Marie-Claude Rigaud, M.D., MPH,
trailblazer par excellence.

Raised by parents who expected no less than outstanding performance at school, Dr. Rigaud never thought twice about anything other and always found a way to succeed when barriers were in the way. It started with her choice of attending medical school which for the longest time was an all-male bastion. Her entering class included seven females out of a total of forty-five. She graduated among the top three in 1962. At the time, already married to her physician husband one year ahead of her who was doing his national public health service in Limbé, she chose Plaisance as the site of her own service to be close to her spouse, a pattern she will pursue for the remainder of her career.

In Plaisance, there was no stand-alone clinic per se, but a house that served the dual purpose of residence and clinic, across the police station. By happenstance she met a local minister who had married a half-sister she never knew she had up till then. She remembers that location with fondness for its cool climate and greenery. She remained there for one year. Then she moved to Pont-Sondé because her husband had landed a position at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles soon after the Flora hurricane. She remained there for about one year and took a sabbatical from work for about one year to be a mother and housewife.

On December 23, 1964, she and her husband left for the USA and settled in Baltimore, Maryland, where they had a contract with Provident Hospital.  She worked first as house physician, while preparing and eventually, passing the required ECFMG examination. Thereafter, she applied and was accepted for a residency training in psychiatry at the Seton Psychiatric Institute, a private Catholic Hospital run by the Daughters of Charity. The training lasted three years and she remained on staff as an attending for one year. Since Seton catered to an upper middle-class clientele, she wanted to experience serving a different population at the State Psychiatric Hospital. She then transferred to and spent a few months at Spring Grove State Hospital in Catonsville, Maryland, serving a different socioeconomic population. Although she appreciated the novel experience provided there, she decided to accept Seton Institute’s offer to return as Senior Staff Psychiatrist, supervising residents.  She also started and directed a Psychiatric Day Hospital program and stayed at Seton until the facility closed its doors in 1973.

From 1973 to 1978, she was in private practice in Baltimore County, at the border of Baltimore City and she was on staff at St Joseph Hospital.  However, she made a move to Aurora, Illinois when her husband found a position there. She started and remained in private practice till the early nineties when she became disillusioned with the trend of modern psychiatric practice that favored pharmacotherapy over psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Pursuing a lifetime love for Public Health, she enrolled and completed an MPH program at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She states she clearly remembered the interviewer making the snide remark that she may not handle the course load because of the math required. Undaunted, she took statistics first, passed it with flying colors and proceeded to become the Valedictorian of the class on graduation day, receiving the Alan Donaldson Memorial Award from UIC. She was able to achieve this in one and half year. She was and remains attracted to the social/occupational aspect of psychiatry.

From then on, she branched into a new discipline in Psychiatry that dealt with Occupational Health. She worked first as consultant for Western Electric and then in that related section at the University of Illinois at Chicago till 2007 when she decided to move to Florida where she has been living since. For the next seven years, she worked as tele psychiatrist consultant, with focus on occupational/functional aspect of psychiatry, commuting as needed for face-to-face evaluation when necessary till 2015.

Dr. Rigaud, or Marie-Claude, as she prefers to be called by colleagues, has been involved in a lot of professional, social and community activities over the years. Among the highlights:

  • AMHE. The first and only female ever president of the CEC. She states her experience was less than fulfilling due to interferences by the chauvinistic attitude of some members. The lack of consistent support for some important policy matters led her to resign the position in 1986. Even though disappointed, she has remained a steadfast supporter of the organization she had joined shortly after its formation. She has been a member of its Board of Trustees since her presidency, serving for many years as the Chair.
  • American Psychiatric Association. She has been an active member for a long time and has worked with it for some projects she has been working back home in Haiti. She is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the APA, participated in a number of the association’s committees and received several awards, the most recent being the APA Profile of Courage Award in 2014.
  • AMA. She has been a member and served on the AMA HOD as the delegate of the International Medical Graduate section. It was created to help with the integration of Foreign Medical Graduates with the American Medical System.
  • Rebati Sante Mental. This is an ambitious effort she started soon after the 2010 earthquake. The goal is simple: help restructure the mental health system in Haiti. She has been the Chair from its creation and she states she has been assisted by some dedicated compatriots: Guerda Nicolas, PhD, and Richard Douyon, MD, both of the University of Miami. RSM’s emphasis is on collaboration and partnership with other groups, such as HAPA, the Boston Mental Health group.  There is a liaison with Haiti’s Health Ministry through their representative.   It is working on three main projects in Haiti.
    • Teachers training. This is primarily spearheaded by Dr. Nicolas. It trains teachers to identify mental health issues in kids. This is a scientific approach for evaluation of kids who may have odd behavior to counter the prevailing attitude about bad conduct felt to be associated with supernatural phenomenon. A pilot program was started in Arcahaie and a second one is to be implemented in Petit-Goâve.
    • Distribution of free neuroleptic drugs in Haiti under the Gérald Rigaud Foundation. Working closely with the Haitian Nurses Association of Florida, and Dr. Lubin, Haitian psychiatrist from New York, Rebati Sante Mental obtains the meds and pays for the shipping and distribution in the country on a need basis.
    • Mental health education of medical students at the Faculté de Médecine in Haiti.

Dr Rigaud’s resume includes a long list of presentations and publications.

What is remarkable is that Marie-Claude is a mother of six children. She considers herself blessed because her husband was a very good partner in helping to rear them and she benefited from extended family help at every step. She furthermore states that family always came first. As a mother she still carries the scar of the death of her 43-year old son who sustained a cerebral hemorrhage literally in her arms a few years ago.

She and her husband invested heavily in the kids’ education no matter the cost and are very happy with the result. All of them, even the 13 grandkids, regardless of the various ethnic backgrounds, identify as Haitian and are as passionate about the country as she is. As proof of her passion, preceding the creation of Rebati Sante Mental, she had helped create Haïti Soit Fière in Illinois, and worked closely with the bureau of the governor to help Haitian refugees. Whenever requested, she initiated and participated in Haitian community events, such as fundraising for a Haitian candidate replacing Barack Obama at the Illinois Senate.  She has been very active, initiating and participating in a number of advocacy projects directed at Haiti, including letters to the editors, legislators, US presidents etc….

Far from being satisfied with her accomplishments, she cites as examples of symphonie inachevée two inchoate goals:

-  Help bring Haiti to her respectable reputation of yesteryear. She makes it clear that she loves Haiti, her country of birth, warts and all. She hopes that whenever this happens, she will be happy, wherever she happens to be, on this earth or elsewhere.

- Termination of a manuscript she had started a while ago about the decay of Perle des Antilles from a psychiatrist point of view. Whereas the former is not under her control, the second is achievable and she will do her best to achieve it.

Reynald Altéma, MD


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