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  • Writer's pictureLouise Lindenmeyr

Heroes and Saints

June 12, 2018 Over the years working internationally, I have met a lot of heroic characters doing spectacular things but nothing lights me up like the legacy of Larry and Gwen Mellon.

Last week I had the privilege of teaching cervical cancer screening and treatment to Haitian doctors, nurses, and midwives at the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer(HAS), on the grounds of the Mellon's famous facility.

William Larimer "Larry" Mellon, son of Gulf Oil founder and CEO, established HAS with Gwen in 1956. A sensitive misfit from the huge Mellon empire, Larry split the gilded life and his studies at Princeton to turn cowboy in the late 1930s, starting a simple ranch in Pecos County, Arizona.

The war soon followed and he served the Office of Strategic Services in counter-intelligence. He returned to branding and roping in '45 and married Gwen, another renegade who escaped the routine of rich housewife, supporting 3 kids by working at a dude ranch.

The couple was settled into a comfortable routine when Larry read an article about Dr. Albert Schweitzer in LIFE magazine in 1947. The work of this Renaissance man who established a hospital in the jungle of Gabon, West Africa, impressed him so intensely that two weeks later he decided to head for medical school, at age 39. He and Gwen started a master plan for opening a hospital modeled after Schweitzer's and settled on Haiti.

She agreed, "we don't want to sit around looking at the damn cows for the rest of our lives."

I worked here with H3 Missions; the project involved 17 volunteers from the US who trained 10 members of HAS's team in pap smear, visual inspection with acetic acid, cryotherapy, colposcopy and LEEP over a two-week period, screening and treating 900 women. Funding was by Rotary International. All equipment to continue the work was left behind for a regular screening program.

Charming stone buildings dot the HAS grounds under massive shade trees

HAS is a 131-bed hospital that serves the people of the Artibonite Valley, an area of about 600 square miles. When Dr. Mellon got there the Valley was rife with the diseases of poverty: tetanus, TB, malaria, malnutrition and a dismal infant mortality rate. Mellon and his wife, now gone for several decades, have left the hospital and large network of preventive and outreach services to a team that is 98% Haitian. It is a jewel to behold, particularly for folks like me who hold a fascination for success stories when it comes to long term health care solutions in low resource settings.

But allow me to be a proud parent and brag about another functional health care system, that of HHP, whose growth many of you have witnessed since birth. I am happy to announce that since the beginning of 2018 we have been awarded several grants for new programs in the community. 

Even more in the U.S., hypertension is the most common health threat by far in southeast Haiti.

High blood pressure is the most common diagnosis at our clinic in SE Haiti and threatens the entire family structure with the real possibility of death or debilitation of the family's primary wage-earner/caregiver. Responding to the lack of community understanding about hypertension and its impact, HHP proposed a six month pilot project. Using our well-established network of community health workers,1800 members of extremely remote communities around our region will be educated and screened about this disease and its impact. With the support of our staff and resources, assessment and treatment will be initiated for those at risk.

The results of this project will be used to create an efficient model for reaching rural people with hypertension nationwide. We are thrilled that the Harney family of Salisbury, CT supported this program with a $7000 gift. Americares and a local pharmacy in Sharon, CT helped provide medicines for this project. We are also proud that the program proposal was penned by one of our Haitian doctors, as we encourage our staff to sharpen their skills in capacity building as they move towards self-sustainability.

HHP was given a $27,000 grant from Conservation, Food and Health Foundation and $1500 from Women International Leaders of Greater Philadelphia to continue our fight against female cancers in southeastern Haiti. This project, Ede Tèt Nou, or “Helping Ourselves,” will bring an innovative method of self-testing for cervical cancer to women in the far corners of the countryside. Again, a network of community health workers will be central in advancing this project, which also includes awareness raising and screening for breast cancer. Collaboration with some key organizations in Haiti helps shape the circle.

"I don't ever really get discouraged-I have a way around it," Larry Mellon said. "We came here to give what we could, what we have, and that's all we can do. Gwen and I both want to be buried where we drop, and that is not important except that it means we stay until the end of our time. We want to finish up as best we can."

-- All the best, Louise

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