Cholera aid comes with dose of evangelism

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In one of the worst slums in one of the world's poorest countries, Yolette Jocelin lies deathly still on a medical cot as nurses work to save her life.

The 30-year-old nursing mother has cholera and is dangerously dehydrated.

She watches as a nurse in this Samaritan's Purse medical clinic inserts a needle into her arm to deliver a solution of water and salts that will save her, as it did her 8-month-old baby boy.

"We need to make sure she washes her hands before she breast feeds," nurse Terrie Wenman tells aid workers crowded around. "If she does not know how, teach her."

Wenman is a Canadian who volunteers for the Boone, N.C.-based Christian relief agency Samaritan's Purse. She and other volunteers work in the organization's new 240-bed cholera clinic in Cite Soleil — a slum of 300,000 people stricken by poverty, unemployment and violence.

Two weeks ago, a bloodied man lay dead in a nearby street for hours, his hands and body bound in thick green rope. Residents live in shanties with no running water along streets filled with garbage.

While some relief groups have avoided the area, Samaritan's Purse chose Cite Soleil for fear the country's cholera epidemic would grow worse if it penetrates deeply into Haiti's slums. The clinic opened last November, at the height of the epidemic that has taken some 3,790 lives.

Haiti is now the most significant relief effort for Samaritan's Purse, a nonprofit led by the minister Franklin Graham that works in more than 100 countries providing aid to victims of war, disease, disaster and famine.

The organization operates two cholera clinics in Haiti, and is installing water filtration systems and building shelters for the homeless. It has spent about $38 million of the $51 million the group raised for Haiti relief in the last year.

Along with its humanitarian aid comes a dose of evangelism. Chaplains with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which Franklin Graham also leads, have visited the medical clinic and other Samaritan's Purse programs. They have ministered to the afflicted and handed out Bibles.

While critics say religious zeal has no place in humanitarian relief, Graham is unapologetic about ministering to victims spiritually as well as medically.

"When it's all said and done," Graham told the Observer last week, "we want to do all that we can to prepare that person to stand before God one day."

Still, Samaritan's Purse recently responded to criticism by asking the chaplains to stop preaching at the cholera clinics because the effort is partially funded by government grants.

Graham, the son of Charlotte, N.C.-born evangelist Billy Graham, has gotten high marks for Samaritan's Purse efforts in Haiti and elsewhere. But he has also been a frequent figure of controversy in recent years, drawing criticism for his condemnations of Islam, as well as for his salary.

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Samaritan's Purse was one of the first relief groups on the ground after the earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless.

Some 719 volunteers have helped provide medical relief as part of the Samaritan's Purse effort.

The organization is funded by charitable donations and some government money, and has a four-star rating — the highest possible — from Charity Navigator, a group that evaluates how efficiently and effectively nonprofits operate.

The challenge of Haiti remains great as hundreds of thousands of people still live in tents and as much as 95 percent of the earthquake debris remains.

Criticism has grown that humanitarian groups, including Samaritan's Purse and the American Red Cross, are raising money with greater urgency than they are spending it to provide care. The Red Cross has spent less than half of the $479 million it has raised for Haiti relief.

Graham acknowledges that progress can be frustratingly slow, primarily because of corruption in Haiti, he says.

"Customs agents at the port are holding up large shipments of materials and supplies, wanting to receive bribes before releasing them," he said. "As a result, tons of much needed supplies and building materials are still sitting on the docks."

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When the cholera outbreak struck in October, Samaritan's Purse shifted all of its 300 staff in Haiti from other projects to battle the highly contagious disease, an intestinal infection sparked by ingesting contaminated food and water.

The group soon opened a 150-bed treatment center in the community of Bercy, in southern Haiti, then erected the clinic in Cite Soleil with several barn-like structures and tents.

At daybreak, patients line up outside the gate that surrounds the Cite Soleil clinic. The worst-off are treated in a triage tent before being moved into one of two large treatment rooms with rows of wooden cots, spaced a foot apart and covered in blue plastic bearing the Samaritan's Purse logo.

Matt Ellingson, Samaritan's Purse Haiti director for much of the last year, said more than 99 percent of the 8,500 cholera patients they've treated have survived.

Inside the clinic, the Haitian staff call out "Lave, lave" to encourage everyone to repeatedly wash their hands. They also ask that people wipe down the bottoms of their shoes, which could bring contaminants inside the clinic, or out.

The floors and walls are constantly swabbed. The smell of bleach is so strong it can take your breath away.

At its peak, the clinic held some 125 patients.

One-year-old Peterson Charmont is one of the staff's favorite patients. He lives in a shanty just outside the clinic with his older brother and mother.

When he arrived 10 days earlier, doctors successfully treated his cholera but were puzzled by his tiny size. He appeared to be no more than 6 months old.

They later learned he had a heart defect. Now, Samaritan's Purse is hoping to bring him to the United States for surgery.

Earlier this month, the boy giggled as nurse Rachel Doyle, 26, picked him up and nestled him in a cloth sling around her chest.

Asked how he's doing, Doyle gave a knowing smile, as if to acknowledge the never-ending challenges for Haitian children.

"He still has a heart defect," she said, "but at least he doesn't have cholera."