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Haitian Devastation Spurs Annie Berger


The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, leveling thousands of buildings, killing more than 220,000 people and leaving millions destitute, sent virtual shockwaves around the world to places as unlikely as Fergus Falls, Minnesota. That’s where Annie Berger MPAS ’11 and her father, Lonnie W. Berger, M.D. reside. “My father and I knew that this was an opportunity that we needed to take as father and daughter,” says Berger. As members of a 22-person team, the Bergers traveled to Haiti last February to fulfill their dream of completing a medical mission together. The team delivered medicines, medical supplies and charitable funds, and then spent ten days helping to construct a new medical clinic and assisting patients at an older medical facility.

Tragedy struck twice. A small child died in Annie Berger’s arms and a member of the mission team perished after falling from a roof. The team dedicated the mission to the team member’s memory. “Haitians had become so used to suffering, it was amazing to see them grieve for us,” Berger says. “That was the most valuable lesson – we are all in this together.”

Editor’s Note: The below interview has been lightly edited and condensed for space.

How did the trip come about?

I always knew I wanted to go into medicine and wanted to go to medical school. Eventually the PA profession came into my life, and the rest is history.

My father is a family doctor, he had done some mission work and international travel. I also felt a calling to do this, and we always said we would do trip together. My father even has a a tattoo of a medical symbol with room for two dates – his medical school graduation and my MCPHS graduation.

Sitting at church home on break, we discussed a service trip to Haiti.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I didn’t have a whole lot of time to prepare for it. While I was preparing for the trip, I was studying for my boards. I got my license to practice in the state of Pennsylvania the day before they left for the Haiti trip.

We expected big problems like TB and tropical diseases, and ended up facing things as basic like high blood pressure and acid reflux. Even though we live in totally different socioeconomic conditions, we all have the same basic problems that we deal with day in and day out.

What was it like while you were there?

In Haiti we worked with organization called Heart to Heart. We flew into Port au Prince and took a seven-hour ride into the mountains, to a border town next to the Dominican Republic.

The place where we were set up would normally do one clinic a month. Members our church donated $30,000 for this clinic to be built. The Outside was already built when we got there, and our job was to paint the clinic and build the roof. The medical personnel next door saw patients for one week a month instead one day a month.

We were there for ten days and worked in the clinic for three days. Many of the people we saw had a very random collection of problems, you’d just try to find a condition that fits all of those symptoms. Unfortunately, we saw a lot of depression and anxiety - overall stress on the mind and the body.

It was amazing to see how depressing and stress affects the body and physical well-being of people. Having a mental health counselor down there would have really helped. On the other end of the spectrum, some people just wanted to have t heir heart and lungs listened to. We were lucky to be able to doing everything in Hatian/Creole through translator.

We mostly worked with Paper records, but we did have a sonographer, and some women saw their unborn babies for the first time. Coming home, it was an adjustment to be able to do everything on a computer.

Twenty-two people were down there with our medical team, including two doctors, two nurses and a sonographer.

Upon arriving I had never done CPR - and I had to do it twice in the first three days

My father has been a doctor since 1994, he’s dealt with death before and seen a lot of that. Having him there during those experiences. I don’t know how I would have made it through the trip without him. Even now it’s great to know I can can send him a text for advice about my job. I was already really close with my dad, but even moreso now. We are planning on a possible trip for February 2013 to rebuild a school.

My very first patient was in Haiti. It was a baby who was taken to a voodoo doctor before me. The baby, who has meningitis, died in my arms.

Also, tragically, a member of our team passed away on the trip.

How did your team react to the death?

My gut reaction was to leave right away, as it happened during the first couple days on the job. The team member who perished had gone on several mission trips, 13 or 14, and it was what he lived for. The team sat down and discussed the issue at hand. Many wanted to leave, but in the end we knew he would have wanted us to stay.

During the service for him, the pastor said she would always have a place there. That was something I will never forget. The pastor looked her in the eyes, and she knew right then she would be back.

We ended up naming the clinic we built after him.

Have you done any other service trips?

Prior to PA school at MCPHS, I did a 4-month internship in South Africa.

There I learned a lot about the communication between surgeon and parents, and how well parents understood procedures. Communication with people, making sure to take the time that people are understanding your opinions and considerations. Sometimes patients put you on a pedestal, and I never want that.

In South Africa, time means nothing. There is “now now,” just “now,” and three other variations. There is no schedule over there. Time isn’t always that important, I have to make ensure the quality of the visit

In Haiti, I learned a lot about humanity - humans are humans and people are people. We all share the same thoughts and feelings and emotions, and sometimes that gets lost in medicine.

How did you end up at MCPHS?

I applied to 11 different schools, including a few in the Midwest. I traveled to Boston with my father and I fell in love with Boston.

I found out about my acceptance right before I left for that South Africa internship. I ended up completing rotations all over New England, including a few in Massachusetts, two in New Hampshire and a few in Rhode Island.

Where are you currently working?

I am currently a PA at SouthEast Lancaster Health Services, a federally qualified community health center.