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Med Student Pioneers “Political Medicine” in Rural Haiti

DoSomething, headed by Fast Company columnist Nancy Lublin, has recognized five young social entrepreneurs with $10,000 grants–and one with a prize of $100,000. Fast Company will profile one of these enterprising youth each day this week. Click here to read the other winners’ stories.

DoSomething, headed by Fast Company columnist Nancy Lublin, has recognized five young social entrepreneurs with $10,000 grants–and one with a prize of $100,000. Fast Company will profile one of these enterprising youth each day this week. Click here to read the other winners’ stories.

Will PerezIt’s the morning before Will Perez leaves for Haiti. The Providence, Rhode Island, medical student has been busy. For one thing, there’s school. But that’s just the beginning: Perez has also helped set up a Haiti-U.S. study abroad program; organized earthquake-relief efforts for Brown University; and is setting up a range of public-health campaigns in rural Haiti. For all this good work, Perez just won a $10,000 DoSomething award–money that will go toward the love of his life: improving medical care in the Caribbean nation that has become his great cause.

Perez was in Haiti long before the earthquake drew thousands of do-gooders to the country–he first flew out the day after he graduated from Brown University in 2008. It was a huge post-college step to take, but it was one that he had long planned for, ever since he finished high school and received six copies of Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” an account of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti with the not-for-profit Partners in Health. Perez “took it as a sign,” he says, and spent much of his college career learning about Haiti’s culture, religion, and language. Then, during his senior year at Brown, he met Farmer, who encouraged him to take time off before med school. So after spending a week and a half at a Haitian orphanage that housed about 600 children, Perez made his choice: He deferred medical school for a year (he’d been accepted early to Brown’s Alpert Medical School) to do community-health work in rural Haiti.

After the decision came six months of vigorous planning and fundraising. “I started applying for money, for grants and scholarships, so I could do down there with some money in pocket,” Perez says. He had to pay for everything himself–plane tickets, living expenses, all the health initiatives he intended to start. Perez, who was homeless for about half of his childhood and was on a full scholarship at Brown, got creative: Besides getting grant money from Brown, he worked at Starbucks and gave ballroom-dance lessons (he danced competitively for five years). By the time the half-year was up, he had about $40,000. He also had a plan to treat–and stop–tuberculosis.

You might call that a beginner’s mistake. It wasn’t that his plan was a bad one. Rather, when Perez arrived in Haiti, he found that tuberculosis wasn’t the most urgent issue, as he’d thought. “Our first program ended up being bedbugs,” he says, “because that’s what everyone was complaining about.”

Getting rid of bedbugs anywhere–let alone a crowded orphanage–is no easy task, and it taught him an important lesson. “Obviously I couldn’t do all this public health work by myself,” he says, “so I began taking in Haitian youth.” He trained the kids in public health, making sure they really “understood the material and [could] put it in a context that rural villagers would understand.”

The bedbug-eradication program ate up about three-quarters of the money Perez had raised. Eventually, Perez says, “I didn’t even have money to live.” Luckily, he did have access to a computer. Posts on the blog he kept to stay in touch with friends and family made their way around the Internet, and he quickly realized that he had a powerful fundraising tool. “I was complaining about all of these things”–no refrigeration for vaccines, for instance–“not really expecting anyone to respond,” he says. “But they did.” Donors poured out about $250,000.

With that money, Perez and his low-budget team of students introduced 14 public-health programs, including oral hygiene, nutrition, and scabies treatment and prevention. And they were deeply successful: Malaria rates, for instance, dropped by more than 60 percent in the orphanage thanks to the malaria campaign.

Perez returned to the U.S. and started medical school. But his work in Haiti remained constant. He worked with the president of Brown to create a task force to organize the university’s earthquake relief efforts. And he helped set up a medical-student exchange program between several Haitian schools and Brown.

Amid all of this, Perez planned his current trip to Haiti. He’s teaming up with the not-for-profit Hope for Haiti to train community-health workers to bring his public health program to about 50,000 more people. Collaborating with Hope for Haiti is key, Perez says, so he can “join forces” with an established organization instead of trying to start anew. “When I’m done, this public health program is going to be Hope for Haiti’s public health program,” he says, explaining why it’s important to have Haitian nurses teach–and personalize–the material. “I introduced it but now I want them to own it. And that’s how I can guarantee that when I leave it will continue on.”

As usual, Perez is traveling alone. “It’s important for me not to kind of overwhelm a community when I first walk into it,” he says. If people who don’t speak Haitian Creole come in, “they’re immediately outsiders.” He believes that, on the first day of his year-long journey, speaking his first Haitian Creole word was the ticket to acceptance. “That was pretty much the selling point,” he says. “They were so impressed that this white man was speaking Creole.”

Perez will keep traveling to Haiti throughout medical school. Asked whether he’ll continue working in political medicine (as he calls it) after graduating, he answers quickly: “It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.” But he doesn’t intend to limit his work to Haiti. Instead, he plans to use the programs he sets up there as a model to bring around the world, hopeful that he can spread the idea of health care as a human right, “regardless of social status, regardless of economic status.”

As for his idol, Paul Farmer, Perez hasn’t talked to him since they first met, he says. “I figure that he’ll hear of me soon enough.”

[Photograph by Gabriela Herman]

More winners’ stories:
Micaela Connery: Knocking Down Barriers With the Power of Performance
Jacqueline Murekatete: Genocide Survivor Embraces Her Ordeal to Educate Others