TRAVERSE CITY — Family nurse practitioner Mary Ellen Sanok used to wonder, as a little girl in church, why people ever would choose to go on missions to third-world countries.
In January, she will go on her 13th medical mission to Haiti since 1998. Today, Sanok is a board member of Mission of Love, a Christian organization started more than 25 years ago by Bob and Betty Johnson of Hartford, Ky.
Jolivert is a small village located in a rural mountainous area on the northwest side of Haiti about 23 miles south of Port-au-Paix. About 11,000 people live in the mission’s immediate service area, but some of its wider ranging projects serve 27,000.
“There’s something so fulfilling there,” said Sanok, who spends about two weeks on each visit. “You feel like you can make a difference because the needs are so great.”
Brooke Borgeson Gray, another family nurse practitioner made her first two-week trip to Haiti in 2010 after the Jan. 12 earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital and largest city. She worked in some street clinics in Port-au-Prince but mostly assisted in the hospital and intensive care unit tents with little equipment.
“It looked like MASH,” she said. “We were with bulb syringes and we strapped IVs to the side of tents. We had one big oxygen tank and no running water. A lot of people were lying on plastic cots.”
Gray returned earlier this year from her fourth medical mission to Haiti. Since her 2010 stint, she has worked on Mission of Love projects at Jolivert.
“Part of why I do it is because I get so much out of it,” Gray said.
Sanok and Gray pay their own travel expenses and use vacations to do the mission work. They also transport mostly donated basic medical such as antibiotics, antifungals and anti-parasite medications. Sanok works at West Front Primary Care, while Gray practices works at Honor Family Practice Care, owned and operated by nurse practitioners.
Jolivert, located about 80 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, escaped major earthquake damage, but assisted in relief efforts, providing medical attention, food and clothing to more than 1,000 refugees with medical. Area residents all lost family or friends or know people who had their homes demolished.
“One man from the village was in law school and decided to skip class that day,” Gray said. “The earthquake destroyed both the law school and the nursing school. “All of his friends died.”
Mission of Love operates several public health programs and services including health screenings, pediatric outreach, anti-malaria, safe water and nutritional programs for children and adults. It operates all year and employs about 23 Haitian workers, Sanok said.
Sanok sits on the mission’s board and was instrumental in getting the mission’s pediatric outreach programs for children off the ground over the last decade by training local people in seven villages to provided basic primary care.
The outreach program now has expanded in to eight bush clinics that serve adults, too. There are few roads in the rugged area and a walk to a clinic can take staff and residents from two to eight hours because of rugged terrain and few roads.
Only one or two children have died in the mission’s service area since 2005 when the clinics started, Sanok said.
Her husband, psychologist Rick, and some of their children have accompanied her on some of the trips. Her son, Joe, helped set up a microfinance program that lends small amounts of money to groups of five women who decide as a team what each woman will sell and what order the loans will occur women, After the first woman gets a loan, makes two payments on time and is current with her loan, the next woman gets her loan until all women have received them.. The payments are recycled back into the fund and given to another group the next year.
Gray has worked on expanding the mission’s reproductive health services – prenatal care, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. She also has organized focus groups.
“Haitian women have way too many children,” she said. “When a family has five children and the mom dies, it’s a problem for the whole community.”
Sanok attributed the reduction in children’s deaths to “two simple things.” The Mission of Love has handed out thousands of malaria nets provided by nonprofits to put over children’s beds. And the “Gadyen Dlo” safe water program lowered the incidence of typhoid by simply treating drinking water from the nearby river with small amounts of an electrically frozen bleach compound manufactured in Jolivert and distributed throughout the region.
“It’s such a good program that the World Health Organization is recommending it for other countries,” Sanok said. “It’s very exciting to be part of a little drop in the bucket. It’s why I go back all the time.”
Another beneficial program for children has been has been the “Mamba” anti-malnutrition program that provided peanut butter heavily fortified with vitamins, minerals and dry milk to children 1-5. “Mamba” is Creole for peanut butter. The peanuts are purchased from small scale Haitian farmers, a doubly positive impact.
“Children can be turned around for the rest of their life,” Sanok said.