When Oliver Wendall Holmes first pioneered the idea of hand washing in 1843, he became an object of ridicule. Thirty years later, the theory was still being dismissed – at the Academy of Medicine in Paris, a lecture on the fallacy of hand washing was stopped only when Louis Pasteur leapt up from the audience and shouted that such ignorance was exactly, “the thing that kills women.” Water at the time was associated with malaria and typhoid, and was so seen as a factor in increasing, not decreasing, infection.
Today, over a century later, Marie Iderle Fenestor is charged with enforcing the dictates of Holmes in a country awash in malaria, typhoid, and high rates of infection. As the Director of Infection Control at St. Damien, she is in charge of ensuring acceptable health and hygiene standards for the hospital’s 307 employees. Her infection control committee is composed of eleven doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and housekeeping staff, and meets once a month to evaluate the various infection threats present throughout the hospital. Each department is individually evaluated to ensure a specific and comprehensive approach to preventing infection.
Miss (nurse) Fenestor first came to Hospital St. Damien 14 years ago and quickly rose through the ranks to become first a supervisor and then the Director of Nursing in 2000. Through her training at Haiti’s General Hospital, she had struggled with the enormous health needs present in Haiti and the limited amount of supplies and expertise available to deal with them. At St. Damien, she was immediately impressed with “well, everything,” she laughs. “But the biggest thing was the discipline – you can’t have an effective control program, you can’t have an effective hospital, without discipline, and Hospital St. Damien has been the best example of this out of all the places I’ve worked. In Haiti, you have so much potential, but if the rules and the regulations aren’t there, you cannot get things done.”
It was St. Damien’s impressive organization that led Miss Fenestor to become the Director of Infection Control, a position she was tapped for after the earthquake saw a surge of new patients flooding the hospital. This past July, she went to training courses in both Miami and Ohio, learning how to address such issues as salmonella, klepesella, staph infection, and sepsis, as well as of course, hand washing. As Miss Fenestor sets about enforcing these rules throughout the hospital, she continues to think bigger and bigger, developing new programs for training patients, and especially mothers, in infection control. She believes she has the potential to affect wide-spread change throughout the hospital, and as a result, make a real dent in improving healthcare in Haiti. As Oliver Wendall Holmes said, “It’s faith in something and enthusiasm for something that makes a life worth living.”