haiti public health rural shah
Rupal Shah in Haiti

By Rupal R. Shah, M.S., M.P.H.

“Mwen pa aksepte sa. Nou bezwen mande pou kondisyon yo chanje!” 

That was my response to the driver at Saint Boniface Hospital in Fond-des-Blancs last year as he mentioned he didn’t think there was a way for the country to move forward. It loosely translates to, “I don’t accept this. We need to challenge the status quo and ask for different conditions.”

I explained to him that just 20 years ago I lived in Tanzania, and I had never imagined where I was going to end up. All I knew was that I wanted more. He sighed and I understood that sigh.

The truth is I believe that all of us have the ability to make impactful changes, even if they are small. In the end, it all counts.

I left Haiti at the end of last year after completing my assignment at Saint Boniface Hospital in Fond-des-Blancs. The previous year I worked for Partners in Health in Mirebalais, Haiti. The last two years allowed me to gain key public health experiences while working in a low-resource setting. I understand Haiti has faced many challenges in the past, such as the earthquake and the cholera crisis that ensued. People constantly hear about Haiti in the news due to temperamental political protests. 

However, for me Haiti was more than just a project or a place to work. I lived there the last two years and in many ways considered it my home at that time. I was also lucky enough to travel to various parts of the country which enabled me to see the different worlds that exist within that country; the world of the wealthy versus the world of the poor, the areas with rich forests versus the city slums, the parts with diverse culture versus those with heavy globalization. My love and appreciation for the country and its complexities increased as I traveled more.  

In many ways, I could draw analogies between my life in Tanzania and my life in Haiti. Perhaps, due to that, I was always destined for Haiti. 

This summer I joined Konbit Sante, a non-profit organization, based in Maine, that partners with healthcare facilities in Cap-Haitien, Haiti. In my short time with the organization, I have already learned a lot of lessons that include:

  • Understanding that healthcare disparities impact the most marginalized people in our world.
  • Developing meaningful partnerships to empower local citizens to make decisions.
  • Implementing strategic processes in order to create sustainable and impactful changes.

In many ways, this position came at a very opportune time. The world has changed. For many of us there will now be a pre- and a post-pandemic world. For those of us who work in public health, this is a seminal moment. Until now, people asked me whether I was a doctor or a nurse. I would always explain that I am a public health professional and we work to strengthen healthcare systems. In one way, the pandemic has made it easier for me to explain my profession. Thanks to COVID-19, more people understand what public health professionals do.

The recent victory of Kamala Harris, a daughter of immigrants, has shown me that people who look like me can be in places where change-making decisions are made. Harris is the first Indian American and African American woman in that position. Many of us can relate to her and I for one, can certainly see myself in her. It is not only inspiring to see her as the vice president-elect of the United States of America, it has ignited fire under my feet to continue to strive for more. 

In my new position as Executive Director of Konbit Sante, I will be at the forefront of public health, evaluating public health systems to understand how to provide quality healthcare to ALL people, developing solutions with local counterparts, and leading teams to implement the solutions. I will be both a public health soldier and a public health leader.

As I transition into my new role, I want to share some basic reflections I have had during the process:

  • Always dream
  • Have unshakeable faith
  • Work hard

I invite each of you to learn about our work and think about ways to contribute and collaborate. If you’re interested in learning more, please visit our website.  

For those of you who have encouraged me through my professional journey: THANK YOU. For all my colleagues and friends in Haiti, I’m coming back! For everyone in New England, come visit me in Maine! For all my readers, stay tuned as I continue to share my global health adventures.

Ms. Shah is a public health professional currently working as the executive director of Konbit Sante – Cap-Haitien Health Partnership based in Maine.

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