When we first came to Haiti in 1987, it was clear that we needed to address the medical needs of children in addition to our standard work of caring for orphaned and abandoned children. Many children who can to our orphanage were very sick and many were dying. We were able to acquire an old five-story hotel in Pétionville, called Le Regent, from an elderly couple. We did our best to turn it into a hospital where thousands of children could receive long-term care and many others came for outreach services. Annually, over 20,000 children suffering from malnutrition, tuberculosis, severe burns, parasite, and AIDS, were treated with competence and compassion. A dedicated staff of doctors, nurses and volunteers worked around the clock, but despite all efforts, an average of 20 children died each month.
For years, St. Damien Hospital operated far beyond capacity for which it was intended. In order to better serve the needs of the families who each morning waited in long lines, clutching very sick children, the directors imagined building an expanded facility, one more accessible to people traveling from the outskirts of the capital, equipped to perform surgeries, able to offer comprehensive pediatric cancer treatment and other innovate treatments.
Around the beginning of the new millennium, a donor from Minnesota approached Rose Schaffhausen from NPH USA Minnesota (formerly Friends of the Orphans) with an idea. This donor had been inspired by the nuns who had set up a Catholic hospital in his small hometown, and was impressed especially by the late Sister Tabitha. The example of Sister Tabitha and this experience of recovery of the hospital inspired the donor to suggest to Rose that NPH build a new hospital in Haiti. The new hospital would have a goal of such excellence that it would be unique in all the Caribbean and be a training center in pediatrics for the whole region as well.
A generous pledge from the donor family followed by the many other generous donations from Minnesota, gave NPH the confidence to approve this idea. Shortly thereafter, other NPH fundraisers joined in, with special and magnificent involvement from Mariavittoria Rava and her family, and the Francesca Rava Foundation, also know as NPH Italia. Our friends in Minnesota and Italy are the very cornerstone of our new hospital. A multitude of generous donations from other NPH fundraising countries also helped to support our mission.
The land in Chateaublond, Tabbare, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince was purchased in November 2002. The construction of the new hospital started in August 2003, with the hand-cut stone chapel. It took three years and three months to bring the hospital to its present level and anyone who knows Haiti knows that these were three tough years. Not only because all the excavation and building were done without any heavy machinery, but because the country was often wracked in conflict and paralyzed by fear. After four years of planning, construction delays and endless months of waiting for containers to be released from customs, Haiti was able to inaugurate St. Damien Pediatric Hospital.
The hospital is named after two Damien’s. One was an ancient Roman doctor of seventeen centuries ago, who used his skills to care gratuitously for the poor of Rome. His physician-brother Cosmos, helped him. They are remembered every year on the Catholic feast of Saints Cosmos and Damien.
The second Damien was born two centuries ago in Belgium. As a young priest he was missioned to Hawaii and offered his life to help the isolated and pitiful lepers. He cared for them almost 20 years, when he himself died of leprosy.
On Molokai in Hawaii, where Damien lived and died, there stands a chapel to St. Philomena, built with his own hands. That is why we call our stone chapel St. Philomena.
The St. Damien Pediatric Hospital stands next to the chapel of St. Philomena, beacon of faith and light, and its surrounded by images of suffering, redemption and a new chance at light.