Steve Fisher has been a doctor since 1966, but in January 2010 he experienced a new type of medicine altogether: voodoo.
Fisher, 70, of Squirrel Hill, was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on a Salvation Army-sponsored humanitarian relief trip, where, for two weeks, he lived without water, electricity or phones, tending to about 200 patients a day. A total change of scenery from his comfortable Pittsburgh life, sure, but the medical beliefs of some Haitians still surprised.
One man had a soft spot on his head and a paralyzed arm, said Fisher. The doctors in his collective figured the man had a skull fracture and an epidural hematoma pressing down on the part of the brain controlling the arm. But the translator said it must be voodoo.
Fisher paused his story, grinned a bit wider.
“Then he saw the Salvation Army people praying over him to Jesus and he said, ‘See? They think it’s voodoo, too!’”
Long before the earthquake, Fisher wanted to work in Haiti. The country, bursting with poverty and disease, seemed a perfect encapsulation of the humanitarian work that’s filled his life — from treating soldiers in Vietnam to underprivileged families in Pittsburgh’s North Side. At his wife Maxine’s insistence, Fisher contacted the Salvation Army.
“He was culturally sensitive, had a military background, had worked with underprivileged populations. He had a wealth of experience and patience. So his age was actually one of his key attributes,” said Betsy Welteroth, the deputy director for volunteers of Western Pennsylvania’s Salvation Army.
Within 24 hours of his approval to join a relief trip, Fisher was on his way to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where he soon boarded a plane with a dozen other volunteers and took off for Haiti. On Jan. 18 — just six days after the earthquake that killed over 200,000 — Fisher landed in Port-au-Prince for two weeks of 18-hour workdays, makeshift hospitals, ever-changing supplies and no complaints.
“There was a shipment of Lance snack crackers that came in, so I had those to eat, and someone had donated several cases of Ensure. That gave me protein and vitamins,” said Fisher, frankly. He worked tirelessly alongside other Salvation Army volunteers from sunrise until, “I don’t know — until we finished.”
Even when off duty, Fisher stayed focused. “When I got back to the motel, I just wanted to lie down. And when I got up, I wanted to have something to eat and get to work,” he said.
Though Fisher’s work was exhausting, he made sure not to forget Maxine, his wife of 34 years and the impetus of his trip.
“I really had no way to stay in touch,” he said. “But her birthday was Jan. 24. So I borrowed a cell phone from Fox News.”
Working in one of the poorest suburbs of Haiti’s capital, Fisher became one of the first physicians the Salvation Army deployed to the earthquake zone, but, as Welteroth said, “our footprint in Haiti has been very large.”
She said the Salvation Army, which has been working in the country since 1950, maintains about 700 employees in the country, many of whom helped assemble a 20,000-survivor tent city on a soccer field in Port-au-Prince.
Fisher’s role, though, quickly grew from doctor to teacher.
“When the fireman and rescue squads couldn’t dig [or] rescue any more bodies from the rubble, we quickly trained them to be paramedics and medical assistants,” he said. “We had them dressing wounds. There were Mennonite volunteers who came to establish a clean water supply. They were unable to do that, so we recruited them to our clinic.”
After 14 days, Fisher was exhausted.
“I’m older now,” he said. “These 18-hour days I used to revel in, I no longer can.”
Still, he felt he had to help; his age — and religion — made no difference. Fisher was the only Jew and one of the oldest volunteers. An outlier on two fronts, he was unfazed, as “[the Salvation Army volunteers’] prayers were all in the name of Jesus, but the other elements — God, guidance, remaining calm to help these people — were highly appropriate to me.”
Back at home in Squirrel Hill, Fisher spoke of Haiti excitedly and passionately, as he boiled down his motivation:
“Martin Buber remarked ‘When something happens to someone, don’t tell them to pray so things will be alright. Instead, act as though there were no God and you’re the only individual who could possibly help.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)