When Dr. Steven Lenger retired from his East Brunswick gastroenterology practice four years ago, he wanted to find a meaningful way to continue helping others.
He has found that way through the Haiti Medical Education Project, whose mission is to improve the state of medical education by rebuilding medical schools and their curricula in a country whose health-care system was broken long before the devastating 2010 earthquake.
Lenger serves as medical director of the organization. Through video conferencing, HME Project offers weekly lectures through the American and Canadian universities that have partnered with the organization — Dartmouth, Yale, McGill, University of California, Brown, and Albert Einstein in New York. Additionally, personnel from these institutions travel to Haiti to lecture and assist in developing curriculum.
Lenger himself visits twice annually.
“Medical care is a struggle there,” he said. “It’s nothing like we are used to in this country. It’s really frightening how little access they have to modern equipment and technology. It’s another world.”
In addition to the dearth of equipment, Haitians living in the mountains away from Port-au-Prince and other cities have “no access to medical care other than for someone to put them in the back of a truck” and drive them to a medical facility, he said.
Compounding that, hospitals, medical facilities, and infrastructure were badly damaged and a number of the country’s medical practitioners and medical students lost their lives in the earthquake that killed more than 300,000 and left more than a million Haitians homeless in January 2010.
“We have to make the Haitians self-sufficient in medicinal care,” said Lenger. “If the world continues to bring in doctors every six weeks they will never get on their feet. Our goal is education and creating doctors who will stay there and care for patients.”
The organization was started by Dr. Galit Sacajiu, an Israeli-born Tenafly resident, who went to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake as a doctor and was overwhelmed by what she found.
“It touched my heart,” she told NJJN. She described three medical students she met whose school had been destroyed. Their families lost their homes, and, in some cases, their lives.
Sacajiu, who serves as president and director of HME Project, said one student in particular affected her. “I looked in his eyes and could see his dream of becoming a doctor falling apart,” she said.
Before leaving, she promised those students and herself that she would help the Haitian medical establishment and in July 2010 established the project to train medical personnel.
“Two years later it’s really been an incredible journey,” said Sacajiu. “I have been able to work with people like Dr. Steve Lenger, who is such a joy to be associated with. His work in the medical world and expertise is so needed.”
One of the strengths Lenger brings to the organization, she added, was his ability to listen and do what was needed for the Haitian medical students, “like a bridge connecting different resources.”
In particular, Sacajiu credited Lenger for creating a White Coat Ceremony at Quisqueya University, marking a graduating student’s commitment to the medical profession and patients. The ceremony, which took place Jan. 16, is common at American medical schools.
Lenger helped secure a $5,000 grant from the Englewood Cliffs-based Arnold P. Gold Foundation for the ceremony, said Sacajiu.
“We did this ceremony because we felt it would be something very meaningful to them,” said Lenger. “We brought white coats and certificates and participated in the graduation ceremony. It was an unbelievable event.”
The HME Project works with all four Haitian medical schools, the Ministry of Health, the Haiti Medical Association, and other non-government organizations. Drake Delvoix, a Haitian, directs its ground activities.
“This isn’t a Jewish cause, but it is a humanitarian cause,” said Lenger. “If you are trained as a physician, then you are trained to take care of people, Jewish or not.”
However, he said, a sense of tikun olam often permeates many of the activities undertaken by him and his wife, Sandy, who are longtime active supporters of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. Sandy is a federation vice president and cochair of its campaign and Create a Jewish Legacy project. She is also vice chair of Jewish Federations of North America’s National Women’s Philanthropy.
The couple is supporting a Haitian medical student whose family lost everything in the earthquake. Additionally, following a mission to Cuba, the Lengers became significant donors to the Cuban Children’s Milk Program of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee through a designated annual donation to federation.
For more information on the organization, go to hmeproject.org.