Women in Medicine: A Medical Mission Trip to Haiti

When I stepped out of the plane onto the dusty ground of Haiti, I had no idea the empowerment and knowledge that I would gain from the trip. My first view of Haiti was the dilapidated houses stacked on top of one another, the trash that seemed to litter every small nook and cranny of the structures, and the sheer amount of people sitting in the hot sun, watching the traffic go by. It was all very much to take in; how could we expect to change the lives of these people? However, through the course of the week, I learned from some of the most strong and confident female doctors, and more importantly, I was able to have hope for a better future for Haitians.

In my experience, the clinics were extremely organized and efficient. We saw as many patients as possible, giving them the best care that we could provide. As a student, we were never swept to the side in the organized chaos that is medicine, but rather, we were able to have an active hand in helping the doctors.

April Watkins, our trip leader, has come to be one of the most inspiring women I have ever met and a role model for the kind of work I hope to do in the future. In 2010, she left for her first trip to Haiti, the same day she received a nursing degree from UT Austin. Since then, she has lead countless trips to Haiti, recruiting the doctors herself, organizing fundraiser efforts to raise money, and doing everything else she can to help the Haitian people.

After volunteering at a triage center for Hurricane Katrina victims and seeing the damage from the Haiti earthquake in 2010, April was motivated to pursue relief efforts. She says that she was inspired by a nursing professor to take on a leadership role.

In addition to relief efforts, April pays the college tuition of two women in Haiti and tries to employ female interpreters when possible. However, she still thinks that almost everything has the potential to improve for women in Haiti. “I hope that when Haitians see a mostly medical team staffed by women, they feel inspired.” she says.

Indeed, the team of female doctors was inspiring to watch. There were about 7 women who came from all fields of healthcare, from nurses, to physicians, to surgeons. They were all smart and innovative and treated patients with a calm, yet comforting demeanor. Everyone shared knowledge about different treatments, various medications, and much more. This cooperative atmosphere was just wonderful to be able to work in and observe.

“Haiti was such a great experience because I was introduced to many influential women,” says Karen Stierman, an ENT surgeon. “I was proud to work with them.”

Like me, this was her first time in Haiti, as well as, her first medical mission trip. After deciding to pursue medicine in college, Dr. Stierman developed a love of both science and engineering at Texas A&M. “I love tinkering with the human body, one of the most complex creations.” she says.

After graduating, she opened up her own practice in Austin. “It helps to not distinguish men and women in the workplace.” she says. She thoroughly enjoyed working with patients in Haiti and believes that as more women get  involved in healthcare in the country, their roles will become more prominent and respected in the society.

“Right now, I think the biggest improvement is to educate more people and to help them get more involved.” Dr. Stierman explains. “An introduction to family planning and basic ideas about healthcare would be a great start.”

To me, it is encouraging to know that empowered women in healthcare can share ideas with each other and spread them to the women of Haiti. This trip was an amazing chance to see the good that collaboration and hard work could achieve.

As for the many young women out there considering future careers, Dr. Stierman advises them to pursue anything they wish to achieve. “Don’t let anyone define you or try to intimidate you.” she says. “You are amazing and can accomplish anything you put your mind to.”

As I boarded the plane for Miami, I turned and took one more look at Haiti. I still saw the same sights, but it seemed different to me, more familiar. I had been a part of something great, I had comforted these people, I had given them medicine with a smile and encouraging words. Most importantly, I had been surrounded by amazing women that had helped me learn so much, not just about medicine, but about the people in this place. I could see it all now. And I couldn’t wait to go back.

Felicia Gonzalez