Commentary: From Haiti, a different view of health care in the U.S.

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A young Haitian recovers from hernia surgery. Care that would be easily available in the States can be nonexistent in Haiti.

Anthony V. Coletta

is president of Facilitated Health Networks at Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia

As doctors, we all carry with us the stories of patients whose lives were forever changed because of a timely diagnosis and/or treatment that we were able to provide. I carry Daniel Smith with me.

Daniel is a young Haitian man I met six years ago during a medical mission to Port-au-Prince. He suffered a rare, benign tumor in his jaw that not only caused great discomfort but disfigured his face.

In 2011, Daniel visited the clinic where our team was set up and I could sense the ridicule and scorn his condition had caused him. He needed more help than we could give him in Haiti. But I knew the help he needed and I knew where he could get it.

With the help of Angel Missions and the Haitian Connection Network - as well as Philadelphia's own Thomas Jefferson University Hospital - we were able to bring Daniel to the United States for the high-quality, life-changing treatment he needed. And today, Daniel is thriving at home in Haiti.

Daniel and other patients like him are the reason I became a doctor and why I've remained committed to the health-care industry for more than 30 years.

In 2006, while a practicing general surgeon at Bryn Mawr Hospital in the Philadelphia suburbs, I volunteered for my first medical mission to Haiti. It was a transformative moment in my career and, truthfully, my life. I couldn't believe how little infrastructure and resources the country had.

During that first mission, I was able to relieve the suffering - and save the life - of a 55-year-old man with an incarcerated (or stuck) hernia. It can be fatal without surgery and in Haiti it just wouldn't have been available if we hadn't been there.

Right now, the way care is accessed by millions of Americans is dramatically shifting and evolving. While this rightly dominates much of our national conversation on health care, too often we lose sight of just how incredible and precious our health-care infrastructure is.

What my first patient and Daniel suffered in Haiti is something that we, as Americans, could likely never imagine for ourselves or our children.

To address these needs, I founded the Blue Sky Surgical Team. Made up of doctors and nurses from the Philadelphia region - most of whom volunteer their time and money - this team provides much-needed surgical care to the people of Haiti. As one of the first on the ground there after the devastating 2010 earthquake, I was further inspired to grow our team and we continue to take medical missions every year. In fact, we just returned from Port-au-Prince after 10 days of seeing patients and performing close to 100 surgeries.

I've watched Haiti struggle during the last 11 years and I see how deep the devastation runs, especially since the earthquake. While on the ground, we've met patients who would give anything for the most basic care and facilities we sometimes take for granted in the United States. Just 700 miles from Miami, the Haitian people often suffer - and die - from conditions easily treated and cured here because of the lack of health-care options available.

I'm proud of the partnership we've created among the doctors, nurses, and health professionals who join these missions. From Holy Redeemer, Temple, and Main Line Health Systems, to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and Tandigm Health, the team performs everything from small outpatient procedures to more complicated cases - like the little boy we saw this year who had two massive hernias that needed to be fixed. Our patients range from eight months to 90 years of age.

It's exhausting but reinvigorating. We take Haiti home with us and our work here is informed by what we've witnessed there. We return with critical lessons learned about how we can provide more collaborative and efficient care here. We learn how to provide more with less. Haiti reminds us why health care matters.

As we work through a dynamic and uncertain time in health care, I think of Haiti and Daniel often. While there may be debate about how to best deliver care in America, there should be little debate about how fortunate we are to have a health-care system at all - one that, at its best, can heal and transform all at once.

blueskysurgical@gmail.com

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