Passing it forward
UMKC School of Medicine alumni Stan (M.D. ’73) and Kathy Shaffer (M.D. ’79) have deep roots in Haiti and say the country has been a second home for them for more than 25 years. Yet Stan explained his first visit to the country was for personal reasons during his pediatric training at Children’s Mercy Hospital in 1983.
“I was interested in seeing diseases I’d never seen,” he says. “I’d only seen two cases of measles, and I wanted to see the tropical diseases we never see here. But Haiti changed my perception, because once you see that type of suffering — which is only an hour-and-half plane ride away for Miami — it changes you. That’s how my desire to change the system instead of individual patients over the years began. Together, Kathy and I learned that to help the country, we first needed to help the government educate its people through health care.”
The Shaffers agree that it was Stan’s first visit that initially formed the lasting relationship they now have with the country and its people. Since then, Kathy has worked hard and kept the Haitian children in the forefront of the school, St. Augustine, she helped open in Maniche, Haiti, in the mid-80s. “It’s my belief that to change children’s lives, I need to do it through health care issues that they can take back to their families,” she says.
And prior to Stan’s work in Haiti, he says expecting mothers had two delivery options: birth the baby at home and risk infection, or walk for hours to an under-staffed hospital where they were required to provide their own food, medicine and linens. In 2004, Stan established Maison de Naissance, a birthing home, which now provides a clean place for deliveries, essential heath care for infants and community education.
Since its opening, more than 2,000 babies have been born and vaccinated. The facility is also satellite equipped to allow Stan and his St. Luke’s Hospital colleagues in Kansas City to visit with patients and staff in Haiti. Stan and Kathy say they typically make several visit to Haiti each year but haven’t been back since the earthquake.
“Haiti has always been special to us,” Kathy says. “We used to take our children to Haiti, and we agreed that it was an important part of raising them. And after having a 25-year relationship with the people of Haiti, it has been extremely hard not to be down there helping. However, it’s not our mission to be heroes in that type of setting. Instead, we’ve been focused on ways to help change the structure of a community over time to make it better long term. We’ve never been in this for short-term gains.”
This September, Stan will make his first visit back to Haiti since 2009 in an effort to expand a new program called the Golden Minute, which focuses on a newborn’s first minute of life. Stan says that one in 10 babies needs assistance and that those who don’t receive the proper medical attention are termed stillborns. Program master trainers, including Stan, will visit various countries and offer Golden Minute training workshops. “I will be training Haitian community heath care workers, doctors, nurses and first aid providers through one or two days of training,” Stan says. “On the first day I will teach six people. The next day, those six people will train six new people. Within a week, we could have 42 individuals trained.”
Kathy also plans to return to Haiti in November with a focus on sanitation efforts and plans to continue to try to get parents involved in their children’s education. “Like anywhere, having parents involved in education is critical for students to continue to advance in school,” she says. Kathy says she will also work to install a new water filtration system for clean, potable water near the school where 300 children in grades pre-K through seventh attend. “It’s our goal is to provide medical and health care-related education that is standard and offered here,” Kathy says. “We don’t believe in second-rate care or education.”
“The world is very big,” Stan adds. “There is so much we, as American physicians, can offer Haiti and countries in similar types of situations. We all just need to be willing to start somewhere.”