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25503: Hermantin( news)Fort Lauderdale doctor reaches out to help Haitian prisoners (fwd)
From: leonie hermantin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Fort Lauderdale doctor reaches out to help Haitian prisoners
By Ruth Morris
June 27, 2005
It's not the kind of Caribbean trip most people look forward to. But Dr. John
May couldn't wait to get to Haiti's National Penitentiary, an overcrowded,
primitive prison where seven inmates died in a December riot.
Preparations for last month's trip found him ferreting out cheap toiletries and
medical supplies, not most people's idea of a weekend "treat." But that's how
the Fort Lauderdale physician described a recent hunt for 1,000 toothbrushes at
the Swap Shop, the sprawling central Broward flea market.
"I'm very excited to see there's some lice shampoo," May said brightly, picking
through piles of plastic razors and boxes of Band-Aids displayed on a card
table. The shampoo can be used to treat mild cases of scabies, and May
estimates the skin mite plagues more than half the inmates at the Haitian
prison. Lanky and deferential -- he even haggles politely -- May has always
been drawn toward the rough edges of his profession. His patients are usually
more at risk from bullet wounds than blocked arteries. In his day job, he
serves as medical director for Armor Correctional Health Services, which
provides medical care for the Broward County Jail.
In his spare time, he has started up Health through Walls, a non-profit
organization associated with the Institute for Criminal Justice Healthcare, a
Virginia-based group that advocates for prison health care. The idea is to use
South Florida as a starting point to improve conditions at some of the world's
most overburdened lockups. Some are just a short plane ride away.
In Haiti's National Penitentiary, for example, many inmates use buckets as
toilets. Prisoners without families to bring them food face a diet of
grain-based gruel, and May warns malnutrition is a serious risk.
The facility is the final destination for Haitians deported from the United
States with a criminal past, who are distinguished from other inmates because
they arrive robust and well fed. Human rights monitors say breakouts and riots
are common, and they point to a February attack on the prison by men with
assault rifles as a sign of the facility's instability.
"It's a privilege that they allow me to go in," May said of his visits. Prison
authorities, concerned for his safety, however, have asked him to steer clear
of prisoner living quarters. The medical protocols May has initiated since he
began visiting the prison favor practical advice over dramatic saves, but "I've
seen results," he said. May has initiated tuberculosis screenings and is
teaching staff to read slides under a microscope he provided. His prodding has
also led nurses to keep logs of medicines they dispense.
"You see people at their best under adverse conditions," May said.
On his recent trip to Haiti, May delivered a freight container stocked with
computer equipment and an X-ray machine, among other supplies. It was the
second shipment of its size the organization donated. The first went to
Tanzania, filled with filing cabinets and cots to furnish a prison infirmary
May described as "clay bricks and a dirt floor."
Colleagues portray May as under-funded and unsung.
"When we go into the penitentiary, the conditions are hard. It's excruciatingly
hot. There's no real exam table. Everything is makeshift," said Michelle
Karshan, a former spokeswoman for Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and
founder of the Alternative Chance counseling program for criminal deportees to
Haiti. "And he treats people with total dignity, total respect ... he's not a
know-it-all coming in," added Karshan, who has accompanied May on a prison
May, 43, is quick to credit volunteers and private donors who make the
shipments possible, but his work bears the stamp of a one-man band. He put
$1,500 of his own money into shipping the container to Haiti and spends much of
his free time writing to American corrections facilities to ask for leftover
medicines, second-hand inhalers or half-used skin creams. He travels once or
twice a month to overseas prisons, often on his own dime.
Asked what attracts him to such dusty, downtrodden places, he recalled a summer
during medical school when he moved into a Chicago church perched at the edge
of a gang-ravaged neighborhood. Twelve people had been killed on his block the
May started playing basketball with gang members and invited fellow medical
students from Loyola University's Stritch School of Medicine to join in. Along
with a dedicated priest, he helped some hunt for jobs and apartments.
"We came to know them as people," he said of the gang members, who were only a
few years younger then he was at the time. No one was shot that summer.
"That's when I felt best about my career path. I saw solvable problems ... It
clicks for me," he added.
Later, May would alternate his medical studies with reading on gun violence. He
helped establish standardized questions to assess patients' exposure to
weapons, a method published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Today, May's work still calls for heavy doses of pragmatism. On a recent visit
to a prison in the Dominican Republic, he encouraged nurses to take prisoners'
vital signs as they were admitted. His suitcases are typically packed with soap
and toothbrushes, not just pharmaceuticals.
But the country that consumes much of his effort is Haiti, the poorest in the
hemisphere and still rocked by political upheaval. May says nothing he's seen
in West Africa prepared him for the nation's stark desperation. "It's a sad
poverty. In Haiti, there seem to be forces outside of the people that keep
tearing down their success," he said, sitting at a fast-food stall on a break
from shopping, and talking over the sound of Andean flutes.
Then he turned to tuberculosis again, which has been rising in foreign-born
U.S. patients during the last decade, even as overall U.S. infection rates
decline. Diseases don't respect borders, he noted, adding, "We need to be aware
that what happens on other shores affects us."
Ruth Morris can be reached at email@example.com or 305-810-5012.
Copyright © 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel