St. Boniface Hospital, a beacon of hope in post-quake Haiti

A beacon of hope in post-quake Haiti
A beacon of hope in post-quake Haiti 08:51

The earthquake that struck Haiti ten years ago this weekend killed an estimated 250,000 people, and injured far more. Billions of dollars poured in to help. Despite that, little has changed. In fact, much of Haiti is worse off than it was a decade ago.

In the capital, Port-au-Prince, basic medical care can be almost impossible to find. After the earthquake decimated the old general hospital, a new one was planned immediately after. More than $80 million has been spent on it. It sits empty today.

In the meantime, the old general hospital – what should be the main source of care for Haiti's largest city – reeks of raw sewage. Piles of trash are everywhere.

Etnaize Janvier and her four-month old son have been here for eight days. She explained to "CBS This Morning: Saturday" co-host Jeff Glor that her child was crying because he needs to go to the bathroom, but cannot.

Many patients don't get treated because they are often required to provide the medical supplies – something as simple as surgical gloves – that the hospital can't afford.

But take a trip outside the capital, and you find a remarkable place that many doubted could ever exist in this country – one very bright spot that could provide a path for the future of Haiti.

St. Boniface Hospital, in Fond-des-Blancs, was started in 1983 up in the mountains on Haiti's Southern peninsula, and in the last 10 years it's become a leading beacon for Haitian hope.

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Basic medical care can be almost impossible to find on much of Haiti, but a teaching hospital in a hard-to-reach mountain community treats 500 patients a day, turns no one away, and survives on private donations and grants. CBS News

"People come from hours away to this hospital, and it could be anything – the emergency room, maternity, anything," said Conor Shapiro, the president of Health Equity International, which oversees St. Boniface. He first came here in 2003; his wife is Haitian.

On the day the earthquake struck, he was at work: "Massive shaking, all the patients came running out of the hospital. All the staff, everyone was running into the yard. We didn't know what had happened. My wife was pregnant with our now-nine-year-old. Was in Port-au-Prince at the time and I didn't know what was going on.

"I was very fortunate. My wife and our daughter, they survived. Many people were not as fortunate. It was a horrible situation."

Instead of falling apart, St. Boniface has only grown. They now get 500 patients a day, and went from an annual operating budget of $250,000 when Shapiro took over, to $8 million today.

People risk their lives to get here because they have no other choice.

The entrance road to the hospital is full of ruts. It is mountainous, passable only by dirt bikes and 4x4 vehicles. Bikes effectively act as ambulances for those who need care.

The drive up that treacherous road takes the better part of an hour. That's in addition to the three or four hours it can take just get to the entrance.

One woman brought by bike is nine months pregnant and could deliver at any moment.

"We have patients coming all day," said Shapiro. "it's a constant flow of patients."

For more than two million people on the Southern peninsula, this is the only place to get an emergency C-section, the only place with a neonatal intensive care unit.

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St. Boniface has Haiti's only neonatal ICU. CBS News

Shapiro said, "We have 35 babies here. Over 95 percent of these babies were born here at the hospital, at the maternity center."

Glor asked, "If this unit weren't here, what would happen to these kids?"

"It's very difficult to talk about, but if this unit weren't here, these babies would all die," he replied.

"And what percent of them who are here survive?"

"Right now we've been able to make it so that 85 percent of the babies here survive," said Shapiro.

St. Boniface has become one of the primary teaching hospitals in all of Haiti. It houses the spinal cord trauma center that treated many of the people injured in the earthquake.

"I think what's great is we're not treating most of those spinal cord injured patients who came from the earthquake. The reason is they're back home living their lives," said Shapiro. "They've learned how to become productive members of society, despite their handicap. We've been able to reach our goal of reintegrating them and allowing them to go back to being full, productive members of society." 

That could not be more true for Maxsony Personna. Every morning he wheels himself up the hill to work at St. Boniface, helping people just as they helped him. Personna was trapped under rubble for three days after the earthquake. When he was pulled out, he was told he would never walk again.

Glor asked him, "Where would you be if it weren't for this place?"

"I don't know, maybe I'd be in the street, maybe I'd find some place to live. I don't know where I'd be," he said.

"You very likely might not be alive?" Glor asked.

"Yes, absolutely."

St. Boniface does not turn any patients away. They also receive no money from the Haitian government. They survive on a mix of private donations and outside grants.

Dr. Inobert Pierre is in charge of running the hospital on a daily basis. He's been at St. Boniface for 18 years. "I think we inspire people, and that's why also teaching has been more and more part of what we do here, because we want to inspire a new model in the Haitian healthcare system," he said, "and with not tons of finances, there are ways to improve the healthcare system with some commitment, accountability and hard work."

Glor asked Shapiro why St. Boniface has succeeded, when so many others have failed: "There's no magic potion here, it's just been this slow, successful build that has been given time?"

"Yes, absolutely," Shapiro replied. "The community here has been the leader of this project from the beginning. They are the ones now working here at the hospital.

"Really, it's about investing in the Haitian people, in the physicians, the health practitioners, the nurses, lab techs who are here already. And we need to invest in them to be able to provide that care. There are lots of excuses for why things can go wrong in Haiti. But we just don't accept any of them because we know that this is the right thing to do."

  • For more information about Health Equity International, which oversees St. Boniface, go to healthequityintl.org.