By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
Lamp for Haiti, a nonprofit based in Montclair that provides medical care such as ultrasounds, digital x-rays and nutrition programs as well as humanitarian assistance in Haiti, is celebrating its 15-year anniversary with a gala in town this weekend.
Founded by Montclair resident Dr. James Morgan in 2006, the organization’s primary activity is to deliver health care to Cité Soleil — one of the poorest and most dangerous shantytowns in the country, located on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and with a population of about 400,000 — through a clinic called the Lamp Health Center.
Morgan has been interested in working in developing countries since he was younger. In 2001, while working as an internist in the emergency department at St. Vincent Hospital in New York City, a friend was bringing some of his students to Haiti and was looking for another chaperone.
“I went there for a couple of weeks on that trip,” Morgan said. “I met another chaperone, and we became friends. We’ve continued to stay interested in Haiti since.”
During his stay in Haiti, he said he was stunned and moved by the poverty he saw. Even though the trip only lasted a short time, Morgan said Haiti remained on his mind.
He continued working as an internist and in private practice, but after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country in 2004, he heard news about the horrendous conditions in the capital, and in particular in Cité Soleil.
In 2005, Morgan found himself unemployed. With the help of family and friends, he fundraised some money to bring medication and supplies to Cité Soleil. He said when he arrived, he realized that in order to make an impact in the community he needed a more permanent solution — to create a health-care center.
Morgan, along with some volunteers, met with community leaders with plans for creating such a center.
“People that would travel to Cité Soleil would do so at their own peril,” he said. “For example, I recall our driver would not drive into Cité Soleil. He would drop us off at the perimeter, and we would have to walk with our gear perhaps a mile into the center of the town, where we had set up sort of a makeshift clinic. And along the way on a couple of different occasions, we saw people that were killed on the side of the road.”
In another instance, Morgan said the team was stopped by a young gang leader, who was probably 16 years old, armed with a gun and questioning what they were doing there.
“He was reluctant at first but eventually was persuaded to let us pass and provide care for that week,” Morgan said. “That was, from a security standpoint, unsettling to put it mildly. But the more pressing issue of course was the real dire poverty that we saw there.”
Morgan said he and his team saw severely malnourished adults and children living in tin shacks with dirt floors, with limited access to food, potable water and health care. He said it was a difficult experience to witness.
“When I came back [to the U.S.] from that [trip], all I wanted to do was sort of leave it behind me, quite frankly,” he said. “But there was something that I just was unable to shake, for better or for worse.”
Morgan and his team decided in the summer of 2006 to continue their work in Cité Soleil and to engage local residents, church leaders and heads of schools to gain the trust of the community, which has seen several medical projects come and go.
Eventually the “makeshift clinic” turned into a health center. However, the community was still apprehensive about the idea.
One way to gain trust was to bring locals to work at the health center, Morgan said. The team brought in a local pastor on a regular basis to lead a prayer in the morning, something important in the community. They also included the pastor’s niece, who grew up in Cité Soleil and works as a nurse running the nutrition program for malnourished children.
Also, Morgan said the center’s medical director, Dr. Berrère Hyppolite, has been helpful in making sure the community trusts the work they are doing.
“He is in his tenth year working with Lamp,” he said. “He has to balance not only his medical patients that he sees but also has to balance leadership over staff and also has to be able to negotiate with gang leaders.”
Morgan said it was tough to get the community to trust them, and it took several years to do so. But after a Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that left 220,000 dead and 300,000 injured in Haiti, the health center reopened two days later, showing the community the program’s commitment to provide medical care.
“It was, I think, pretty loud and clear that we were there for a long run and that we intended to stay engaged,” Morgan said.
Since 2006, Morgan has been traveling back and forth between the U.S. to Haiti, often spending six months a year abroad. During that time he also worked as an internist in a private office in Cedar Grove with his wife. And, since February, he has been working at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck.
Rachelle Jean Louis, a resident of Woodland Park originally from Haiti, is one of the volunteers at Lamp. She said the reason she joined the organization is because she lost her father during the 2010 earthquake.
“We lost quite a bit of people, about five or six family members died during the earthquake,” she said. “And my father passed away, like a month after the earthquake, because there was no hospital that was open after the earthquake.”
Louis said if hospitals were open, her father would have probably survived.
“The fact that Jim is helping a community that is very impoverished and the fact that he’s helping them with supplies and a clinic, I felt it was my duty to help as much as I can,” she said.
Out of the five health centers in Cité Soleil, theirs is the only one currently open, Morgan said. And after Aug. 22’s 7.2 magnitude earthquake, which killed 2,200 people, and the devastation that Tropical Storm Grace left that same month, Morgan said the center has seen an increase of patients — refugees from other cities that were devastated by the natural disasters.
“We’re not just putting band-aids on. We’re seeing 15,000 to 20,000 patients a year,” he said. “We have electronic health records. We provide medications for patients. We have a laboratory, all of which has been inspected by the ministry of health. So, we are not just a local sort of dispensary by any means. We have about 25 staff, all Haitians. We’re a major part of the fabric of that community.”
Morgan said most of the donations that the organization collects go directly to the health center. He said the gala on Friday, Nov. 12, at The Woman’s Club of Upper Montclair will go toward continued funding of the center as well as help create a satellite center to assist more patients.
“We always want our services to be more robust,” he said. “For example, our laboratory services and some of the other clinical programs, we want to be able to make those grow.
“The long-term plan would be to have a secondary satellite site. But our goal is to maintain our attention to primary care and really to impact as many lives as we possibly can by broadening our reach. That’s the plan.”
To learn more about Lamp for Haiti, and to donate and attend the gala, visit lampforhaiti.org.