Haitian medical student seeks to aid his homeland, while praying for family’s safety

- By Ruthann Richter

Jonathan Rabinovitz Haiti student

Johan Guillaume, a first-year medical student who was born in Haiti, has not been able to reach his relatives in the earthquake-stricken nation.

As the first reports flowed in on the catastrophic quake in his native Haiti, Stanford medical student Johan Guillaume lowered his head and began to pray.

“After I watched the news, that was the first thing I did,” he recalled. “I prayed for my family.”

He prayed for his wise, aging grandmother, whom he calls "mama," and who used to make his favorite dish of Creole-style beans, rice and fish. And he prayed for the aunts, uncles and many cousins who live in the devastated capital of Port-au-Prince. On Jan. 19, a week after the quake, he received his first news from them in a brief phone call.

“I was extremely thrilled to learn they are all right, and none of them have major injuries,” he said. “I feel very lucky.”

Their home had been destroyed, and like many other Haitians, they had been sleeping in the street.

“Nothing was saved, except for their lives. That is the only thing we cared for.

So we are very happy, even though the family has nothing left.”

Guillaume, 23, was raised in a culture where struggle has always been a way of life and where people have always found hope and joy amid the chaos and challenges of their daily routines.

“One thing you learn growing up in Haiti is that there is hope, even in the face of adversity,” he said. “People have found ways to be happy despite the things going on around them. We are used to a lot of struggle, which is why I’m a bit optimistic.  Some people will find a way to survive, but they will need a lot of assistance.”

Guillaume has been organizing a student effort to collect needed medical supplies, such as medications and surgical supplies, for shipment to Haiti. He and colleagues have collected seven boxes of supplies from Stanford Hospital that were shipped this weekend to Hopital Albert Schweitzer, which has one of the few active operating rooms near the ravaged city of Port-au-Prince. Lyonel Carre, MD, a Stanford surgery resident and Haitian native, also was able to obtain donated supplies from Kaiser Hospital to be sent to the Haitian facility, he said.  The students have been working with Michele Barry, MD, the medical school's senior dean for global health, as well as other faculty, in coordinating logistics for the relief effort.

“The faculty have been extremely helpful, as usual,” he said. In general, he said he was grateful for the outpouring on campus for Haiti relief. “I’m thankful that many people here have been very supportive,” he said of the Stanford community’s response to the calamity.

An MD/PhD candidate, Guillaume hopes someday to be a research scientist focused on finding treatments for diseases that are prevalent in Haiti and other developing countries, but often overlooked by research efforts in the United States.

He grew up in a poor family in northern Haiti, often spending time with his grandmother and other relatives in Port-au-Prince. When he was just 2 years old, his father made the decision to set out alone for Miami, hoping to find a better way to support his wife and two children. A tailor by training, he took whatever odd jobs he could find and sent money back home. Little Guillaume then was raised by his mother, whom he called “one of the most courageous people I know.” He said she encountered many difficulties related to living in Haiti's poor economy and its third-world health-care system.

But “mama,” his maternal grandmother, always insisted that education came before all.

“Among everything else, whatever challenges you have, you have to stay in school,” she would repeatedly tell her children.

But the educational opportunities were limited in Haiti, Guillaume said, so in 2000, he and his immediate family came to the United States and eventually settled in New York, where he was able to finish high school and attend New York University. He has not since returned to Haiti because of political turmoil there. But he has remained in touch with his relatives there, for they were always a close-knit family, he said.

His relatives now have moved north, out of Port-au-Prince, near Guillaume’s birthplace to shelter, he said.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

2023 ISSUE 1

How social factors make or break us