By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
LECLAIRE — Dr. Leopold Bourgouin of Grand-Bois, Haiti, recalls a life-changing dream he had prior to earning his medical license. In the dream, the exhausted doctor in training hears a woman’s voice calling out to him. He can’t quite make out her features, but she is holding a sign, close to her chest. The sign is partially covered, but he can read this message: “God needs you.” In the dream, he protests; he’s already helping 70 pregnant women … the dream woman shows compassion, but the message is clear.
His dream launched a journey that brought the young doctor to Grand-Bois. Today, he and another doctor serve 1,000 people a month in a bustling medical clinic built with help from volunteers, including some from the Davenport Diocese.
Dr. Leo, as friends call him, is in Iowa this week for a biennial fundraiser, “A Day in the Life,” to be held Saturday, Oct. 4, from 6-11 p.m. at River Experience in downtown Davenport. Admission is $25 per person. Funds go to ServeHaiti, which has its roots in Sacred Heart Parish in Atlanta, Ga., and now encompasses a nonprofit, ecumenical organization of volunteers from multiple parishes and states.
At the end of Mass last Sunday at Our Lady of the River Catholic Church in LeClaire — one of the parishes that support ServeHaiti — Dr. Leo expressed deep appreciation.
“I don’t know where I’d be without you,” the soft-spoken doctor said. “Life is better, we have accomplished many different things,” he continued, referring to the medical clinic, water projects, refurbishing of schools, teacher training, radio broadcasting, micro-financing and energy projects. “I just want to tell you we appreciate your love and compassion.”
Our Lady of the River has partnered with San Pierre Parish in Grand-Bois since 2002. Those who have traveled to Grand-Bois to volunteer motivate friends and families to do the same.
Dr. Leo arrived in Grand-Bois in 2001 at the request of his cousin, a priest who knew the pastor of the parish in Grand-Bois, Father Boniface Senat. The people of that rural, remote region didn’t have a doctor to serve them with regularity. Dr. Leo couldn’t refuse the cousin who had supported his medical education and had hoped he’d become a priest.
On his first day in Grand-Bois, supported by a medical mission group that arrived just in time with antibiotics, Dr. Leo saved the life of a pregnant woman whose baby had died in utero. More than 1,000 people showed up that day at the clinic, held in the San Pierre church.
“There was one American doctor and me and three nurses,” Dr. Leo recalled. “These people were desperately, desperately ill,” added Liz McDermott, an LPN and member of Our Lady of the River who was on that mission trip.
For several years Dr. Leo served the people of Grand-Bois on a part-time basis, dividing his time between Grand-Bois and Port au Prince. He agreed to serve full-time in Grand-Bois once a medical clinic was built. Volunteers built the clinic, with help from the Haitians.
Now two Haitian doctors are on staff (Dr. Leo and Dr. Marie Ange Ulysse). Their work, along with assistance from local medical staff and ServeHaiti volunteers, has led to a dramatic reduction in the mortality rate, especially for pregnant women and infants, Dr. Leo said. He instituted a prenatal program that has contributed significantly to healthier mothers and babies, Liz added.
The doctor sees the hand of God in all of it. When cholera struck in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Dr. Leo was working toward an advanced degree in water and sanitation. He educated Haitians on sanitation procedures that helped prevent cholera from spreading in the region.
“We’re being led by a Haitian who has this amazing vision. He helps us to remember to include the Haitian people in the planning process,” Liz said. “We can’t just implement our ideas. They have to be culturally appropriate.”
“I went to Haiti thinking I knew so much about the world, what people need. I got there and realized I don’t know anything,” said Cheryl Costello, a physical therapist assistant and member of Our Lady of the River who made her first mission trip to Grand-Bois in 2011. She’s returned to Haiti and continues to volunteer to enhance the quality of Haitians’ lives.
“It was an amazing experience to be down there,” said physical therapist Diane O’Neill, another Our Lady of the River parishioner. She couldn’t help but tell others about what she experienced and in that way, “you draw people into your experience and they become interested” in making a mission trip.
Liz notes that Dr. Leo “calls ServeHaiti a beautiful jail.”
“Once you get in, you say, ‘I should continue to help,’” the doctor says with a smile.