Woodward: Want to help Haiti? Help father Rick at St. Damien hospital

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BY Tim Woodward – Idaho Statesman
January 24, 2010
Source of article

It’s hard for us, here in our comfortable Idaho haunts, to get our heads around the carnage in Haiti.

You could say that about Haiti almost anytime. The long-suffering nation recalls the old blues lyric, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” Hurricanes, floods, tyranny, crime, grinding poverty and now almost unimaginable devastation.

Luckily, however, the quake spared one of its brightest lights. The Rev. Rick Frechette was in the United States, visiting his terminally ill mother, when his adopted country took yet another hit.

Reaching Frechette, who oversees Haiti’s St. Damien Hospital, is all but impossible. When he returned there in the Dominican Republic’s presidential helicopter (that’s how crucial his work is), there was almost no communication left with the outside world. No Internet, no working phones. He had an associate send a news update for him via satellite.

His beloved St. Damien, Haiti’s only free pediatric hospital, was without water and almost out of diesel fuel. Some of its walls had fallen. But it appears to be the only hospital still standing in the Port-au-Prince area, Haiti’s capital.

St. Damien shares a bond with Boise’s Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center. Saint Al’s helped build its guest house and provided it with a lab and X-ray system through its Project Haiti. Fr. Rick, as virtually everyone calls him, visits St. Al’s every few years. No one who has met him will forget him.

That’s not an exaggeration. The man is one of two people I know who would get my unqualified endorsement for sainthood.

The son of a well-to-do Connecticut family, he didn’t need to devote his life to helping the people of the poorest country in our hemisphere. He could be living a life of luxury. Instead, he became a Passionist priest.

Half of Haiti’s children die of disease or starvation by age 5. He’s seen kids so desperate for food that they were vomiting earthworms.

That moved him so deeply that he’s spent 22 years trying to help. Realizing he couldn’t do enough as a priest alone, he studied by candlelight during nightly blackouts and became a doctor. He co-founded a hospital and helped start an orphanage and school. He improved sanitation, vaccinated children and got food and medicine to poor families’ homes.

His compassion is unceasing. He was hardly off the plane from visiting his sick mother when he was evacuating volunteers and visitors and caring for the sick and the dead.

“We had 18 funerals today,” his update said. “Other sadnesses – the death of Immacula, our only physician assistant, who worked at our huge outpatient side of our hospital. The death of all but one of Joseph Ferdinand’s brothers and sisters, the death of the husband of Jacqueline Gautier as he was visiting a school that fell on the students (all died) Other stories of deaths of people dear to us keep coming in.”

As of last week, that includes his mother. Fr. Rick was able to make it back to be with her when she died. But he’s already back in Haiti, helping the living.

The last time I saw him was three years ago. He and his assistants were trying to change a system in which parents are so poor they give up their kids because they can’t feed them. Since then, according to Project Haiti coordinator Debbie Hamilton, “a rehab center has been built where mothers of disabled kids drop them off for the day. They get food and physical therapy while their moms work.”

A new educational center near St. Damien has been teaching impoverished Haitians culinary and mechanical skills. For the first time, they know hope.

And now, as has happened so many times in Haiti, the efforts of good-hearted people to help have been upended by disaster.

©2010 Idaho Statesman

Tim Woodward: 377-6409

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