Dietician promotes healthy eating in impoverished Haiti

By Steve Nakata, Administrative Services

alice-maPULLMAN, Wash. – The sunlight was all but gone as Alice Ma and other volunteers stepped out of their cars into the hot, humid air of rural Haiti. They had just flown from the United States, driven for hours deep into the countryside and now faced a two-mile hike in the dark to reach the remote mountain village of Timo.

Alice Ma counsels patients in Haiti.

Ma, a dietician for Washington State University Dining Services, wondered what she had gotten herself into. But her reservations quickly evaporated when she remembered all the people she could help.

“As the only dietician in our group, my role was to educate villagers on how to better their diets by eating more of certain foods, avoiding others, so they can get the best nutrition possible with the foods they have available,” she said.

Limited access in rural areas to nutritious foods, such as proteins, whole grains and some vegetables, results in many Haitians suffering from ailments such as anemia and high blood pressure.

One of the world’s poorest countries

According to Haiti Health Initiative, 80 percent of Haitians live below the poverty level, are 15 times more likely to die before the age of five and have lifespans on average 16 years shorter than people in the U.S.

Last month, Ma was part of an 18-person team organized by the initiative, a U.S. nonprofit organization dedicated to providing health and dental care and nutritional education to people in Haiti. Her team included a doctor, nurses, pharmacist, ophthalmologist, educator and other specialists.

“It was a very humbling experience,” she said. “People there live mostly in shacks, don’t have access to clean water or bathrooms – things we tend to take for granted at home.”

They also don’t have adequate access to doctors and dentists. The initiative website indicates one doctor in Haiti would need to serve about 4,000 people, one dentist about 33,000 people.

A lasting impression

Ma and the other volunteers were in Timo for only a week, but they made a big impact. They treated cuts and scabs, provided painkillers and vitamin supplements and even performed a few minor surgeries. Collectively they:

• Visited with 842 patients at the clinic, 35 others in their homes
• Dispensed 1,699 medications
• Dispensed 130 reading glasses
• Helped 80 patients suffering from anemia
• Helped 96 patients suffering from high blood pressure

Alice Ma with children in the Haitian village of Timo.

The villagers were grateful, Ma said, and provided the volunteers with interpreters and health workers who looked after the patients when the volunteers had to leave.

Back in Pullman, Ma is educating WSU students about eating nutritiously; but she often thinks about the people she helped in Haiti and wonders how they are doing.

“The trip was a really good way for me to grow personally and professionally, to learn about another culture and see how people live in another part of the world,” she said.