UC Davis doctors help Haitian residents, physicians years after quake

UC Haiti Initiative created to break health care barriers


The devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010 left the Caribbean country in ruin. More than 230,000 people died, and millions were injured and without homes. Today, thousands of residents still live in unsanitary, unsafe conditions. To help this vulnerable population, UC Davis Children’s Hospital physicians travel to Haiti to provide care and training.

Chung (center) on rounds at Haiti State University Hospital
Chung (center) on rounds at Haiti State University Hospital

Pediatrician and global health expert Douglas Gross served on a federal disaster medical assistance team that was deployed shortly after the earthquake. The trip inspired him to create the UC Haiti Initiative, an educational, research and public service partnership between each University of California campus and the State University of Haiti.

Training with limited resources

“I felt that I couldn’t just leave Haiti and go back to things as normal,” said Gross.

The current program focuses on pediatric subspecialties such as hematology oncology. Pediatric hematologist oncologist Jong Hee Chung made her second trip to Haiti in April 2018. She gave lectures to several residents at State University of Haiti, St. Damien’s Pediatric Hospital and Hospital La Paix during her week-long stay.

“The physicians there are really knowledgeable and skilled,” Chung said. “They are up-to-date, but they don’t have the resources to provide the care they want to provide – even for something simple like vaccinations.”

While there is a great need for doctors to receive subspecialty training and children to receive care, the dire conditions in Haiti mean both are in short supply. The health care system has many challenges like high cost, limited access to physicians, and lack of supplies and equipment like MRI machines.

UC Davis Health radiologist Rebecca Stein-Wexler has traveled to Haiti several times since 2013. She teaches radiology and pediatric residents how to read chest and abdomen radiographs since there are few radiologists in the country. 

“There was a patient with growth failure and bone deformities that I’d never seen before,” said Chung. “It turned out to be a complication from Type 1 diabetes. I’d never heard of this before because people in the U.S. don’t have such poorly controlled diabetes.”

Lasting effects of training

For Gross and Chung, these trips help Haitian physicians and residents learn beyond the classroom. Their outreach can touch the lives of people they’ll never meet.

“I’ve been on a few short-term medical trips to provide care,” said Gross. “But this is often unsustainable, and the impact is limited. Training is sustainable because of the long-term relationships we develop with Haitian pediatricians.”

“Hopefully, the residents will remember some of what I taught which will help them diagnose or treat pediatric patients,” added Chung. “They can pass on this information to their own trainees in the future.”

Gross, who teaches neuroanatomy at the UC Davis School of Medicine, offered to develop curriculum for a course in Haiti after learning that no one taught this subject.

“My Haitian colleague told me that no one was teaching neuroanatomy at any of the medical schools in the country,” said Gross. “That was a big problem. So, I put together a 250-page syllabus (translated into French) and all medical school classes were canceled so students could attend the course.”

Chung explained that the work is beneficial for the mind and the spirit.

“These trips serve as a reminder of what we have and all that we should be grateful for,” said Chung. “But most importantly, we all learn from each other. It’s inspiring for me to see the work people do with so little.”