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A Pillar in the Rubble

At Haiti Clinic, Neil Heskel ’74 and Kevin Browngoehl ’78 provide free medical care to struggling residents of Port-au-Prince.

By Mike Agresta


Neil Heskel treats a woman and her child in the free clinic he directs in Port-au-Prince Haiti.

Early last year, Kevin Browngoehl, a Philadelphia-area pediatrician, was preparing for his first medical mission abroad. He’d recently met Neil Heskel at a Swarthmore Alumni Council meeting, and the two struck up a conversation about a free clinic that Heskel (pictured right in scrubs) directs in Haiti. Impressed, Browngoehl volunteered to help. He booked a plane ticket to Port-au-Prince for February. Then, on Jan. 12, a massive earthquake hit Haiti’s capital.

Suddenly, the world’s attention shifted to Haiti, if only for a short time. A country already struggling to climb out of poverty became fodder for nightly news reports of spectacular suffering. Organizations like Heskel’s Haiti Clinic, with boots already on the ground, took the natural disaster as a new opportunity for service. “I was receiving e-mails from all over the world asking how people could help,” says Heskel, a Florida-based dermatologist. “We became a conduit to get food and medication down there. It really became a big job.”

Browngoehl’s trip was delayed by the earthquake, but only briefly. When he did touch down in Haiti, he was humbled by the everyday need that he saw at the clinic. “It’s just a nonstop flood of people,” he says. “Then at some point, they cut off the line, and hundreds more people are sent home.” Many of the serious cases he saw stemmed from common problems left untreated for far too long.

“Haiti Clinic is not a disaster relief project,” Browngoehl clarifies. “It’s a way for the residents of the worst slum in Haiti to get medical care. A lot of these people have never seen a doctor.” The earthquake may have exacerbated Haiti’s poverty problem, but extreme privation is nothing new for the residents of Cité Soleil, the Port-au-Prince neighborhood served by Haiti Clinic. Even before the disaster, residents lacked water, electricity, and basic sanitation. Those factors complicate the project of running a clinic in such an underserved area, but they were not enough to discourage Browngoehl. Since joining Haiti Clinic just over a year ago, he’s taken on considerable responsibility, leading a health education outreach project and an acute malnutrition program for children.

“It’s very exhausting and very rewarding at the same time,” he says. “When I get on the plane to go home, it’s an unbelievable experience to sit in a comfortable seat and have someone bring you food that you can eat without being afraid of it. You realize that your problems, though they seem important to you, are actually quite inconsequential.”

Browngoehl credits his time at Swarthmore for getting him hooked on volunteering. “It left me with a lot of intellectual curiosity,” he says. “It showed me that life was more than a straight and narrow career. Service was a part of what you were going to do with your life.” Heskel echoes this sentiment, recalling an undergraduate ethics seminar with longtime Professor of Philosophy Hans Oberdiek as a key juncture in his formation as a young doctor-to-be.

Both doctors hope to encourage other service-minded alumni to get involved with Haiti Clinic. “The trips are usually four days—go on Friday morning, go back Monday,” Heskel says. “We take care of transportation, housing, food, and security. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You can spend your time doing what you’re good at.” He adds that volunteers need not be doctors. Browngoehl’s co-leader of the health education project, for instance, is a high school administrator from Philadelphia.

None of the Americans involved in Haiti Clinic draw a salary. Recently, Haiti Clinic has begun to add a Haitian staff, training doctors and nurse practitioners to run the clinic in between volunteer visits. Heskel’s long-term vision is a clinic run by Haitians, augmented by periodic assistance from abroad.

In these trying post-earthquake circumstances, however, Heskel remains the glue that holds Haiti Clinic together. “He provides a lot of inspiration just by his example,” Browngoehl says. “This particular organization attracts people who are a lot of fun to work with. We have some humor, which is good—you need humor. It’s actually a very light and uplifting spirit on clinic days. A lot of people smiling, happy, even in the face of all this suffering.”

If Heskel’s optimism has helped him attract and keep more recent volunteers like Browngoehl, he says it’s all part of the job description. Amid so much devastation and poverty, and in the wake of a major natural disaster, a doctor has to focus on the small successes—the pregnant mother saved from cholera-related dehydration, or the child who receives medicines his family could not otherwise afford.

“You have to be hopeful,” Heskel says. “There is a lot of work to do, but we’ve shown that some work can bear fruit, because our clinic has borne fruit. That’s a very optimistic thing.”

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