Alix Haspil, MD and Serge Bontemps, MD
living the meaning of our flag.
Reynald Altéma, MD
When we created a nation and tore the white from the French flag, we meant to form a union between the two groups that joined for the fight and then to move forward as a new entity, for the common good. Except we kept finding differences instead of commonality and the old tribalism that allowed a thriving slave trade in the first place in the mother continent roared its ugly head again and to this day, we are busy quarreling among ourselves, giving short shrift to the notion of meritocracy, the concept of consensus, the wisdom of tolerance, the value of integrity and the shared rewards of nation building. Nepotism trumped common sense and created cliques with the mind-set of us versus them, in perpetual competition over limited resources instead of creating a symbiotic nexus to increase the resources. This creates a cruel system that made innumerable victims and on a personal level felt like the searing pain of a viper’s fang if not the paralyzing effect of its venom. A paradigm of only victims because the vicious cycle usurps talented and honest citizens of the chance to help society.
The choice of such colleagues is a refreshing reminder that some of us do embody the aforementioned principles, but also it opens a window to peer into our modern history, spanning the period from the late fifties to the present. Both have intertwined lives from medical school yore and it makes sense to study them together as they have had a long collaboration.
They were part of the students who went on strike during Duvalier’s early years as a protest against wanton incarceration and political persecution taking shape. One cunning state’s riposte was the use of strike breakers: students that didn’t pass the entrance exams were allowed in as political patronage. Some in the student population at large were cads; they and the strike breakers caused a chasm that lasted a lifetime. Roger Lafontant, who before that was a popular student, known to be very smart, played a dishonorable role in that episode.
The medical school then was a far cry from its present form. It was a universe into itself. It had a football team in each class and there were interscholastic tournaments. The arts were well represented as there was a choir. Students who were music lovers created small combos (guitar, accordion, trumpet, trombone, drum) and performed during special occasions such as Christmas, Carnaval or the famous Jour des Bleus for the fun of bringing a joyous atmosphere. Most of those activities have disappeared under Duvalier, especially after the strike; he harbored an intellectuals’ phobia or hatred.
Both Alix and Serge graduated from medical school in 1965 and both met their future wives during the following months of Residency. The former-a native of Port-au-Prince- went to Les Cayes for two years to man the Immaculate Conception Hospital in both Internal Medicine and Surgery divisions, while also teaching at the next-door Nursing School. Alix refers to that era as probably some of the best in his life. He was the personal physician of the bishop, the nuns, and the pauper. He was welcomed as a celebrity as he used to vacation there as a youth when his father was the military chief of the region. Serge on the other hand, a native of Jérémie, went to Cap-Haïtien and lasted there for 1 and ½ year at L’Hôpital Justinien doing residency in OB-Gyn. The next 5 months were spent in Gonaïves as director of OB-Gyn.
They both relocated to the US in 1967, 6 months apart, Alix in July and Serge in December and followed same pattern of one year in rotating Internship and eventually 3 years of specialization in Radiology, Serge at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital and Alix at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. Their professional careers mirrored each other, holding positions as attending physician at major teaching metropolitan hospitals in succession, Jersey City Medical Center (72-76), Bayonne Hospital (76-03) for Serge and Roosevelt Hospital (71-81), Metropolitan Hospital (81-92), Lincoln Hospital (92-05) for Alix.
Each excelled in a particular niche, GI for Alix and Angiography for Serge, becoming experts and chiefs of such divisions and recipients of widespread accolade and or numerous awards. A medical conversation with either is akin to a trip down memory lane about tests that have become part of medical lore, namely pneumoencephalogram, lymphangiogram, and pelvic pneumogram. They have been supplanted by CT (first 2) and ultrasound, a boon to patients as they were very uncomfortable. Serge in fact can regale one with stories about the large caseload he had accumulated over the years.
Having both attended medical school for free back home was always considered a debt to the motherland and each tried to fulfill a wish to give back. Coming of age during a pivotal epoch in third-world history when lots of countries were gaining independence and social progress was the buzzword among the enlightened, they sought to accomplish such noble goal by becoming involved in forward-thinking-and-looking organizations. This explains their unbidden involvement in AMHE from its onset. They were both members of the first CEC, holding post of Secretary and Assistant-Secretary respectively for at least a decade. Serge also held the posts of First Vice-President and then President of CEC. The initial mission statement of AMHE to help their alma matter was always weighing in the balance. Their genuine concern for the lot of their fellow citizens was influenced by partaking in activities of several grassroot formations such as l’Heure Haïtienne, Solèy Leve, Haitian Fathers/Sèl and various other movements with a progressist bent for the furtherance of our citizens’ lives both here and back home. This genuine sympathy translated into financial support whenever possible.
In the case of Alix who often went back home, he was always taken aback by the number of young men begging and or ready to follow any path to feed an empty belly. At that time, in the late seventies, Haiti had the infamous reputation as haven for vacationing promiscuous gay men as the inordinate number of poor young men offered a large pool of male prostitutes. Alarmed by this observation and more than willing to give a helping hand, he volunteered to help in fund raising for La fami se la vi that set out to help the poor by offering vocational training, medical care, for the wretched. Both joined in that commitment as they very often influenced each other and almost invariably gravitated together toward worthy cause. The goal always remained the same: help the less fortunate to attempt to narrow the gap between the haves and haves-not, pure and simple, free of puffery and false pretense. Both Alix and Serge helped wholeheartedly for this noble endeavor.
The spirit of commitment to the motherland would result in the creation of HOHS, Haitian Organization for Health Services, NGO created as a benevolent gesture of health professionals from the diaspora to give a boost to the broken health care system back home. This was a spontaneous response at the request of the then country’s first magistrate who sent an SOS for help to the diaspora. HOHS was created in 1994 and it is still in operation. Far from the initial lofty aim of a systematic intervention for systemic improvement, faced with the ever-present infighting among our brethren, it has devolved into helping a medical clinic in Les Cayes run by the Sisters of Assisi. Annual fund-raising helps pay the employees’ salaries.
Both almost octogenarians, their enthusiasm for helping the motherland is unabashed. Serge has created an Inn in Jérémie, Le Bon Temps, and was very involved in fund raising to help disaster-stricken countrymen after the recent hurricane that destroyed that region wholesale. Alix on the other hand has relocated in Florida where he has been busy and helped forge a coalition of like-minded philanthropic efforts. Correct Health that underwrites cost of a clinic in Château, near Les Cayes and HOHS jointly raise funds for their respective projects. In addition, scholarships are offered to students at a religious school near Les Cayes and in Château.
Serge and Alix are true kindred spirits. They both have a passion for music. Serge, who strums the guitar occasionally, once supported a musical band. Alix on the other hand is a musician at heart. He studied music under tutelage of an excellent pianist, Mrs. Élie, the wife of the famous Haitian composer, Justin Élie who is better known in the US. In fact, he is another pearl in our culture that deserves a future paean. The piano lessons spanned from age 5 till 19. However, he is more commonly known as a self-taught trumpet player, having honed his skills first as a member of the St Louis de Gonzague school band. His foray in playing the trumpet is a story worth recounting. His cousin, a fellow jazz musician, Gérald Merceron, introduced him to Herbie Widmaier who was jamming with Nono Lamy, Michel Desgrottes, Dormélas Philippe, Ferdinand Dor and Charles Dessalines at the studio of his radio station. He took part in the jam session and impressed them. Alix joined Dessalines and Widmaier in a jazz competition held by Voice of America Radio. They received kudos from no less than the famous pianist and big band leader Stan Kenton. To us music lovers, this is a list of stellar musicians. He and Herbie became lifelong friends since.
Serge came from a family where scholastic excellence is considered a birth right. No fewer than 8 physicians, half a dozen nurses, exist in his extended family. His cousin was the first dean of La Faculté de Médecine Notre Dame. His own son is an MIT graduate as engineer and a nephew, also an engineer, is the proud holder of many patents. A cousin is the Chief of Public Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
All who know Serge will describe him as low-key, debonair, a scribe who always takes notes at any meeting he participates in and is always willing to help. He can always be relied upon to carry a set of bésigue at any AMHE congress. He is one of a handful of physicians attending every annual congress.