Doctors and nurses on a volunteer medical team in the summer of 2015 serving at Hopital Sacré Coeur in Milot, Haiti, included, from left to right, Mary Ella Carter, a plastic surgeon; Dr. Albert Fleury Jr., also a plastic surgeon; Colette Magnant, breast cancer surgeon and general surgeon; Sally Reinholdt, operating room nurse; Dr. Andrew Umhau, internal medicine; Missy Stockstill, recovery room nurse; Dr. Marjorie Brennan, pediatric anesthesiologist; and Kitty Haywood, operating room physicians assistant. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DR. ALBERT FLEURY JR.)
Doctors and nurses on a volunteer medical team in the summer of 2015 serving at Hopital Sacré Coeur in Milot, Haiti, included, from left to right, Mary Ella Carter, a plastic surgeon; Dr. Albert Fleury Jr., also a plastic surgeon; Colette Magnant, breast cancer surgeon and general surgeon; Sally Reinholdt, operating room nurse; Dr. Andrew Umhau, internal medicine; Missy Stockstill, recovery room nurse; Dr. Marjorie Brennan, pediatric anesthesiologist; and Kitty Haywood, operating room physicians assistant. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DR. ALBERT FLEURY JR.)

Even though Pope Francis constantly encourages Catholics to “go out,” organizers of a local fundraiser are inviting people to stay in, for a good cause.

The “Stay-at-Home Gala” on Nov. 18 organized by supporters in the Washington area will benefit Hôpital Sacré Coeur (French for Sacred Heart Hospital) in Milot, Haiti.

Gala participants can save money on formal wear, baby sitters, parking and dinner, and instead, 100 percent of their donations can help fund improvements to the hospital, like a post-anesthesia care unit (recovery room), a new pediatric and obstetrics/gynecology building, a new intensive care unit, and support for a cardiac care program.

In 2008, the first fundraiser, “A Taste of Haiti,” was designed as a Sunday brunch with Haitian food, but for the past three years, it has morphed into the Stay-at-Home Gala. This year, a committee of leaders from local Catholic schools is also helping to promote the event, reflecting their schools’ priority in training students to serve others.

The event’s website at http://athomeforhaiti.org notes the effort’s mission, “A healthier Haiti, one dignified life at a time,” which reflects the goal of teams of volunteer medical professionals who go to Haiti to care for patients and work with and train medical colleagues there, while also supporting fundraising efforts like the gala to provide the hospital with cutting edge equipment.

And actually, that outreach, and the “Stay-at-Home Gala,” reflect Pope Francis’s message of going out and accompanying people where they are, bringing Christ’s love and hope to those on the margins of society, like the poor.

That spirit could be seen at a recent gathering of doctors and nurses who gathered at the home of Dr. Albert Fleury Jr. and his wife Mimi in Chevy Chase, to reflect on their work in Haiti, noting that their volunteer work there was life-changing for them, and often life-saving for the patients they serve.

The Fleurys are on a committee of 64 people organizing the gala, and Dr. Fleury estimates he has participated in and helped lead about 10-12 weeklong medical missions to Hôpital Sacré Coeur in the past decade.

Dr. Fleury, a plastic surgeon in the Washington area and member of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, has stage-4 of a rare kind of skin cancer and can no longer perform operations, but he continues to organize and join the medical teams going to Haiti, serving as the jovial ringmaster for the volunteers. He has joked that in his older years, he learned French, thinking he could be a “bon vivant” enjoying Paris with his wife, but it turned out his newfound ability to speak French has enabled him to work with doctors and patients at the hospital in Haiti, and help train medical        professionals there about new treatments and technology.

Volunteering with friends – and meeting new friends – in Haiti, has become an integral part of his life, he said.

“Mimi and I really believe what (Saint) John Paul II said, about nothing happening by coincidence,” he said, reflecting on how that hospital in Haiti has become an integral part of his life. “I think I was meant to be there. I do believe in divine intervention.”

Dr. Fleury’s father was a pioneer plastic surgeon who taught at Georgetown University, and in turn his son Christopher has been inspired by his work and service in Haiti to become a doctor and work in that specialty.

“A huge part of plastic surgery is problem solving,” Dr. Albert Fleury Jr. said. “The ability to come up with solutions is extraordinarily gratifying, especially when people say it can’t be done.”

The teams of about 6-12 medical volunteers usually includes a chief medical officer coordinating the care, plastic surgeons who primarily deal with issues like wounds or burns, surgeons operating on breast cancer cases and providing general surgery, anesthesiologists, and nurses who serve in operating and recovery rooms.

At Hôpital Sacré Coeur, Dr. Fleury’s patients he has helped include a baby with cleft palette who now has a beaming smile, and a young man who had a large tumor removed from the side of his face. He also performed surgery on a man who had fallen, broken his heel and had an open wound, and who afterward was able to walk and wear normal shoes again and return to work.

Dr. Fleury and volunteers had left Haiti days before the devastating 2010 earthquake there, and returned six weeks later to assist local doctors and nurses there in heroic work caring for thousands of patients in tents outside the hospital.

Along the way, he learned that he couldn’t be daunted by the medical challenges facing Haiti, concentrating on helping one patient at a time, and he said he also learned something about the true meaning of joy from people, may of whom lived in small homes without electricity and running water, yet still had faith and hope.

“What I came home with after the first trip (in 2008), it wasn’t so much what they don’t have and can’t do, it was what they could do with what little they had,” Dr. Fleury said, adding, “you would come home, (and think), we live in an industrialized society, look at all we have. They have nothing and seem happier than I am. How can they have such joy with so little?”

The doctor added, “We go back because we can make a difference.”

And the volunteer team members develop a special chemistry among themselves, that keeps them coming back together, he said.

Ten years ago, Dr. Richard Perry, an internist who taught at Georgetown and served in Washington, invited some other local Catholic doctors, including Dr. Fleury and Dr. William Battle, to join him on a team serving at Hôpital Sacré Coeur. Dr. Perry had been inspired by that hospital’s work and by the crucial services it provided, noting it is not uncommon for people to walk a day or two to receive care or pick up medicine for family members.

Later Dr. Perry noted that serving there helps medical professionals understand a Creole adage about Haiti – “the heart cannot feel what the eye has not seen” – one has to go to Haiti to really understand the needs of the people there, and their special spirit.

Dr. Battle – who specializes in cardiovascular medicine – could attest to that. Witnessing the hospital’s staff and volunteers, and the service they provided with such    limited resources, reminded him of Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and fishes. “There’s no question in my mind that when we go there, we do a lot of good,” he said.

And Dr. Battle has gained corporate and private support to help establish cardiac care units at the hospital serving young mothers and children, using state-of-the art technology like ultrasound machines and cloud storage to keep records and make diagnoses. The member of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac, who helped found Catholic Charities’ volunteer Health Care Network, describes his experiences in Haiti and what he has learned from the people there as a gift.

Dr. Marjorie Brennan, a pediatric anesthesiologist born in Haiti who left that country as a young girl and made a homecoming there as a volunteer, said, “You go to Sacré Coeur, and it’s a place you fall in love with.”

That point was echoed by another team member, Dr. Colette Magnant, a general surgeon who works in the breast cancer surgery center at Sibley Memorial Hospital   in Washington, who said, “The thing about Haiti, it reminds you why you became a doctor or a nurse.”

When Christopher Fleury witnessed the work done by his father and other volunteers in an operating room at Hôpital Sacré Coeur, the engineering student changed majors, and changed his life’s path, deciding to become a doctor and serve others, like his dad.

“I knew this was what I wanted to do,” he said, adding that his parents’ example has taught him, “how important it is, no matter what you do, to give back to the community and provide care to those who otherwise wouldn’t get that care.”

Hôpital Sacré Coeur, which has a partnership with Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, New Jersey and is supported by a foundation, CRUDEM (the Center for the Rural Development of Milot) now has 200 beds, and last year had 70,503 outpatient visits and 7,470 hospital admissions.

But the patients aren’t the only ones helped at that hospital in a mountainous region of Haiti. One evening Dr. Fleury’s team was making its evening rounds, approaching the women’s ward, where the patients included a woman who had advanced breast cancer, and a college student who had surgery for severe burns on her legs. They heard the sound of angelic singing, which they learned was the women singing evening prayers, to thank the American doctors and nurses who had come to help them.

Dr. Fleury later told the Catholic Standard, “The reason I’m going back, and the reason we’re putting on the gala, is that sleepy little hospital” has become one of the most important providers of medical care in Haiti.