Once upon a time in Panama

The month of July is always hot but it brings our AMHE annual convention. This year was a little special, because it marked the 50th anniversary of our existence in the Association. We worked together to prepare the festivities and we believed that we were ready to enjoy the week in Panama.

We landed in Panama City a Friday afternoon and as a group and we headed directly to a downtown hotel where we were ready to sojourn and participate to all the possible excursions allowing us to visit the canal and different Indian tribes. We were 268 coming from the United States, Canada and Haiti. We knew that the country was also the favorite place of the orchestra Tabou Combo and we were told that everybody in Panama could sing their favorite notes.

We did not wait long to venture on the excursions. We left earlier in the next morning for the canal by sea, on boat and in canoes. A visit to the country of the native Indians of the Embera tribe, has demonstrated a rich vegetation and a unique wild life with a mixed variety of fishes, crocodiles, birds, frogs, monkeys and butterflies. We were all eager to learn about the history of the canal but the biggest discussion among us was the way the canal was oriented North to South across the country of Panama, facilitating the communication between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea (Atlantic).

The Native Panamanians or Indigenous People of Panama are the native peoples of Panama. They make up 12.3% of the overall 3.5 million population of Panama and represent less than 420,000 people. The larger tribes are the Ngabe and the Bugle in Panama. Most of the indigenous peoples live in administrative regions called “comarca indigenas” as equivalent of provinces (Embera, Guna Yala, Hgabe-Bule) and receive governmental support. Some natives speak Spanish but many retain their traditional languages. The AMHE was lucky enough to be able to host the Embera tribe at our downtown hotel for a night of exhibition.

The food reminded us a little our Haitian kitchen especially the rice and beans, but a lot of fish with plantains and other vegetables. The local dancers performed exclusively for us, wearing their exotic costumes while singing their traditional songs under the rhythmic cadence of their folkloric drums. The next day, we were also lucky enough to host the local Indians with their dancers singing their tribal songs. Three beautiful nights at the downtown hotel and we were ready to join the resort Decameron and start the scientific program.

The conferences extended on a three-day of intensive activities with a mix of new speakers from different towns of the country. Subjects like Psychiatry, Internal Medicine, Bariatric Surgery, Breast Cancer, Robotic Surgery, Cardiology etc were well exposed without forgetting the essential on the COVID-19 pandemic. Time was also allocated for questions and answers as well at the end of each session followed by a “pause-café”. Attention was well given by the moderators to keep a schedule on time.

The Saturday session was particularly dedicated to the lecturers and presenters from Haiti. It was a pleasure to welcome our new Dean Bernard Pierre MD at the Alma Mater (Faculte de Medecine et de Pharmacie) and to hear from him the way he was coping with different problems especially the new Curriculum. The state of the new members at the faculty was discussed and we learned about the readiness of the new hospital built to enter in service by the year 2023. Updates on other Haitian projects with FADIMAC and others were exposed. Once these topics debated, it was the turn of Eric Jerome MD to declare the end of the scientific session.

During the week, differents activities were scheduled on each evening like the Night of the President, the Night of the Chapters, the Night of the Foundation and finally the Gala Night to cloture the activities under the magical music of the Tabou Combo Orchestra. During the night of the gala, a keynote speaker is always chosen. The term “keynote speaker” is not always well understood. Often, it is confused to a public speaker or either an inspirational or a motivational speaker, while many speakers can talk for thirty or forty-five minutes without delivering a message in their keynote speech.

For the AMHE, a keynote speaker set the tone for the event and announce a vision or even deliver a core message to the group inviting everyone to follow. This is why the keynote is expected to be a revelation at the event because the message may also re-direct the goals of the Association. We heard the passionate stories of our ancestors which have allowed them to become the only men to succeed in a slave rebellion after beating the most powerful army in the world. Yes, our fathers have thrown out the soldiers of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte from the soil the French has colonized for so long.

We heard our friend and speaker Louis Auguste MD referring to the late Lionel Laine MD, one of our founding members who become the first elected president according to the AMHE by-laws in 1974. He created so much controversy after the birth of the Association, to a point that many members thought that the young AMHE would have not have lasted long. To prevent an early demise, the others founding members asked him to resign. They had to regroup around Constant Pierre-Louis Jr MD to reset the fundamentals and priorities of the Association. Indeed, Lionel Laine MD had his political convictions and died for it, in joining a group of revolutionaries trying to overthrow the dictator Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc).

No matter, we have survived 50 years and if one can find in the courage of Lionel Laine MD, motivation and determination, it took also a lot of skills from the other founding members to survive this tragedy and help the Association grow on new grounds, away from the political scene. Indeed, we needed to know how to maneuver in this world. Our country of Haiti has seen already so many of our young generation abandon the land that our ancestors has leagued to us without looking back. Others have tried a return but the country may have not accepted their efforts. Our children, the children of Haiti are part of this diaspora which appeared to have lost an interest in a country who is not prepared to use their skills.

Louis Auguste MD has shown the way we have lost all respect around the world with the novel association of car thieves to Haitians and gang members at home and abroad. He reminded us the efforts of our generation to get rid of the HIV/AIDS stigmata. We all have paid a price during our residency training in the United States. Blocking the Manhattan Bridge, was a way for us to affirm the Haitian Solidarity and force the CDC to back down.

We regret how the actual situation in the country is imposing a toll on these young physicians who saw us as father figure, forcing them to leave a country they love, and to look for better opportunities elsewhere after being so successful in their private practices in Gonaives, Port-au-Prince, Cayes, Jacmel etc. Many of the residents we helped during their formation are looking for a way to reach the American or the Canadian or the European system of Health in search of a better world. Others are looking for other means to simply support their family. The country is not welcoming them anymore.

Those represent also personal challenges for each of us. How can we change the actual situation back home while we are still alive? Soon, I want to believe that we will be able to start back travelling for our medical missions in the North and North East, or in Port-au-Prince or Jacmel and the South of the country. The people we help, our brothers and sisters are not responsible of such situation in our land. They are also the victims of a world which has deprived them all. I have expressed my feeling so many times but I would like to re-post a poem (Enfants de notre pays) that I wrote, thinking of the actual situation in our motherland: