Into Africa - Haitian doctor Jonas Rigodon brings his skills to Lesotho
With the launch of a new project in Lesotho, Partners In Health is bringing to remote mountain villages in southern Africa the model of community-based care for HIV/AIDS pioneered in Haiti by PIH/Zanmi Lasante. Among those bringing it are some of Zanmi Lasante's most experienced and dedicated staff. Dr. Jonas Rigodon, a Haitian physician who has been working with PIH/ZL since 2002, is moving to Lesotho this August to share his expertise in providing health care for the poor in a country currently experiencing one of the world's worst HIV epidemics.
Dr. Jonas passed through Boston recently on his way to Rwanda and then on to Lesotho. He spoke enthusiastically about his experience working with PIH and the new challenges and experiences that lie ahead in Lesotho.
A native of Les Cayes in southwestern Haiti, Dr. Jonas first encountered PIH shortly after he graduated from medical school in 2001. He was posted to a clinic in the central plateau town of Thomonde to complete the social service required of graduates from the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy in Port-au-Prince. Early the next year, PIH arrived to help the overburdened Ministry of Health upgrade treatment for HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis at the clinic.
Dr. Jonas soon became a firm believer in the PIH model of providing free, comprehensive health care to the poor. He vividly remembers and describes his first lesson in the PIH approach. Accustomed to working in private hospitals where patients who were unable to pay for services were turned away, Jonas didn't balk when the family of one patient in Thomonde asked to sign their son out and take him home because they couldn't afford continued care. But when PIH co-founder Paul Farmer made rounds the next day, he asked what had become of the patient. Upon hearing what had happened, he instructed Dr. Jonas to go find the patient and bring him back.
"It was the first time I had seen anything like that," Dr. Jonas recalls. "It's a very good philosophy, because the winners are the patients."
If Dr. Jonas liked what he saw of PIH, the feeling was mutual. PIH invited him to join the Zanmi Lasante team in Thomonde. With interruptions for continued studies in Belgium and the United States, he was been working with PIH ever since, first in Thomonde, then in Hinche -- where he helped set up HIV, TB and primary care services -- and finally as assistant director of the HIV/AIDS program.
In 2005, Dr. Jonas completed a Masters of Public Health at the Catholic University in Brussels. While in Belgium, Dr. Jonas presented the PIH/ZL model to a group of fellow students, including several from Africa. They were amazed not only by the structure and philosophy of the PIH model, but also by its success in a resource-poor location such as Haiti.
Dr. Jonas believes that this same model has tremendous potential in Lesotho. Describing his frustration at witnessing so many unnecessary deaths from HIV/AIDS given the availability of anti-retroviral therapy (ART) and the demonstrated success of the PIH model in Haiti, he hopes to scale up care in Lesotho rapidly.
"I am a doctor," Dr. Jonas explained. "I think I can work anywhere in the world. And especially in Africa. For Haitians, Africa is our ancestor. I am excited to work with PIH there to improve the health of African people. I hope that this program will go very well and put a lot of people on antiretroviral treatment in a short time to save their lives. It is hard to see people die of AIDS now, when we know there are drugs available. Beyond that, I don't have any ideas or plans for my future."