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Empowering a healthier Haiti

CMU student changes lives through health education, with a focus on women

Contact: Curt Smith

​​​​​​​Lisa Dragna first traveled to Campeche-Dumay, a small village located in the mountains east of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in June 2014. At the time, the country was facing a health epidemic and was rebuilding from a devastating earthquake. People were sick and dying – many of them children – and she wanted to help.

Dragna, a Central Michigan University student working in health education, joined a group of volunteers – most of whom were her colleagues – on the medical mission trip. The team – physicians, nurses and pre-med students, among others – spent the better part of their nine-day journey in a medical clinic, providing care and education.

Because of the limited and very basic resources in Haiti, there were many people they could not help – making it a difficult experience for everyone involved – and Dragna swore she was never going back.

A year later, however, she was the one leading the charge on another visit to the village. This time the goal was to empower its people – particularly women – through health education.

Empowering Haitian women

During her first visit, Dragna remembered how surprised she had been watching the doctors spend a lot of time educating patients about preventative measures they can take to improve their overall health.

"What I learned is they don't want to be handed a pill, they want to learn," she said.

This inspired her to take health education – and ultimately prevention – to the Haitian people, with a focus on women.

"Once I started my education online through CMU and learned more about community development, I knew solidarity is a key value to working in this village," she said. "Working together as a team and respecting the beliefs of others is the foundation of teaching preventive care in Haiti." 

​"This experience closed the loop in my educational career, my professional career and my volunteerism. A good day in Haiti was considered the best day of any job I've ever done."

CMU student ​Lisa Dragna

​When she returned to the village of Campeche-Dumay in October 2015, Dragna developed a women's health and hygiene class encompassing prenatal health and newborn care. She also organized a major women's hygiene project – Pads for Haiti. With the help of her colleagues, she provided 100 Haitian women with kits containing supplies to make their own washable sanitary pads.

"Some people would walk for miles and miles, sometimes overnight, to get to our clinic and classes," she said. "Working in Haiti is one of the hardest jobs I've ever done, knowing how far people traveled to get to us is what gave me the energy to get up everyday with enthusiasm and compassion. I was truly grateful."

Even though the feeling of helplessness sometimes got the best of her, Dragna quickly learned how she could almost always do something to help.

"All you need to do is listen. You don't need a whole lot to teach somebody something that will change their lives," she said. "There are newborn babies, children and adults who present in the clinic with conditions and disease and you know they are not going to live much longer.  Haiti just doesn't have the resources we have in the states to heal these people.  So, all you can do is listen, encourage and empower the family. That is truly the best gift you can give."

Giving back while receiving credit

Dragna, a California resident pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree with an option in community development and a health sciences concentration through CMU, learned just before her visit that she could connect her Pads for Haiti project with her education.

"I had an amazing opportunity to use my Pads for Haiti project as credit toward my degree," Dragna said. "It was satisfying enough for me to volunteer my time, but when I found out that I could get credits and even professional recognition for it, it really felt good."

The ability to connect her volunteerism and education was invaluable, she said.  

"In my classes, I learned about education, psychology, diversity and community, and I used all of that when I was in Haiti," she said. "You can learn so much from books but the true learning happens when you apply what you've learned. It was very powerful to be able to tie what I did in Haiti to my education."

Seeing the impact

The visits to Haiti were through an organization called the Tallahassee-Haiti Medical Team and promoted through Dragna's employer, Kaiser Permenente.

2016-03-21_1320-for-story.jpgIn the almost year and a half between her visits, Dragna saw dramatic differences in the village – particularly the health of its people. She could see it in their faces – many looked healthier and happier.

"Our presence in Haiti – what we're doing – is making a difference," she said. "You can see our impact if you look at pictures from 2014 and 2015. They're doing it, they're getting it. We turned something clinical into something empowering and educational.

"This experience closed the loop in my educational career, my professional career and my volunteerism," Dragna said. "A good day in Haiti was considered the best day of any job I've ever done."

While she has made a difference in the lives of so many, the lasting impact Haiti has had on her also is a powerful one. 

"While the community is very poor, there is so much richness – richness in a community that you don't see here in the states," she said. "People do not hesitate​​​ to help each other by sharing cell phones and food and watching over each other's children. The children in Campeche-Dumay are really the children of the village. It's a wonderful feeling of community."

Dragna is already planning her next visit to Haiti, where she hopes to offer classes on other health issues such as STDs.​​​


A CMU connection

Lisa Dragna didn’t just stumble on CMU by chance. Her husband, Scott Morris, graduated from CMU’s main campus in Mount Pleasant in 1990. 

“Because my husband is an alum, we get mailings from the university,” she said. “When I began to explore online programs and realized CMU had been named the best in the country, and had the degree I wanted, it was a perfect match.”

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