Dr. Peanut: A St. Louis pediatrician battles child malnutrition in Haiti with peanut butter

Dr. Peanut: A St. Louis pediatrician battles child malnutrition in Haiti with peanut butter
A little girl in the Cap-Haïtien slum Shada. See more photos from Haiti.

In Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, everyone rises with the roosters, and by 8 a.m. the unpaved streets outside Hospital Justinien are jammed. Taxicabs and pickup trucks, some painted with religious slogans and turned into makeshift buses called taptaps, jostle for space on the narrow thoroughfares, dodging potholes and negotiating chaotic corners unregulated by traffic lights.

Amid the exhaust and swirls of dust, pedestrians hustle alongside the roar of traffic. Men push wheelbarrows filled with electronics and blocks of ice. Women balance trays of eggs and bananas atop their heads. Little girls hurry on their way to school, dressed in neat white blouses, kilts and lacy socks, a half-dozen bows in their hair.

On Tuesday, trash day, towers of raw garbage stand on the sidewalk, ready for collection. Goats and the occasional pig scale the piles and nibble at scraps of food and cardboard. Shopkeepers sweep carefully around the waste before raising their storefront grilles.

Here on Haiti's northern coast, 150 miles from Port-au-Prince, life goes on in the country's second largest city, much as it did before last January's earthquake, and another working day has begun. (Click here to read how a group of St. Louis therapists are helping injured Hatians and how you can donate to their cause.)

Inside Justinien's pediatrics ward, high barred windows keep out the harsh morning light, and thick concrete walls seal off the noise. Hot, humid air settles over rows of cribs where babies, some attached to IV drips, lie near watchful mothers.

A small room off to the side is bare except for an examination table, a makeshift desk piled with folders and bottles of medicine, and two narrow wooden benches pushed up against the walls. A tall Haitian nurse wearing a white dress and a cap and stockings, straight out of the 1950s, confers with a smaller, wiry American woman over a pair of height-and-weight charts.

The Haitian is Marie Fleurese Gourges, head nurse of Justinien's infant malnutrition clinic. The American is Dr. Patricia Wolff, a St. Louis pediatrician. Wolff is 62 years old. She has large blue eyes, short blonde hair, a pointed chin — and a commanding presence. As her friend Mary McElwain puts it: "Pat is a person who feels people should listen to her."

Wolff has a black belt in Kenpo karate and usually carries a stun gun and a can of pepper spray in her purse. She is a woman to be reckoned with. Two months ago, when someone snatched her iPhone from her front pocket, Wolff hopped aboard a motorcycle taxi and chased the thief through the streets of Cap-Haïtien until he disappeared into a market.

One of the charts Gourges and Wolff are studying shows that a healthy ten-month-old baby should weigh five-and-a-half kilograms, a little more than twelve pounds. "That's not right," Wolff says. "I know how much a ten-month-old is supposed to weigh."

The child in question is Robenson Yean, who sits on a narrow bench beside his mother. He wears a dirty brown T-shirt and a pair of shorts. He is unusually small for his age. His face and belly are swollen, and there are tiny dark spots on his feet, all telltale signs of malnutrition.

Gourges, with the aid of the height-and-weight chart provided by the World Health Organization, has determined that Robenson is indeed malnourished and eligible for Justinien's treatment program sponsored by Wolff's organization, Meds & Food For Kids, also known as MFK.

Over the next month and half, Robenson will make weekly visits to the clinic. Gourges or another nurse will wrap him in a sling and hang him from the scale suspended from the ceiling inside the clinic door. They'll stretch him out beside a ruler on the examination table to calculate his height — a delicate operation, because, as Wolff points out, even a centimeter can alter his ideal weight.

The nurses will mark the boy's progress on a chart they keep in a file folder on the table; Justinien, like most institutions in Haiti, has no computers. Then they'll hand his mother a green plastic packet containing half a kilogram (1.1 pounds) of medika mamba — "peanut-butter medicine" — which she'll feed to Robenson throughout the week. By his next visit, he'll likely have gained a few ounces, and within a month or two, he'll reach a healthy weight.

It is medika mamba that brought Wolff to Cap-Haïtien. For the past seven years, she's been working to build a factory where Haitian workers will use the peanuts grown by Haitian farmers and transform them into peanut butter (enhanced by vitamins and minerals), which will be distributed and fed to malnourished children in clinics throughout Haiti.

A few minutes before Robenson and his mother arrived Wolff and Gourges were studying the medical chart of another child, a one-and-a-half-year-old boy named Blaise. He weighed thirteen-and-a-quarter pounds when he entered the program, and his goal weight was set at sixteen-and-a-half pounds. At his last visit, though, he weighed in at a little more than fourteen pounds; the week before that, he had been at sixteen.

The numbers make Wolff suspicious. When used properly, medika mamba has a 75 percent success rate.

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