Couple offers hope for Haiti
DR. AIMEE CHAGNON tends to a patient in Leogane, Haiti, during one of her relief trips after an earthquake in 2010 decimated the country.
Dr. Aimee Chagnon and her husband, Daniel Nichols, have not taken a normal vacation in at least five years. Instead, using their own vacation time and often their own money to travel, they spend their free time going to the ravaged corners of the world to provide medical care to those who need it most.
“It’s medicine at its most basic and real,” Chagnon said. “You go and you see a place where you can actually make a difference. It kind of reminds you why you went into medicine in the first place.”
For Chagnon it all began in 2010 after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the island of Haiti. The country has become her passion project, and she has visited at least once a year since the earthquake, to help with everything from delivering babies to treating cholera to minor surgical procedures, not things she usually tackles as a neurologist specializing in pain management in Sonoma Valley. Nichols, an architect by trade, works in the pharmacy during relief trips.
Chagnon and Nichols have been working with InterVol, an international nonprofit that provides doctors and nurses in areas with limited access to medical care, trains health providers in impoverished nations and collects and redistributes unused medical supplies from the United States.
In support of InterVol, the couple is organizing a concert on Friday, May 11, which will feature Joe Alessi, principal trombonist for the New York Philharmonic. Alessi grew up in San Rafael, where he was invited to perform as a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony while still in high school. But before that, he met Nichols in a jazz band class, and the two became fast friends, eventually forming a jazz trio.
“I played drums, he played trombone,” Nichols said. “He’s an amazing guy, he plays all over the world.”
After hearing about Nichols and Chagnon’s intensive work in Haiti, Alessi was eager to do his part to help, agreeing to perform in a benefit concert during his next visit to the Bay Area. “They are a stellar group of doctors and nurses who do fabulous work all over the world,” Alessi said.
His show will include “Daybreak” by Nicola Ferro, “Capriccio” by Roger Boutry as well as a suite of songs from “Romeo and Juliet” by Sergei Prokofiev. The concert takes place at Sonoma State University in the Evert B. Person Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $25 and can be purchased at www.sonoma.edu/music, or by calling 664-2353.
In the two years since the earthquake, Chagnon and Nichols have seen slow progress, marred by an increasingly deadly cholera outbreak, which has claimed more than 7,000 lives since 2010, according to AmeriCares, a global disaster relief nonprofit. With the rainy season approaching, Chagnon said, the problem would only get worse as cholera is passed through contaminated water, and Haiti is not well equipped to deal with water sanitation.
“The living conditions are filthy. They cook, bathe and slaughter their pigs in the same water,” she said.
But, progress has emerged. Shortly after the quake, almost 2 million Haitians were living in tent cities without homes, a number that has since fallen to 750,000 people. InterVol is working to rebuild the hospital in Leogane, which was mostly destroyed in the earthquake and then flooded after Hurricane Tomas hit later that same year.
“The main goal down there is to get the Haitian medical services going again,” Chagnon said, explaining that the hospital was once one of the best in Haiti, with a flourishing nursing school. “They’ve been trying to get the building rebuilt and get people recruited to work there fulltime.”
While Haiti is their passion, Chagnon and Nichols traveled to Rwanda earlier this year, where InterVol set up a neurology clinic and attracted patients from miles around who required Chagnon’s specific expertise.
“I got to be a neurologist there instead of general health stuff. Patients came from as far as Uganda and the DRC. That they would travel such long distances just to see an American specialist, it really humbles you,” she said.
Nichols said it was also an eye-opening experience, seeing patient after patient with machete injuries that were more than a decade old, wounds people learned to live with after a violent genocide ravaged the country.
“They’re amazing people who just need so much help,” Chagnon said. “It reinvigorates you as to what you can do. It’s such a fabulous opportunity to feel like you’re making a difference. And it’s tiny, miniscule, but you still feel like you’re making more of a difference than you are here.”
For Nichols, he said he’s driven by a higher power.
“For me it comes back to God. When I spend time with poor people who are truly in need, I feel closer to God,” he said.
The couple intends to get back to Haiti “as soon as possible,” continuing to spend their own time and resources to offer medical care that may seem basic in America, but can mean the difference between life and death in Haiti.