Alumni Fighting For Haiti
ND Haiti Program Reflection
By Emily Conron
I never thought that choosing common human diseases over astronomy when crafting my class schedule for my first semester at Notre Dame would lead me to found a club, (attempt to) learn Creole, undertake a research project that wedded my interests in neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), psychology, and theology, land a job at a global health advocacy organization, and travel to Haiti – twice. But sometimes the seemingly insignificant choices in life have an outsize impact on our path. Mine was a winding one from Fr. Tom Streit’s class to my current position with the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases’ END7 campaign, but at every point along the way I’ve been grateful that my freshman science requirement connected me to the Notre Dame Haiti Program.
When Fr. Tom introduced our class to NTDs, I was hooked nearly immediately and wanted to get involved in the effort to control and eliminate these diseases of poverty. With his guidance, I co-founded ND Fighting NTDs, a student-driven fundraising and advocacy initiative (which paved the way for me to land my first job out of college coordinating student outreach for the END7 campaign). The more I learned about NTDs and the exceptional work of the Notre Dame Haiti Program, the more I wanted to see the impact of these diseases firsthand. After a summer interning with the Program on campus and approximately three hundred pleading emails, phone calls, and meetings with the Notre Dame administration, I set off for Léogâne in January of 2013 to spend the last ten days before my last semester at ND researching the impact of religious beliefs and practices on the mental health of lymphatic filariasis patients. I had the incredible privilege of interviewing thirty patients under the care of the Program, spending hours listening to their stories of pain, perseverance, and hope. At the age of twenty-one, I had never seen suffering like I saw in Haiti. But I had also never felt more strongly that I was called in some small way to relieve it – to figure out how to translate my emotions into actions. I am so grateful to the Program for giving me – and countless Notre Dame students before and after me – that transformative experience.
After nearly two years working full-time on NTD advocacy and fundraising, I was ready to revisit that experience. With a former coworker who had organized a fundraiser for the Program in D.C., I returned to Léogâne this past March to reconnect with the patients whose stories had moved me so deeply senior year. We spent five days recording interviews and taking portraits of patients and Program staff to share at a fundraiser we are planning for this fall. I reunited with Robinson, my all-star translator and guide to Léogâne; heard firsthand how much Antoinette’s life had improved since she started working for the Program; got an update on Haiti’s progress towards the elimination of LF from Dr. Desir, Jean-Marc, and Fr. Tom; and met more patients who stories made me laugh, cry, and remember why I am committed to seeing the end of NTDs.
Shortly before my trip, I read Pope Francis’ Lenten message, and was struck by this line: “How greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present…may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!” I have seen firsthand that the Haiti Program is truly an “island of mercy” on an island where mercy can be hard to find, where indifference at many levels – local, national, and global – has allowed a preventable and treatable disease to cause so much unnecessary suffering. The Haiti Program, through its dedicated staff and generous supporters, is combating that indifference through healing, a work of mercy that will extend to generations to come with the elimination of LF and continued care for those already infected. I feel blessed to have witnessed it.