team. For more information about Hands Up for Haiti, go to handsupforhaiti.org. Also, please consider supporting my team in helping continue treatment for children with life-threatening illnesses. Donations will go towards their dire need for surgeries and intensive medical treatment. The donation page is at http://handsupforhaiti.kintera.org/emergencyfund.

Alicia Tran is a Dublin High School Class of 2015 graduate and a second year Doctor of Pharmacy student at Massachusetts’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University in Boston, Massachusetts.

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