Q&A with Veteran Volunteer Dr. Jack Summer
Jack Summer is an internal medicine physician and clinical professor at The George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Earlier this month, Dr. Summer led a group of faculty and students to the Central Plateau for a week-long medical mission with Project Medishare. Dr. Summer has been leading these groups since 2005, and to date, has accompanied more than 500 GW students and faculty to Haiti to volunteer with Project Medishare. Read our Q&A with Dr. Summer to learn more about his experience volunteering in Haiti, and why he keeps coming back.
What motivated you to study medicine?
When I had to go to university, I was reflecting on how I was going to spend my life. Initially I thought I would study history or maybe go to law school, but it all seemed very boring to me and I realized that I really wanted to help people.
Therefore, I majored in psychology. Understanding how people think was fascinating to me. When thinking about how I could utilize that, I realized that I could study medicine and become a psychiatrist. In fact, I was interested in both the psychological side and the physical side of human beings. But basically, I just really wanted to help people. So, I decided to go to medical school, initially thinking I would study psychiatry. Shortly after, I realized that what I wanted to do is general medicine.
Today in my practice, I treat all types of illnesses. People come to see me for headaches, diabetes, cancer, etc.
When did you come to Haiti for the first time? What was your first impression?
I came to Haiti for the first time in 2005. My first impression was chaos. And it was not a surprise because I had been to other developing countries before. But what struck me the most was the lack of resources and the poverty. I was particularly struck by the way of life of people in the Central Plateau. I witnessed how hard it was for them to live day to day. Everything was a struggle. There was malnutrition. There were no paved roads. Some people died unnecessarily. But the wonderful thing was their state of mind. People were hardworking; they were happy and proud. After all of that, I decided that if I could help in one little way, I would try to do that.
What changes have you noticed over the last 13 years in the health and quality of life of people in the Central Plateau?
Some things have changed dramatically for the better. The national road [leading to the Central Plateau] has changed dramatically. When I first came to Haiti it was four and a half hours from Port-au-Prince to the Central Plateau. Now it is two hours. There are cell phone services; even those with few resources have a cellphone, and that changes everything. There is a little more electricity.
However, there are some things that go up and down over time. In 2009, there was an improvement in the quality of life, but the 2010 earthquake set everything back and it was very noticeable. From 2010 to 2012 there was more poverty…things really deteriorated. I have not seen a continuous improvement in people’s way of life. We still have malnutrition. We still have adults who are starving. I can pass on medicine. I can treat an illness. But there are still so many other needs. That is very frustrating.
But from a medical standpoint, things are definitely better thanks to Project Medishare. I see a very different improvement. The vaccines and the school lunch program, among others, are tremendous. And Project Medishare is very willing to tackle the more chronic illnesses. But the organization cannot do everything.
What motivates you to keep coming back to Haiti?
Three things motivate me to keep coming. First of all, I enjoy it. I enjoy the warmth of people I meet. It is very fun to work with them. They are all lovely people. Some of them have been here from day one and we are friends now. Second, I want to give. I have a very privileged life in the United States. My family is well-provided for and I make as much money as I need to make. This is one way I feel I can at least try to give back. And finally, I think I have some good skills that could be of help. I am told by the team at Project Medishare that what we are doing is helpful. Therefore, it is a mutually beneficial experience.
What is the most memorable experience you’ve had in Haiti?
I have had a lot of good experiences in Haiti. But the one that is now in my mind happened this week. After treating a man for high blood pressure during a mobile clinic, I had the impression that I got him angry, because after giving him a prescription, he looked at me and said something in Creole. I did not understand. Since he wore a sullen face, I thought maybe he didn’t like me. As he walked away, I asked the translator what the man said. He replied, “He wants to thank God that you came to him today.” I felt very good to see that I helped somebody who otherwise didn’t have any other way to get that help.
Thank you Dr. Summer and GW for your long standing partnership with Project Medishare and your commitment to helping us provide Haitian families with health care.