Dr. Gregory Von Roenn likely wouldn’t have gone to Haiti if it were not for his daughter.

About a dozen years ago, Natasha Von Roenn, a hepatologist in Chicago, was a senior medical student seeking an international “clerkship.” Somebody recommended Haiti as a location and Natasha spent an educational month working at a Haitian medical facility.

“I was concerned about her going to a foreign country, a Third World country,” Greg Von Roenn, member of Lumen Christi Parish, Thiensville site, recalled in an interview with your Catholic Herald in his office at Rogers Memorial Hospital-Milwaukee, where he is medical director of medicine. The senior Von Roenn, an internist, assuaged his concern by accompanying his daughter to the Caribbean country.

That trip turned out to be the first of seven to Haiti – he’s made similar visits to Honduras and Jamaica – for the 66-year-old, a Louisville native who came to Milwaukee as an intern 40 years ago and later served as president of the medical staff at St. Joseph Hospital. It was at St. Joe’s, in fact, that Von Roenn met emergency room physician Katie Wolf, who has figured even more prominently than Natasha in his involvement with Haiti.

First things first, however.

For more information visit: friendsforhealthinhaiti.org

Having adjusted to the shocking fact of Third World living conditions so relatively close to the United States, the Von Roenns had a good experience in Haiti … so good that Greg opted to return. His Haitian visits became rather regular.

Meanwhile, his former colleague, Wolf, had moved to Haiti and established a makeshift mountain clinic in Gatineau, near Jeremie. Von Roenn used vacation time to assist Wolf in the clinic. In the interview, he remembered “the worst part of the whole (Haitian experience was) this awful road,” all rock and gravel (all, that is, that hadn’t been washed away by rain), on which he had to travel in the mountainous region.

Besides practicing medicine in Haiti, Wolf founded the organization Friends for Health in Haiti, Inc. (FHH). She invited Von Roenn to join the Pewaukee-based FHH board, whose goal was to build a more substantial clinic in western Haiti. Von Roenn concluded a seven-year board tenure, including two years as president, earlier this year. Largely through banquet-auction fundraisers chaired by Von Roenn’s wife, Carla, and Wauwatosan Barb Tyler, $250,000 was raised – enough to construct the new clinic.

In the words of Investors Advisory Group, LLC vice-president Susan Kuhlenbeck, who served on the board with Von Roenn, the internist “worked tirelessly for seven years to get FHH off the ground and to bring the building of the clinic to fruition.” Kuhlenbeck called Von Roenn “a very gracious, giving man” who “was integral in making our annual banquet a success.”

The makeshift clinic Von Roenn’s efforts helped replace measured about 20’ x 20’, the doctor estimated, approximately twice the size of his office at Rogers. There were two tiny examination rooms and patients waited their turns outdoors.
Von Roenn said the replacement structure is perhaps five times the size of its predecessor, with eight exam rooms, a surgical area, a pharmacy and storage space.

“The (new) clinic is very nice,” he summarized. It serves an estimated population of 10-15,000. Aided by a native Haitian nurse, Wolf is the clinic’s lone physician – with the exception of visiting doctors who provide care, as Von Roenn did numerous times, for a month or so at a crack.

Recalling his first visit with Natasha, Von Roenn remarked, “My daughter and I were speechless just looking at the living conditions. The poverty was incredible.”

People cooked what little food they had over fire pits and shared the streams they used for drinking and bath water with cows.

U.S. travelers to Haiti fly into the capital city, Port-au-Prince, which Von Roenn described as dirty, dusty and dangerous. Conditions only worsened in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. The quake forced half a million people to live in tents. Some of the tent-dwellers were in close proximity to a hospice, run by nuns, at which Von Roenn briefly stayed; he visited ailing ones at the sisters’ request.

In a nation where, Von Roenn said, the average life expectancy is 52 years, the infant mortality rate is abominable and residents die because they are unable to access health care, a hospital – to judge by the government hospital in Jeremie – “is nothing like a hospital in the United States. They lack so much.”

Like oxygen, EKG facilities and nursing care. In Jeremie, family members provided at least some of the care, including food, for their hospitalized loved ones.

Tropical maladies such as malaria and intestinal parasites plagued Von Roenn’s patients in Haiti. Others suffered from tuberculosis, typhoid fever and HIV.

Machete cuts were not uncommon. Patients frequently lack the education to realize supplies of pills for, say, high blood pressure need to be replenished to sustain one’s health. Superstition can be a roadblock. “Voodoo’s very big down there,” Von Roenn noted.

In the face of dire poverty and alarming health concerns, Von Roenn’s found the Haitians to be “very grateful people,” commonly uttering expressions of thanks. Haitians speak Creole and the doctor’s ability to speak some French helped, he said, to facilitate understanding.

“They’re very religious people,” Von Roenn said. “Sunday is a day they spend with church-related activities. A large portion are Catholic.”

A big benefit of his Haitian volunteerism, said Von Roenn, “is that I would meet (inspirational) people I probably never would’ve met in my life” otherwise. Among these: sisters of Mother Teresa’s religious order, the Missionaries of Charity, ministering to terminally ill children – and managing, moreover, to keep those children very clean and happy.

The nuns’ young charges were presumably oblivious to the work of a carpenter on the premises. He was constantly adding to the pile of tiny coffins he’d crafted.

“My daughter,” Von Roenn recalled, “was in tears.”

According to Von Roenn, the trips have impacted his own faith.

“There is no question that my faith motivated me to be involved,” he said. “I have a Jesuit background attending Xavier University in Cincinnati which set the foundation. Going on the trips impacted my faith tremendously as I have met so many individuals that were motivated by Jesus. They are doing work that is so unrecognized yet doing it because of Jesus.”

He’s also had several experiences while traveling where he felt God’s guiding presence.

For example, he described one evening in Port-au-Prince where he didn’t have a place to stay and it was pouring rain. A man he met on the plane was at the hotel desk which had no vacancies, and instead, he offered to let Von Roenn stay with him and even took him to the airport the next day.

“I have also had many instances while traveling that I needed help – several times with medical students – and my prayers were answered. There is no doubt the Lord was there and protected me,” he said, adding, “these trips have definitely made me a better Catholic.”