The injustice of poverty compels Fr. Frechette to care for Haiti's orphans

July 1, 2013


ANAHEIM, Calif. — Daily headlines scream the world is a tough place, and the playing field is uneven. Anger over the injustices motivates Fr. Richard Frechette, CP, to get involved.

This priest and physician has been laboring for 30 years to improve the spiritual and physical health of some of the world's sickest and poorest people. He delivered the June 4 keynote address to participants in the 2013 Catholic Health Assembly and the concurrent 2013 Global Health Summit for those who provide medical equipment and supplies and sponsor projects that support health care delivery in the developing world. Both CHA-sponsored meetings had the theme "Living Mission in a Changing World."

Fr. Frechette is director of medical services for Nuestros Peque–os Hermanos International (Spanish for "Our Little Brothers and Sisters") and national director of NPH Haiti. He oversees that organization's 150-bed St. Damien Hospital, a pediatric hospital in Tabarre, on the outskirts of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.

Although Fr. Frechette's original goal when he was ordained as a Passionist priest in 1979 was to minister to spiritual needs, his work with orphaned and abandoned children, first in Mexico, then in Honduras and Haiti, and his growing awareness of their overwhelming health needs, led him to seek a degree in medicine.

Mexico was a shock, but Honduras made Mexico look like a cakewalk, and Haiti made Honduras seem like Southern California, he said.

"The simplest things" — malnutrition, sicknesses that were eliminated in the U.S. a long time ago, bad water, lack of access to antibiotics — contribute to terrible public health conditions in Haiti made worse by the country's poverty, a shortage of hospitals and doctors and the continuing after effects of 2010's catastrophic earthquake.

"Yes, it's a very uneven playing field," he said. "Sooner or later, statistics have to walk off the page and enter deep into our hearts until we can't stand it — until they wake us up. And then the anger gives us the energy we need" to work for social justice.

The goal of medicine "is to even the field," he said. "Just as we are working very hard to turn swords into plowshares, we should be working very hard to turn cries into laughter." He added, "It is just so right for us to do it."

Fr. Frechette said the work at the hospital in Haiti is challenged on every level. "We're on our own for electricity, for security, for pharmacy," he said. "And when we go into the hills to take care of needs, there is no follow-up. It's just a one-shot chance at help."

After the 2010 earthquake, St. Damien was still standing, and so it became "a triage nightmare," a magnet for waves of victims, he said. With the help of Mayo Clinic, "we set up a field hospital on the parking lot" to keep patients clean and medicated until they could get inside. "There was so much generous help pouring in, it was unbelievable," he said.

Ultimately, the work, then and now, could not be done without such partners and support, he said, singling out CHA member Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho, the Catholic Medical Mission Board and Caritas Internationalis for their ongoing contributions.

"It's tough but not impossible, when you cling to the Gospel, when you are fully driven by faith, when you reinforce the work with the Scriptures and the advice of good friends," Fr. Frechette said. "Then you find the strength to do it."


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.