Dr. Ketly Altenor is one of 14 new medical residents, all young Haitian doctors, who recently began on the wards of University Hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti. After graduating from Haiti’s state medical school last year, Altenor, 27, worked with Partners In Health/Zanmi Lasante at Hôpital St. Nicolas in her hometown of St. Marc, where she completed her required year of social service at a rural hospital. She was kind enough to tell us about her life and career plans once she completes her three-year pediatrics residency at University Hospital.
You grew up in St. Marc, Haiti. What was your childhood like?
My mom had six children, three girls and three boys. I’m the second youngest. I was born in St. Marc, and I went to school there through the ninth grade. My mom and dad worked in agriculture for a living. My dad died in 1999, when I was 12 years old. My family lost all our land, and my mom had to work as a street vendor after that. I left St. Marc to go to school in Port-au-Prince. Despite all these problems, I persevered, and I finished school and enrolled in medical school.
How did your father die?
My dad didn’t seem sick. He died suddenly, and nobody could explain why. But when I started studying medicine I came to think that perhaps it was a heart attack.
How did you become interested in medicine and pediatrics?
Since I was little, I always said that I wanted to do medicine. The older I got, the more I was sure of that. When I finished high school, I didn’t hesitate to enroll in medical school. I really knew that I didn’t want to do anything else. When I started rotations in different specialties, I realized that pediatrics interested me most. I love to help children, and I think that I can be most useful as a pediatrician.
What kind of clinical training did you receive during medical school?
I graduated from medical school in December 2012. I was lucky to do all my service in the general hospital in Port-au-Prince, where there are a lot of patients. I’m accustomed to seeing sick people because I saw a lot already at the general hospital. The hospital was missing many things. There wasn’t follow-up care, we didn’t concern ourselves with the social life of the patients, and there were problems with the lab and medicines.
I saw a lot that I couldn’t have imagined.
Where did you work for your required year of service? How was that experience?
I did my social service year in St. Marc, at another university hospital. I was well-supported by the training doctors. I was lucky to work with the PIH family medicine residents, and I learned a lot in the pediatrics ward. I had a good social service year.
What did you see during the year that showed you the need for health care in the country?
My experience made me see that most of the pediatricians in the country are in Port-au-Prince, and the villages and provinces hardly have any. St. Marc has about two or three pediatricians, but they are in the city, which means that the remote areas don’t have any.
I was in the Artibonite region, and I saw a lot that I couldn’t have imagined. I saw children dying from dehydration because they had diarrhea for several days and their moms didn’t know how to rehydrate them. I saw children dying with malnutrition and tetanus, and mothers who died in childbirth during home deliveries. All of this left an impression on me and showed me that there are places in Haiti where people don’t know to go to the hospital when they’re sick.
How did the experience of your social service year change your perspective on your work as a doctor?
I still have plans to return to St. Marc to work, but now I understand that’s not enough. I also need to work in rural areas, to do mobile clinics and home visits and education for everyone. I think it will be easier for me to find the patients than for them to find me.
How did you learn about the opportunity to be a resident at University Hospital?
It was one of my professors at medical school who told me about the residency program at University Hospital. He told me it was a good program, and that I wouldn’t regret choosing to do my residency there. When I went to learn more, I came to understand. It was like I always dreamed of doing my residency, and I jumped on the opportunity. I will never stop thanking my professor because he showed me this path.
How did you feel when you learned you were accepted?
I couldn’t get into Port-au-Prince to get my results, so a friend picked it up for me. When he told me I was accepted, I was so happy that I put the phone down, I jumped into the arms of the person who was with me, and I cried with happiness because I didn’t want to do my residency anywhere else in Haiti than University Hospital.
What kind of relationship do you have with the other residents?
The 14 residents didn’t go to the same university, which means that we didn’t know each other, but it didn’t take us long to feel at ease. We get along well, and we joke together. It won’t take us long to become like family.