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Local doctor devotes decades to Haiti

September 16, 2011

Special to the Standard

NORTH KINGSTOWN – Dr. Mark Kelley’s 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 children’s 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.
“Now,” says Kelley, “there are tents everywhere.”
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 “a little” on Sundays. He is often accompanied by his wife, Marilyn, a school psychologist. The work is not only demanding, it’s very dangerous.
He remembers, “We 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.”
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.
“We can’t go out anywhere now,” says Marilyn. “It’s not safe. There’s a potential for kidnapping. Americans are kidnapped and killed on the way from the airport to the hotel.”
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 women’s prison at Alderson, W.Va., onetime home to Lynette “Squeaky” 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.
“We always argue about who was the patient,” she jokes.
Kelley’s involvement with Haiti began innocently enough at a breakfast he attended in Peterborough, N.H.
“A dentist asked about the risks of practicing dentistry in Haiti. I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll go with you.’”
His dedication to the people of Haiti and the nuns with whom he works – Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity – has become a personal cause that extends throughout his family.
All four of the Kelley kids – Christine, Michael, Adam and Colleen – have served in Haiti. Colleen is now a physician’s assistant.
“One day,” her father recalls, “we were walking through a slum and a man ran up calling ‘Colleen! Colleen! Colleen!’ He wanted to show her the scar where she’d sewn him up the year before.”
Marilyn notes, “Our niece went four times. Now our grandkids want to go, too.”
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.
“A place in town has AIDS drugs,” Kelley explains. “I write prescriptions and if we can get them well enough to walk there, they can get them. The sisters don’t have drugs.”
He sees people who are taken in by the nuns when they have nowhere else to go.
“The sisters care for those who are critically ill. It’s a home for the dying for people who should not die.”
Marilyn admires the nuns tremendously.
“The sisters are incredible people. How they get up every morning I have no idea.”
Her husband adds, “We meet other health professionals there. The sisters do their thing [day in and day out] and if the volunteers show up, great. If they don’t, they keep on working.”
Kelley actually met Mother Teresa when she stopped to inquire about a patient.
The sisters have a school where, Marilyn recalls, “the little girls braided my daughter’s hair.” 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 isn’t helped by overcrowded classrooms and a belief in corporal punishment.
“They hit them with sticks,” she says.
“For years,” Marilyn says, “they didn’t know my background. Then, it was ‘This child can’t read; this one won’t talk.’ All the kids are delayed.” She tries to teach, evaluate behavior and “offer positive reinforcement.”
She also offers seminars for teachers and principals.
Kelley knows he’s making a difference; success stories attest to that.
“I 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 she’s running around. We save a lot of babies; with adults, we save more than we lose.”
He provides a comforting presence to a forgotten people “even if I sit at the bedside and I have nothing to offer them.”
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

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