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By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN â Dr. Mark Kelleyâs dining room table is covered with the haunting images of nearly three years of humanitarian work in Haiti.
There are photographs of starving children who resemble victims of the African famine; others show Kelley, a med student and a nun working over two tiny babies in an Intensive Care Unit set up in a kitchen; still more are of cribs, jammed end to end in a room filled with orphans.
On the night of the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, the childrenâs hospital was destroyed and they were all taken to an open-air tin-roofed place. Two floors of the house where medical volunteers stay were pressed into service for the babies.
âNow,â says Kelley, âthere are tents everywhere.â
Twenty percent of the children of Haiti and 60 percent of adults have AIDS. Typically, Kelley sees patients suffering from tuberculosis, starvation, dysentery, malnutrition and pellagra, a protein-deficiency disease.
When Kelley, who practices internal medicine in North Kingstown, is there multiple times a year, he toils three weeks at a stretch, resting âa littleâ on Sundays. He is often accompanied by his wife, Marilyn, a school psychologist. The work is not only demanding, itâs very dangerous.
He remembers, âWe had a kid with a gunshot wound in the back of a pickup truck. The priest sat on the hood of the truck to get us through.â
Where once they could walk the streets and take the children to the beach, the Kelleys stay inside because of the high level of violence.
âWe canât go out anywhere now,â says Marilyn. âItâs not safe. Thereâs a potential for kidnapping. Americans are kidnapped and killed on the way from the airport to the hotel.â
Born in the Bronx, N.Y., Kelley graduated from Tufts University Medical School and served his internship in Buffalo. He performed public service as a physician at the federal womenâs prison at Alderson, W.Va., onetime home to Lynette âSqueakyâ Fromme, of the notorious Manson Family.
He also practiced in Tuscaloosa, Ala., New Hampshire and Allentown, Pa., and taught at Penn State University. He has been in Rhode Island since 1996. He and his wife met when both were in training at a psychiatric hospital in college.
âWe always argue about who was the patient,â she jokes.
Kelleyâs involvement with Haiti began innocently enough at a breakfast he attended in Peterborough, N.H.
âA dentist asked about the risks of practicing dentistry in Haiti. I said, âI donât know, but Iâll go with you.ââ
His dedication to the people of Haiti and the nuns with whom he works â Mother Teresaâs Missionaries of Charity â has become a personal cause that extends throughout his family.
All four of the Kelley kids â Christine, Michael, Adam and Colleen â have served in Haiti. Colleen is now a physicianâs assistant.
âOne day,â her father recalls, âwe were walking through a slum and a man ran up calling âColleen! Colleen! Colleen!â He wanted to show her the scar where sheâd sewn him up the year before.â
Marilyn notes, âOur niece went four times. Now our grandkids want to go, too.â
Dr. Kelley examines children in the morning and adults in the afternoon in clinics that are set up in, among other spots, a church. There, a nun gives tickets to people sitting outside and they wait in line to be seen.
Once a week, Kelley does medications; another day is reserved for bandaging.
âA place in town has AIDS drugs,â Kelley explains. âI write prescriptions and if we can get them well enough to walk there, they can get them. The sisters donât have drugs.â
He sees people who are taken in by the nuns when they have nowhere else to go.
âThe sisters care for those who are critically ill. Itâs a home for the dying for people who should not die.â
Marilyn admires the nuns tremendously.
âThe sisters are incredible people. How they get up every morning I have no idea.â
Her husband adds, âWe meet other health professionals there. The sisters do their thing [day in and day out] and if the volunteers show up, great. If they donât, they keep on working.â
Kelley actually met Mother Teresa when she stopped to inquire about a patient.
The sisters have a school where, Marilyn recalls, âthe little girls braided my daughterâs hair.â In fact, the system of orphans works much as large American families have traditionally functioned: the bigger children take care of the babies.
Her skills as a school psychologist have proved extremely valuable in Haiti as she works with two year olds whose malnourishment has affected their ability to learn. The situation isnât helped by overcrowded classrooms and a belief in corporal punishment.
âThey hit them with sticks,â she says.
âFor years,â Marilyn says, âthey didnât know my background. Then, it was âThis child canât read; this one wonât talk.â All the kids are delayed.â She tries to teach, evaluate behavior and âoffer positive reinforcement.â
She also offers seminars for teachers and principals.
Kelley knows heâs making a difference; success stories attest to that.
âI gave a child with TB a massive does of cortisone to stop the progression [of the disease.] She had just become paralyzed in the leg. Now sheâs running around. We save a lot of babies; with adults, we save more than we lose.â
He provides a comforting presence to a forgotten people âeven if I sit at the bedside and I have nothing to offer them.â
One year, supported by the Mellon Foundation, he went to the Albert Schweitzer hospital, also in Haiti. The sisters have flown him to six other locations where he has treated sick adults and malnourished children.
Kelley, 65, will retire from his North Kingstown practice at the end of December when he has seen his last patient. He plans to return to Haiti in January where he will continue to treat thousands.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at email@example.com.