Photo courtesy of Dr. Neil Agnihotri
Dr. Neil Agnihotri (far right) with the medical team in Haiti
Miss Louis, a young-looking Haitian woman in her 60s, met oral surgeon Dr. Neil Agnihotri last year when he traveled to Haiti on a mission trip. She had come to ask him about removing a tumor that covered a large portion of her lower jaw. “It has really disfigured her,” he says. “People did their best to avoid her. They were petrified of what she looks like.”
The size of the tumor prohibits Miss Louis from eating and drinking normally. “She is really suffering,” Agnihotri says. “She is extremely malnourished. She is barely 100 pounds, and she is chronically dehydrated. The size of the facial tumor will cause her to die if we don’t operate.”
Agnihotri is now working to secure her a visa so that he can bring her to Parham Doctors’ Hospital for major surgery to remove the facial tumor. Her visit is being sponsored by St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the sister parish of Angouman, the village Agnihotri visited. “It’s taking a crazy long time to get the paperwork done,” he says. Once everything is worked out and Miss Louis has recovered from the operation, she will return to Haiti.
First getting involved with mission work in 2003 during his residency program at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, Agnihotri would gather supplies for the doctors who were scheduled to travel on mission trips. His own first trip was to Ghana in 2008.
Sunyani, the tiny village the team visited, was six hours from Accra, the capital city. He discovered that many of the villagers were living in poverty and needed medical services. “That was the first trip to that specific village to do cleft lip and palate surgery,” he says. “We were there for over a week, and we saw 25 patients. We evaluated them to see if they would be candidates for surgery, and then we performed operations. They were long days, but it was quite fulfilling.”
People would travel up to 100 miles to see the doctors. “A lot of the patients were ostracized,” Agnihotri says. “They were shunned by the community.”
After moving to Richmond in 2010 and starting work at Virginia Oral & Facial Surgery, he traveled to Bangladesh to conduct two site evaluations. “We went for two weeks, and we visited two villages,” he says. It was on his next trip, to Haiti, that he met Miss Louis. This was the first time he had been to the impoverished country, and he found the conditions far worse than in other countries. “In Haiti, the people are not well nourished. In general, they tend to be sicker,” he says. “That was surprising to me because of the level of aid and its proximity to Miami.”
His team saw about 800 patients in almost two and a half days. “We did primary care,” he says. “We saw some pretty sick kids and older adults who didn’t have a lot of care.” Cleft palate is more prevalent in these types of countries, he says.
The small village of Angouman is located in the mountains, about four hours from Port-au-Prince. “You have to take a 4-by-4 to get there because there are no decent roads,” he says. “Residents have difficulty finding clean drinking water, and there is no electricity. They don’t have access to medical care, so they don’t seek treatment.”
A local parish helps pass out information to locals to let them know that the doctors will be in town. “That is important when you don’t speak the local language,” Agnihotri says.
On the trip, the medical team stayed in a building with no air conditioning and no electricity. “We slept on the floor, but it was manageable,” he says. “We usually stay close to the hospital.”
The mission trips help ground him, Agnihotri says. “I feel thankful. To see people that don’t have the things I have makes me feel lucky. I come home and kiss the kids and give them a big
hug. Everyone I have gone with says the same thing — it brings you back down
Agnihotri plans to return to Haiti later this year. “I have to take care of Miss Louis first,” he says.