Dec 16, 2016

Austin Nurse Finds a Calling in Medical Relief Missions to Haiti

Reporting Texas


Ann Messer, a physician on April Watkins’ team, reviews an x-ray during a  November trip to Haiti. Watkins organizes medical missions to rural areas that lack health care access. Photo courtesy of Haiti Austin.

On May 21, 2010, April Watkins graduated with a nursing degree from the University of Texas at Austin. That same day, she left for Haiti, part of a medical relief mission in the wake of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that had devastated the country.

For nine days, she and a team of physicians and nurses treated hundreds of patients at an outdoor mobile clinic, without the usual tools and tests found in U.S. hospitals. They returned home knowing they had cared for people who would otherwise not receive any treatment.

She has returned five times since, mostly recently in November. It won’t be her last trip.

Watkins, now 47, had previously worked in marketing. But another natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, caused her to change course. Volunteering at a triage facility for hurricane victims who had been relocated from New Orleans to Austin caused her to realize that she always had wanted to be a nurse, so she enrolled at UT’s nursing school.

In 2010, images of the damage and the human toll from the earthquake spurred her into action again.

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. The country had a gross domestic product per capita of $846 in 2014, compared to about $56,300 for the U.S. The only health centers are in major cities. It lacked facilities to handle all of the earthquake victims.

“People die for stupid things in Haiti, like dehydration, and that makes me angry, not sad,” said Watkins, who works at the Texas Cardiac Arrhythmia Institute at St. David’s Medical Center.

“The people are starving and struggling, but knowing that I can help empower them and their community with my skill set — that’s what keeps me going back.”

Watkins runs a Facebook page, Haiti Austin, to document the work of the teams. She works year-round to recruit volunteers and raise money from businesses, friends and others, including organizing an annual fundraising party.

The teams she organizes work in rural communities where people live in extreme poverty, living in shacks with no indoor plumbing. Some have no access to clean water. The team has treated patients with hypertension, diabetes, skin infections, vaginal infections, malaria, parasitic infections, lung infections and typhoid fever.

She has organized relief efforts five of the six years starting with 2010, visiting areas near Leogane, 26 miles southwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Leogane had been devastated by the 2010 earthquake. Haitians in such areas cannot afford to pay even a couple of U.S. dollars to travel to the nearest health center, so the volunteers take their free services to the communities for six days. Watkins and her team treat an average of 900 Haitians each time, as many as 150 a day.

Watkins said she rarely gets discouraged. Her teams save lives with every patient seen in the temporary clinics.

“We are focusing on individual treatment and changing one life at time,” Watkins said, “and that’s hard for people to understand at first, especially for those used to changing a big picture.”

Haiti has suffered two huge natural disasters within 10 years, so the need for relief efforts has grown more acute. The 2010 earthquake destroyed hospitals. This past October, Category 4 Hurricane Matthew caused widespread flooding, forcing hospitals to relocate patients.

ReliefWeb reported on Nov. 25 that nearly 550 people died and more than 175,000 were displaced after the hurricane hit on Oct. 4. It also said that 1.4 million people require humanitarian assistance.

“Before the earthquake in 2010, we didn’t have enough hospitals in the country, and then a lot collapsed. When aid came, we had to use tents to give health care,” Dr. Claude Bellanger, chief of surgery at Sainte Croix Hospital in Leogane, said in a phone interview. “For April’s team, we choose places in the countryside for mobile clinics where we still don’t have any kind of health structures.”

Bellanger, 45, has coordinated clinic locations for Watkins’s team each trip.

Her team had been scheduled to go to Leogane in October, but due to the hurricane, they postponed the trip to Nov. 12 through 19. They added a one-day clinic in Les Cayes to assess the need for future visits there. The town,  124 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, was one of the most affected areas.

The team didn’t know what to expect there. The crowds were difficult to control, Watkins said, but people were worried they would not get treatment.

She yelled to the crowd that they must remain calm and form a line, threatening to leave unless people obeyed. The announcement worked because the Haitians were surprised to hear her holler in fluent French, Watkins said. She learned the language as a teenager and later studied French in college in the U.S. and in France.

“I have never felt unsafe in Haiti, but sometimes it’s disorganized,” Watkins said, recalling the situation in Les Cayes and the swarm of people in Leogane.

Watkins has worked through InterVol, a nonprofit dedicated to worldwide medical humanitarian efforts. She is responsible for recruiting volunteers, raising money, purchasing supplies and medicine and coordinating with Haitian health officials.

Most volunteers in her team are colleagues or acquaintances from Austin, but this year she recruited three out-of-state physicians. This year’s mobile clinic was run by 10 volunteers, 11 interpreters and two drivers.

Salaries for the interpreters and drivers and lodging for the staff totaled $1,800 for the one-week project. Because of the devastation after the hurricane, Watkins donated that amount in October, even when the trip was postponed, to compensate interpreters, drivers and lodging staff who had been counting on that income. They also were paid when the team arrived in November. Money raised by Watkins pays for medicines and medical supplies and salaries of the Haitian staff. All volunteers pay for their own travel, housing and food.

Watkins said she never feels hopeless, despite the size and urgency of the need in Haiti. She relies on her medical action plan to make progress, even if it’s slow. She has tried to start sustainability projects such as giving people chickens to raise, sell and eat, but it’s a fledgling effort. She also sponsors two nursing students and one law student at Haitian universities.

She said she returns to Haiti because a life can be saved for less than $15. That’s nothing in the U.S., in Haiti, it is far too expensive for many people. Plus, Haiti allows her to use all of her skills — nursing, marketing, speaking French. If she can find the resources, she said she doesn’t think she’ll ever stop going.

Watkins has worked with a continuing team of interpreters who also help enforce security during clinics. She describes it as a unique bond with her Haitian counterparts and knows that they depend on her team’s presence in Haiti as much as the patients they treat.

“The interpreters are my eyes and ears in Haiti,” Watkins said. “They tell me when someone needs something, and then I do want I can to help.”

“We have no jobs, no money, or nothing to do but wait for her to come back,” said Robensen Pavilus, 36, the lead interpreter in Haiti. “She treats me like family and shows my people too much love every time she comes.”