Gregory Larrieux, Carver College of Medicine

Photo by Tim Schoon.

When Dr. Paul Farmer, a worldwide leader in global health and social justice issues, delivers the Fourth Annual Cassandra S. Foens, M.D., Lecture on Aug. 24 at the Iowa Memorial Union, he’ll speak on a subject that Gregory Larrieux knows well: Haiti before, during, and after the January 2010 earthquake.

“It happened on the second day of my second semester here, a day I will never forget,” says Larrieux, a third-year student in the UI Carver College of Medicine.

For days after the earthquake, Larrieux anxiously awaited word from family and friends in Haiti, as his medical school classmates held fund-raisers and he helped them organize supplies for a mobile hospital. Many UI physicians, nurses, and allied health professionals traveled to Haiti to support relief organizations serving earthquake survivors.

Prior to Farmer’s IMU talk, “Haiti: An Unnatural Disaster,” he’ll speak with UI medical students at a forum where Larrieux will give the introduction. Impressed by Farmer’s devotion to change health care around the globe, Larrieux talks with fyi about his own ambitions to help the underserved.

When did you leave Haiti?

I was born in Miami but was raised in Haiti in a town near Port-au-Prince. I moved back to Miami to live with my aunt in the summer of 2000.

Learn more about Paul Farmer’s Aug. 24 lecture at fyi.uiowa.edu/08/19/farmer-lecture.

Haitians have always held academics in high regard, and losing myself in my studies was my only way of coping with being away from home and adjusting to America. I graduated from the University of Miami as a biomedical engineer and went to work for a company that was introducing a revolutionary device in the treatment of breast cancer. My aunt had passed away from breast cancer a few weeks before college graduation.

When did you decide on a career in medicine?

My interest in medicine began in Haiti. I remember noticing that the sick were not treated, especially those who were terminally ill. This reality became more personal when I found out that my uncle was HIV-positive. I knew nothing of the disease, its course, or its impact on the people and families it affects. As time went by, my uncle’s face looked pale and his voice was frail. This was my shocking introduction to AIDS. My uncle passed away because my family could not afford health care. It was then that I recognized something was wrong and a change needed to take place.

What brought you to Iowa?

Out of all the places I was invited to study medicine, the Carver College of Medicine felt like the best fit. Attending medical school in the Midwest meant I would be that much farther away from my family and from Haiti, but learning about the school and what it had to offer made me realize that the Carver College of Medicine was creating the kind of physician I aspire to be. Studying medicine at Iowa has been an immense pleasure, a privilege, and one of the best decisions I have made.

How did the January 2010 earthquake affect you and your family?

For the first few days after the earthquake, I was unaware of the status of my family. I tried to remain hopeful, but optimism only gets you so far when your world as you know it is shattered. At one point I wanted to leave to be closer to home and to help in any way I could. But I eventually got in touch with my family and we decided that it was best for me to stay in Iowa City. Thankfully everyone in my immediate family was safe.

The College of Medicine was a huge help to me through this difficult time. I am grateful for my classmates, especially Kelly Monahan, Andrew McChesney, and Megan Srinivas, and for Associate Deans Chris Cooper and Benita Wolff, and Dr. Chris Buresh, for their support and for everything.

When was your most recent trip to Haiti?

It was summer of 2010. I was really anxious to get there and see family and friends, but I knew that I was not ready to deal with the reality that Port-au-Prince as I knew it was gone. Once I made it there, I felt like a stranger in my own country, as if I were part of a third-world apocalypse.

From the airport, I could sense the desperation, the emptiness. The city was a shell of what it once was and I was some kind of familiar stranger. I spent my time working at a hospital translating, triaging, and comforting as best as I could. But nothing I did felt like it was enough.

How to you intend to use your medical degree?

I am still unsure about the field of medicine I want to pursue after graduation. But whatever decision I make, I know it will involve spending a significant amount of time improving health care in Haiti. Everything I am, I owe to Haiti. And giving back, trying to leave Haiti better than I found it, is my ultimate goal.

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