Helping out in Haiti feels like her destiny

Early Monday morning, before the muted winter sun peeks through the windows of her New London apartment, Jessica Patti will gather her suitcases to take the next big step toward total immersion in the place that has come to consume her life.

"How lucky am I?" Patti asked last week, during a rare moment of reflection amid a busy week of packing, goodbye gatherings with friends and other preparations.

Lucky, she said, because at age 35, she's living exactly the life she wants to live, and one that, every day, seems as if it's becoming more so. When she boards her flight out of JFK International Airport to Haiti Monday - probably her 50th trip to the impoverished island in the last 3½ years - she'll be leaving the United States not to return for at least six months.

When, and if, she does come back, it would be just for a temporary stay, because her permanent home will be in Cité Soleil, the notoriously destitute slum outside the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, in the apartment she has already made arrangements to rent.

"I have to pack very differently this time from the other times, because I have to bring stuff to live there for six months," said Patti, a registered nurse in the emergency department at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich.

In the past trips, which lasted from a couple of days to three weeks, donated medicines and medical supplies often made up much of her baggage. This time, however, her immediate focus won't be on using such supplies in the weekend medical clinics she and other volunteer doctors and nurses staffed through the nonprofit group she helped found, Raising Haiti, in the months just before the devastating earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010.

It will be on establishing a permanent clinic.

Since the earthquake and in its aftermath, the cholera epidemic and the heartbreakingly slow progress toward rebuilding, groups of four or five Raising Haiti volunteers at a time have kept returning to Cité Soleil, drawing from a pool of about 20 southeastern Connecticut residents with a variety of medical skills and a common urge to do what they could to help fill Haiti's enormous needs.

"It's kind of changed my life," said Brandy Patterson of Lisbon, a Backus paramedic who has volunteered twice with Raising Haiti along with her mother, medical assistant Kim Magness. "When I came home, I looked at this giant fish tank I have and I was feeding the fish, and this sadness came over me that there are all these children in Haiti who are so malnourished. I would sacrifice many things in my life to continue to do this."

If a charity group can have a soulmate, Raising Haiti found it recently, in a Vero Beach, Fla., group called Haiti Clinic. In January, the two groups ran a joint three-day clinic in the Cité Soleil neighborhood, seeing some 400 patients each day needing care for everything from still-unhealed amputations after the earthquake to skin infections, worms, burns from cooking fires and seizures.

Now, the two groups are making the arrangement permanent.

"We were working 15 minutes away from each other, and it's the same mission," Patti said. "It's dumb not to work together."

When she returns to Haiti this time, her purpose will be directed toward buying or renting a building where a new, larger group - the product of the merger of Raising Haiti and Haiti Clinic - will establish a permanent primary care clinic to serve the residents of Cité Soleil day-to-day, and also host volunteer doctors and nurses from the United States for special weekend clinics.

By the time Haiti Clinic - the merged entity is keeping the older group's name - has its next clinic at the end of March, Patti also hopes to have hired two Haitian doctors and two Haitian nurses to staff the clinic full-time, providing consistent medical care in a community where virtually none exists.

"It's very exciting," said Jennifer Tossie, executive director of Haiti Clinic. "It's going to be a true asset, having Jessica there in Haiti. She has tons of energy."

While Patti will be running the group's operations from Haiti, Tossie will be in charge on the U.S. side, overseeing fundraising, volunteer recruitment and the planning of weekend clinics. A budget of about $170,000 annually, Patti said, is enough for the whole operation, including modest salaries for herself and Tossie, the Haitian doctors and nurses plus running the clinic. The arrangement, she said, suits her perfectly.

"I'm much better there in Haiti and she's much better here," said Patti, adding that she often found the transition back to the United States harder than adjusting to Haiti. "Finances are the hardest part for me. It's where I fall short. But I realize this thing has to be run like a business."

Patterson, like other Raising Haiti volunteers, met Patti at work. Hearing about the clinics, Patterson, 33, was soon swept up by the idea of channeling her commitment to helping others - she's long been involved with the volunteer ambulance crew in her town - toward one of the world's poorest places, one just 700 miles from U.S. shores, reachable in under two hours by plane from Miami.

"I'm so glad I got to meet her," Patterson said of Patti. "Jessica single-handedly can do amazing things in Haiti. She's a completely different person when she's there. She's happy. She was meant to do this."

For Patti, the chance to apply her medical skills in a place where she knows they can make a real difference has kept her motivated. Backus, she said, has been very supportive of her efforts, allowing her the scheduling flexibility she's needed and donating supplies. And when she has gotten discouraged, her large network of friends has kept her going.

"To identify what drives me is difficult," she said. "It's just important. I'm not important. I just have this skill. I'm a nurse, and these are human beings. It just made sense. It's just a small dent."

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