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Avi and Dr. Galit M. Sacajiu Jerry Szubin

Two years after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, medical students at Quisqueya University earlier this month took part in the island nation’s first “White Coat Ceremony,” marking the commitment of medical students there to providing compassionate, patient-based care.

This symbolic ritual for future doctors, now common at U.S. and Israeli medical schools, was introduced in 1993 by the Englewood Cliffs-based Arnold P. Gold Foundation. It has since spread to 18 countries, including Afghanistan, Japan, and now Haiti, thanks to the efforts of Tenafly resident Dr. Galit M. Sacajiu.

“Some of you may be asking yourselves, when medical school buildings and operating rooms have yet to be rebuilt and a single medical textbook is a luxury, when we have no laboratories, and so many of our brothers and sisters still live in makeshift homes, why invest in an event such as this ceremony of humanism in medicine?” asked Sacajiu, in her remarks at the Jan. 16 ceremony.

“My answer is this: When everything else is broken, our human dignity needs to stand whole,” she said. “When pain and suffering is all around us, we as physicians must heal with compassion, as well as with medicine. This ceremony is both a celebration and a reminder of the physician’s vow to practice the art of healing with love, respect, and dignity.”

Sacajiu is president of the non-profit Haiti Medical Education (HME) Project, which secured the Gold Foundation grant for the ceremony. HME provides curriculum development, distance learning, and continuing medical education to Haitian medical students and physicians. It has become Sacajiu’s full-time job since its spring 2010 founding.

Sacajiu, a kibbutz-born internist and public health educator, was among a group of 10 that went to Haiti in March 2010 under the auspices of New York City Medics to treat people suffering from postoperative infections two months after the earthquake.

“Five of us worked with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative on the border with the Dominican Republic in what used to be an elementary school,” Sacajiu told The Jewish Standard.

Four medical students she met there described the inadequate medical education facilities in Haiti – a situation worsened by the earthquake, which destroyed much infrastructure.

“You could see that their dream of becoming a physician was almost lost,” said Sacajiu, who agreed to give a lecture at the end of each long work day. “Their stories really moved me greatly, and I realized the most important thing I could do was to get involved in medical education in Haiti.”

Soon after she returned to Tenafly, Sacajiu met with Avi Lewinson, executive director of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, where her husband, Avi, is also a board member. Lewinson introduced her to Dr. Sandra Gold, president and CEO of the Gold Foundation, to discuss getting much-needed medical textbooks to devastated Haitian medical schools.

“I was really impressed with her energy,” Gold recalled. “I could see she was a person who could make things happen and she was absolutely passionate about helping the medical scene in Haiti.”

Sacajiu, a member of Physicians for Human Rights, started a new organization only after determining that no other group was addressing this specific issue. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which maintained a presence in Haiti for almost a year following the earthquake, encouraged her to come back that April to assess realities and needs in person. She has flown to Haiti every six weeks or so ever since.

The Kaplen JCC’s Lewinson recalled that when Sacajiu first returned from Haiti, she wanted to have more of “a profound effect” than just volunteering her time. “She wanted to do something to help rebuild the hospital and she realized the only way to do that was to start a not-for-profit,” he said.

In addition to Sacajiu, HME’s founders include a cadre of health-care providers, academics, and social activists with experience in the Haiti relief effort. The group has partnered with such top universities as McGill in Montreal and Dartmouth in New Hampshire, as well as Sacajiu’s alma mater, New York University.

Her top priority is sustainability. “The best people to take care of Haitian patients are Haitian physicians,” she said. “Although it’s extremely important to have emergency personnel coming in to help, we don’t speak the language and we don’t know the culture. We also take away the livelihood of Haitian physicians by giving free care and by giving the impression that we are better doctors. So we must empower Haitian physicians, who also suffered personally and professionally in the aftermath of the earthquake.”

HME works with all four Haitian medical schools in addition to the Ministry of Health, the Haiti Medical Association, and other NGOs in order to identify needs and initiate projects to fill those needs – preferably with partners already in Haiti. “One key to our success is that right from the get-go we had a Haitian man, Drake Delvoix, directing our activities on the ground,” she says.

“We are looking at the big picture of bringing medical education in Haiti to standards acceptable in North America, and we also work with policy-makers on issues such as licensing standards,” says Sacajiu, a mother of three who was honored in 2011 by the American Red Cross of Northern New Jersey for her volunteer work at home and abroad.

The White Coat Ceremony engenders reflection on the human condition and its relationship to medicine, Gold said, which made the ceremony a natural fit in Haiti.

“Morale is such an important ingredient in how each day is faced,” Gold said. “The White Coat Ceremony speaks to the standard of medicine, which is that it’s very important to be excellent in the science and to use the technology on behalf of your patients, but doctors need to be as compassionate as they are cutting edge. Few populations need compassion more than the people of Haiti.”

Quisqueya University is the only medical school in Haiti to have received the White Coat Ceremony grant to date, but Gold encouraged other schools in the country to apply, as well. “Galit is interested in bringing that tradition to other schools in Haiti,” she said.

HME is involved with a number of other projects in the country, as well, including teaching anatomy without the usual aids.

“All four medical schools lost their anatomy labs and cadavers,” Sacajiu explained. “We cannot wait until we build another lab, which will take two years, so we are working on creating a substitute way to teach anatomy. Until now, it’s been taught with chalk and blackboard, since they do not even have textbooks.”

HME has helped secure anatomical models and sophisticated software for online dissection, and has brought in experts from the United States to formulate the best curriculum for teaching anatomy under these conditions.

In another project, HME upgraded the audio and videoconferencing system at a pediatric hospital in Port-au-Prince to facilitate a weekly clinical consultation with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and helped adapt the hospital’s medical education curriculum.

In between trips, Sacajiu solicits support for HME and raises awareness of the range of humanitarian initiatives in Haiti. She also is a board member of Tenafly’s Department of Health and is involved in the Thurnauer School of Music at the Kaplen JCC.

“If Galit puts her mind to doing something, you get out of the way and she gets it done,” Lewinson said. “This was the kind of thing that had a lot more involved with it – her own expense, the time, the commitment. She thinks very big.”

“It’s been quite an experience for me personally and professionally, using everything I’ve learned and more,” Sacajiu said. “The ongoing visiting to Haiti is very important, letting our Haitian partners define goals and objectives. Things we take for granted here are complete luxuries there, and they should not be luxuries for someone becoming a physician.”

Josh Lipowsky contributed to this article.

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Dr. Galit Sacajiu with, from left, medical students Djamson Mereste, Marc Johnson, and George Dorilien at a field hospital by Fond Parisien on the border with the Dominican Republic in March 2010.