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Photo Essay: Squirrel Hill family spends a year in a place very different from home

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Photographs by Martha Rial

What better way for Karen Williams to instill in her children a better understanding of themselves and the world than to live in Haiti for a year while her husband, Dr. Steven Williams, offered his skills to the Hopital Albert Schweitzer?

Dr. Steven Williams, an internist at Allegheny General Hospital, examines an HIV-positive patient with tuberculosis. He is one of several international doctors specializing in internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and surgery who rotate in and out of the country providing services to the ill. Williams would see as many as 60 patients a day. The hospital's biggest limitation continues to be its lack of some medicines and advanced diagnostic capabilities and there is a constant effort to update the equipment and educate the staff.

The hospital, founded by Dr. Larry and Gwen Mellon in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, is the focal point of the Aribonite Valley, a region much different from their Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

The younger Williams children couldn't remember anything about the time the family lived in Haiti from 1991 to 1993 during their father's first stint there. So, last year, the Williamses rented out their home and headed back to the land that never left their hearts.

Living on the hospital compound in a diverse, ex-patriot community, the Williams children lived a lifestyle in which electricity, hot water, phones and e-mail are not taken for granted. And they saw how important a 190-bed hospital, small by Pittsburgh standards, could be to an area.

Karen Williams said she and her husband first learned of Hopital Albert Schweitzer from Ian and Lucy Rawson of Squirrel Hill. Ian Rawson is the son of Gwen Mellon. The Rawsons help raise money to continue the hospital's work by selling Haitian art here and across the country.

On Friday, Lucy Rawson, founder and president of The Friends of Hopital Albert Schweitzer and the Bitz Foundation will be hosting The H'art and Soul of Haiti, an evening of art, dining and music by the Tom Tom Club in the upper level of the Bitz Building, above Dowe's, Downtown. For details, call 412-361-4884.

Phania was not always so alert and beautiful. When her brother, Liradieu, 13, in the background, brought her to the malnutrition ward of HAS, she was listless and lethargic. But after receiving three meals a day and extra fortified milk for 16 days, she was chasing her brother and teasing other children. When she arrived at her home in La Croix, all that was left of her illness was her red hair, one of the common symptoms of kwashiocor.

Rachel, a senior at Allderdice High School, and Jonathan, a seventh-grader at Frick, frolic in the Tapion Dam, a popular gathering spot where children play and women wash clothes. Dr. Larry Mellon built the dam in the early 1960s to provide irrigation for the local farmers. People often told Karen Williams that there would be nothing in the valley without the hospital. Almost 700 people work there.

The only way to cover the final stretch to Phania's home in the mountain village of La Croix was on foot. When locals couldn't agree on the route, Karen Williams said, a young girl agreed to be their guide. Williams guessed her age to be 5, although she could have been more like 8. Children in Haiti are often small for their age, she said, because of malnutrition and other health problems.

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