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Haiti's Peanut Butter Miracles 

Amid that country's chaos, a St. Louis pediatrician has made ending child malnutrition her life's work

Thursday, Jun 24 2010
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In Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, everyone rises with the roosters, and by 8 a.m. the unpaved streets outside Hospital Justinien are jammed. Taxicabs and pickup trucks, some painted with religious slogans and turned into makeshift buses called taptaps, jostle for space on the narrow thoroughfares, dodging potholes and negotiating chaotic corners unregulated by traffic lights.

Amid the exhaust and swirls of dust, pedestrians hustle alongside the roar of traffic. Men push wheelbarrows filled with electronics and blocks of ice. Women balance trays of eggs and bananas atop their heads. Little girls hurry on their way to school, dressed in neat white blouses, kilts and lacy socks, a half-dozen bows in their hair.

On Tuesday, trash day, towers of raw garbage stand on the sidewalk, ready for collection. Goats and the occasional pig scale the piles and nibble at scraps of food and cardboard. Shopkeepers sweep carefully around the waste before raising their storefront grilles.

Here on Haiti's northern coast, 150 miles from Port-au-Prince, life goes on in the country's second-largest city, much as it did before January's earthquake, and another working day has begun.

click to flip through (8) PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG - A farmer in Limbe, in north Haiti, working with Meds & Food for Kids
  • PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG
  • A farmer in Limbe, in north Haiti, working with Meds & Food for Kids
 

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Inside Justinien's pediatrics ward, high-barred windows keep out the harsh morning light, and thick concrete walls seal off the noise. Hot, humid air settles over rows of cribs where babies, some attached to I.V. drips, lie near watchful mothers.

A small room off to the side is bare except for an examination table, a makeshift desk piled with folders and bottles of medicine, and two narrow wooden benches pushed up against the walls. A tall Haitian nurse wearing a white dress and a cap and stockings, straight out of the 1950s, confers with a smaller, wiry American woman over a pair of height-and-weight charts.

The Haitian is Miss Gourges, head nurse of Justinien's infant-malnutrition clinic. The American is Dr. Patricia Wolff, a St. Louis pediatrician. Wolff is 62 years old. She has large blue eyes, short blond hair, a pointed chin — and a commanding presence. As her friend Mary McElwain puts it: "Pat is a person who feels people should listen to her."

Wolff has a black belt in Kenpo karate and usually carries a stun gun and a can of pepper spray in her purse. She is a woman to be reckoned with. Two months ago, when someone snatched her iPhone from her front pocket, Wolff hopped aboard a motorcycle taxi and chased the thief through the streets of Cap-Haïtien until he disappeared into a market.

One of the charts Gourges and Wolff are studying shows that a healthy 10-month-old baby should weigh 5-and-a-half kilograms, a little more than 12 pounds. "That's not right," Wolff says. "I know how much a 10-month-old is supposed to weigh."

The child is Robenson Yean, who sits on a narrow bench beside his mother. He wears a dirty brown T-shirt and a pair of shorts. He is unusually small for his age. His face and belly are swollen, and there are tiny dark spots on his feet, all telltale signs of malnutrition.

Gourges, with the aid of the height-and-weight chart provided by the World Health Organization, has determined that Robenson is indeed malnourished and eligible for Justinien's treatment program, sponsored by Wolff's organization, Meds & Food for Kids, also known as MFK.

Over the next month and a half, Robenson will make weekly visits to the clinic. Gourges or another nurse will wrap him in a sling and hang him from the scale suspended from the ceiling. They'll stretch him out beside a ruler to calculate his height — a delicate operation, because, as Wolff points out, even a centimeter can alter his ideal weight.

The nurses will mark the boy's progress on a chart; Justinien, like most institutions in Haiti, has no computers. Then they'll hand his mother a green-plastic packet containing half a kilogram (1.1 pounds) of medika mamba — "peanut butter medicine" — which she'll feed to Robenson. By his next visit, he'll likely have gained a few ounces, and gradually he'll reach a healthy weight.

It is medika mamba that brought Wolff to Cap-Haïtien. For seven years, she's been working to build a factory where Haitian workers will use the peanuts grown by Haitian farmers and transform them into peanut butter, enhanced by vitamins and minerals, which will be fed to malnourished children in clinics throughout Haiti.

A few minutes before Robenson and his mother arrived, Wolff and Gourges were studying the chart of another child, a one-and-a-half-year-old boy named Blaise. He weighed 13-and-a-quarter pounds when he began, and his goal weight was set at 16-and-a-half pounds. At his last visit, though, he weighed only a little more than 14 pounds.

The numbers make Wolff suspicious. When used properly, medika mamba has a 75 percent success rate.

"Maybe he had diarrhea," Wolff speculates. "Or maybe his family was giving [the medika mamba] away. He missed two visits. They gave him a warning. He was supposed to be kicked out if he missed a visit, but the kid probably looks so sick and scrawny they decided to keep him in."

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