A young doctor fights for quality health care in Haiti

Dr. Natasha ArcherDr. Natasha ArcherDr. Natasha Archer is a resident in the Global Healthy Equity program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She is also enrolled in the Harvard Combined Internal Medicine-Pediatrics Residency training program. She works mostly in Haiti, as a volunteer with Partners In Health (PIH).

Archer first wanted to be a doctor at the tender age of 6. She remembers playing doctor in elementary school skits.

“Both my parents were laboratory technologists and it was easy for me to put on my mom or dad’s lab coat and pretend to be a doctor,” Archer explains. “I remember one skit in particular, I put skittles in a tic tac box and pretended it was medicine. Then I gave it to my friend who was pretending to be sick and she came back to life after I gave her the skittles.”

Archer credits her family’s support for sustaining this early interest in medicine. She had been taught that it’s a noble profession. And she knew that it would be a great opportunity to help people and to advocate for quality care.

The desire to become a doctor lasted until the time came to actually apply for medical school. Archer earned her Bachelor’s in science from Yale University in 1999.

“I weighed the pros and cons and decided I was not ready.”

She put off applying to med school and went to China as a Yale-China Teaching Fellow. She taught English in Changsha, Hunan for 2 years.

“It was my first exposure to a health care system outside the United States. I was sheltered. I didn’t know that so many people didn’t have access to health care - to quality health care. I didn’t know that so many people were dying of starvation and malnutrition.”

It was also the first time she heard of Paul Farmer. Towards the end of her fellowship, a colleague forwarded her an article about his work in Haiti and she became fascinated that he was able to have a deep, cultural tie with his patients. This exposure of a different way to practice medicine encouraged her to make up her mind about med school.

To prepare for applying to med school, she participated in a summer program at Yale – formerly the Minority Medical Education Program - now the Summer Minority Medical Program that serves women and other underrepresented groups in the field of medicine.

She went on to earn her MD from Yale University School of Medicine in 2006. Once she completed her MD, she began to work in her ancestral land.

“I work in Haiti because of my belief that health care is a human right,” Archer says. “I could not, once having the knowledge that so many people did not have access to health care, not do something to change that. When I think of my patients, especially young women in Haiti…it pushes me to provide them with the best care. I would want it for anyone, my family, my loved ones. That’s how I view my patients, to provide the best care for them - as I would want for my family. That’s the right thing to do.”

Last year, when the earthquake struck, Archer was in Boston and her instincts to help kicked in.

“It was emotionally difficult to watch everything going on at that time and not have an impulse to go help. I went to help at the PIH office. Even though I was a doctor, I wanted to do anything. I did everything from calling donors to tracking supplies they had available and working with volunteers. I have a tremendous respect and admiration for the staff that support us and provide the resources we need. I would have done anything to support them.”

A week after the earthquake struck, Archer accompanied a team of volunteer health professionals down to provide emergency care. The majority of people on the team had not been to Haiti before. Her experience was valuable in leading numerous delegations down to assist in those first crucial months.

In addition to providing health care, Archer sees a host of issues that need to be addressed in Haiti – one is access to clean water. This became even more obvious during the outbreak of cholera last fall.

“When people ask me why don’t I go into infectious disease, why am I doing oncology, hematology? I sometimes respond I probably should go into water engineering since that’s one of the major problems in Haiti. Seventy percent of people don’t have access to potable water.”

When she is asked about her relationship to her patients, she says that they appreciate that she listens. She also feels a sense of hope in some of her patients who aspire to study medicine and her colleagues who are proud that she chose to work in Haiti.
“Most of my colleagues [are] thrilled to see my interest in wanting to work and contribute. When they see another Haitian who has a choice, decide to work in Haiti, they’re thrilled to see that I made the choice - that Haiti is important to me.”

Archer’s Favorite Haitian Proverb is:
Wòsh nan dlo pa kon pwoblèm wòsh nan soley. Rocks in water don’t understand the problems of rocks that lie in the sun.

Manolia Charlotin can be reached at mcharlotin@bostonhaitian.com