By J.O. Haselhoef, Travel Contributor
Dr. Oberson Plonquet wears blue scrubs. His stethoscope is draped around his neck and a clipboard for taking notes rests on his lap. A local healthcare volunteer sits nearby, listening, while Plonquet asks his patient a series of questions. What brings you to clinic. How long have you had these symptoms? Do you find these lessen if…?
Plonquet is living his dream — practicing medicine in his country, not far from his childhood home.
Step back and bring the full picture into focus: Dr. Plonquet, his team member and patient were not sitting at Hospital Jude-Anne in Port-au-Prince or even at the government-run clinic in nearby Lavalee. The doctor was interviewing his patient, midday, in an abandoned open-air nightclub in Lamontay — a farming community of around 15,000 people, southwest of Jacmel. Each sat on a socially-distanced nightclub chair. Each wore a mask, extras provided to patients at the entry of this makeshift medical clinic.
Plonquet’s dream to be a doctor began in high school. As the son of peasant farmers with ten children, he had few resources to make his ambition real. A school in Jacmel employed him as an English teacher, when he concurrently attended college in business and management. It was at that college that he lived through the 2010 earthquake, caught in the falling two-story building that housed his classroom. Many of his classmates were injured or died. He was safe with only a few scratches.
“I was crying, but it was a kind of joy,” he said. He thanked God and knew he had to pursue his mission to be a doctor.
Between college courses, he worked as a medical translator for two clinics staffed by volunteers coming from the U.S. Nurses from one of the clinics knew of Plonquet’s dream and recognized his determination. They offered to pay for his medical schooling at Université Quisqueya in Port-au-Prince.
Plonquet continued as often as he could as a translator for the clinic that operated in Lamontay — Friends of the Children Medical Mission. He became close friends with the organizers, nurse Linda Underwood and Dr. John Underwood. In 2015, he spent a month shadowing Dr. Underwood at the emergency room of Swedish American hospital in Rockford, Illinois.
Plonquet finished his degree and exams and became a licensed doctor in 2019, after six years of study. “There are many graduates in Haiti ready to work,” he said. But there are few medical positions available. Like so many others, “I don’t have a steady job in medicine.”
Friends of the Children began its twice-yearly missions to Lamontay in 1998, when the area was identified as having no real access to medical care. The Americans brought in necessary medical supplies and staff for two weeks of clinic, seeing hundreds of local patients. Its team could not attend the last two times due to Haitian political unrest and, then, the pandemic. The Underwoods hired Plonquet to run a smaller clinic last March, dispensing medicines to patients with chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. He also provided education on Covid-19.
This fall, again without the American team, he and the local health-care volunteers made an extra effort to reconnect with a number of patients with chronic conditions that were in the clinic’s database but he didn’t see last March. The volunteers called or stopped by to encourage their neighbor’s attendance. Plonquet planned to attend to up to 25 people daily, who needed medical attention — children with scabies, mothers with feverish babies, seniors with prostate problems.
Oreus Pierre Jr., a local community organizer initially hired Plonquet as a translator in 2010 and now works with him to ensure the clinic runs smoothly.
“Oberson has been able to continue the good work that the Underwoods have dedicated themselves to,” he said. “Without him this last year, the people in Lamontay would have suffered.”
Plonquet is aware the Underwoods will someday end their efforts in Lamontay. Since he’s achieved his life-long dream of being a doctor, he set his sights on a new one.
“We need to have permanent and sustainable healthcare in Lamontay,” he says. “That’s my new dream.”
Plonquet looks past the patient in front of him, a woman with a crying baby, to see people queuing up for consultation. There are more patients than he expected. He sighs and returns his attention to his present work. He knows his dream will still be there when he finishes.