It had been planned as a general medical mission, but it turned into a trauma and relief mission since the massive earthquake had hit Haiti the month before. That’s when Simpson signed on.
Their mission was to the community of Ouananminthe, where COCINA works through the local school called Institution Univers and the Univers Medical Center.
After the quake devastated Port-au-Prince, thousands of quake victims fled to other parts of Haiti, including Ouanaminthe.
The official languages of Haiti are French and Haitian Creole so the physicians needed translators to help them as they treated locals.
Simpson was paired with a student from Institution Univers named Maucler Charles.
It turned out to be a fateful connection.
Charles was Simpson’s translator for five days during that first mission.
He was a top student at the local high school and speaks four languages — French, Haitian Creole, English and Spanish.
He helped Simpson interact with patients. In their down time they got to know each other better.
“When there were no patients, we would just talk with each other,” said Charles.
“He was a great translator. We just hit it off,” said Simpson. “We got to be friends.”
Simpson says he noticed that Charles was bright and eager to learn. He also discovered that the young man wanted to attend college in the United States.
After Simpson returned to Rome, he and Charles stayed in touch via e-mail and Facebook. Soon Simpson’s whole family — his wife Ann, and his children Taylor, 16, and Lera, who is Charles’ age, 20 — was communicating with the Haitian student and fostering the long-distance connection.
“It’s just like he became part of the family,” said Simpson. “My family got to know him even though they had never met in person.”
And college remained a frequent topic.
“He said he would help me to come to the U.S. for college,” Charles recalls.
So Simpson started checking for college prospects for Charles.
The Simpsons had a couple of longtime friends who had both been students in Jacksonville State University’s International House program. They still were in contact with the program’s director and helped get Charles on his radar.
“One thing led to another,” said Simpson.
On Sunday, the Simpsons took Charles — who had spent the previous week with them in Rome — to Jacksonville State where he will begin classes next week.
The International House Program began in 1946 with a handful of students from France. Initially, the program focused on languages. Today, there are 40 members of the program, 20 American students and 20 internationals. Each international student is from a different country and is roomed with an American student. Though emphasis is still placed on languages, there’s greater emphasis now on cultural understanding.
Humble and happy
During his recent stay in Rome, the modest young man talked about what this opportunity means to him.
“I am very very happy to be here. It’s a good opportunity to study in the USA,” said Charles. “The education is better than I think I would be able to get in Haiti.”
After college, Charles wants to return to his home country and work in agriculture. So he will be a biology major at JSU.
“I want to go back to Haiti and help in any way that I can,” he said.
The International House program provides all his housing and all school costs for two years. After that he will have to apply for other sources of funding.
But for now, he’s getting acclimated to American culture and this new strange country.
After three weeks in the United States, Charles had a few basic observations.
“The U.S. is a huge country.” By comparison, his country of Haiti is about the size of Massachusetts, about 10,000 square miles.
“It is well-organized,” he said of his perception of America. “And I have met some wonderful people.”
But there are still some adjustments. For one, he’s not used to air conditioning and gets chilled quickly and preferred Georgia’s outdoor heat during his visit.
That’s because temperatures in Haiti are usually in the high 80s or low 90s year-round and seldom dip below much below 70.
That means Charles is in for a real adjustment come winter.
He’s adjusting just fine to American cuisine though.
Favorite foods so far: pepperoni pizza and Ann Simpson’s jambalaya.
His first big wow moment was his lone arrival at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.
Because of airport security, the Simpsons had to meet him at baggage claim rather than the gate. So the young Haitian embarking on this major journey abroad had to get himself from Concourse D of the world’s busiest airport to baggage claim by himself.
He did just that … without use of the airport’s automated people mover train. He trekked all the way across the airport on foot.
Other new experiences here in Rome included a visit to Berry College. He also saw the first movie he’s ever seen in a cinema theater — “Cowboys and Aliens.” He likes Harrison Ford, Ann Simpson noted.
“And I went fishing for the first time,” he said of a recent visit to the Simpsons’ farm.
He’s a big soccer fan, both of playing and watching, and a loyal FC Barcelona fan.
Charles loves reading books about history. He likes music and is true to his roots, saying Compas — a derivative of Haitian meringue — is his favorite though you will find Michael Jackson on his iPod too.
And now that he’s had a summer break after graduating from high school in June in Haiti, where their schools go to grade 13, Charles is eagerly awaiting the start of college like many young people his age.
He moved into campus housing Sunday and is spending this week getting to know his fellow International House students. Then classes start Tuesday.
Charles is excited about this new phase of his life. “This is my first time to go to college,” he said. “My first time to live with someone I don’t know.”
But he’s looking forward to it. He says he loves learning, “especially tests and quizzes.”
“I think with the help of everyone, I will be OK.”
He says that first week he spent helping “Dr. Tommy” during the mission trip changed his life.
“I think he saw something in me after our five days together. I think it is a sign of his humanity. I do not know how to thank him,” said Charles.
The COCINA network is in its 17th year in serving Haiti. The local medical groups that have gone down for years to help in the medical clinic have been coordinated by Dr. Mel Thomas, associate director of Floyd Medical Center’s Family Medicine Residency Program.
He’s friends with Hugues Bastien, director for Institution Univers and Univers Medical Center in Ouanaminthe.
Simpson has been the last two years and is looking forward to returning.
“I just love doing this,” said Simpson.
While his first year dealt with many earthquake evacuees, this past winter’s visit focused more on basic healthcare needs.
As an oncologist, Simpson would also like to see cancer care fostered there.
“There’s not much cancer care in Haiti,” said Simpson, who would like to help change that.
“It’s a long way from where it needs to be.”
He’s hoping that on future missions that he and others can help with education, screenings and medication, to at least introduce the basics of cancer treatment.
It’s about making a difference in lives. By providing basic medical care. By helping train the medical staff there. About educating patients. About giving them hope.
And sometimes that hope can come in the form a young man who dreams of an American college education so that he can return to Haiti and make a difference too.