The idea of The 53rd Week started in 2006 where Henry Lin first went to La Romana as a medical student. Spending a month volunteering with a medical team at Good Samaritan Hospital, he learned about the healthcare needs of the community, teaching basic first aid to the Haitian refugees, meeting local healthcare organizations, and working as a clinician in daily mobile clinics. Through this experience, he was impressed by the established local infrastructure and leadership that allowed the Good Samaritan hospital to recruit over 40 volunteer teams annually. This network of volunteers served as the foundation of healthcare to the Haitian refugees in the La Romana area. The Haitian refugees were caught in a gap in the Dominican Republic healthcare system: public healthcare was only available to citizens, yet private healthcare was far too expensive. Recognizing a potential for improved collaboration and motivated by the compassion of the local volunteers, Henry decided to return to the Dominican Republic.
In 2007, Henry returned as a pediatric resident. With the help of Kathleen Simpson, a pediatric resident and former medical school classmate who is now a pediatric cardiologist, and Emery Lin, a medical student, Henry led a seven person medical team on a one week medical trip to La Romana. The goal was to learn about the challenges of planning and implementing a week-long volunteer medical team. The team held daily mobile pediatric clinics in the bateyes. As Henry recalls, “I am very thankful for that first team, particularly for their enthusiasm, patience, and faith in the medical trip. It was an incredibly steep learning process.” This first trip proved to be a clinical and logistical success with Kathleen providing medical expertise, and Emery recruiting the medical student volunteers.
Despite the medical success, Henry realized that there was a lot more that could be done in La Romana. During the trip, the medical team had the fortune of working with other volunteers on additional healthcare initiatives including batey healthcare education days, hospital training sessions for healthcare workers, water purification for the bateyes, and health assessment of the batey residents. While these projects underscored the immense need for additional resources, they also highlighted the organizational foresight and prowess of the Good Samaritan Hospital.
Excited about the possibilities, Henry was intent on improving his understanding of the local healthcare needs as well as trying to see how his expertise could best benefit Good Samaritan Hospital. Over the next two years, Henry, Kathleen, and Emery returned with medical teams to conduct their own health assessment in the bateyes. Recognizing the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to community health, the teams consisted of both students and professionals with backgrounds in medicine, public health, education, advocacy, and business. These teams not only ran medical clinics, but also learned about and documented: hospital goals, local perceptions on health needs, bateye resident perceptions on healthcare, available local resources, existing local volunteer organizations and their projects, and external volunteer team goals and projects. In short, these teams focused on improving the understanding of the working environment in La Romana with a goal of improving healthcare delivery to the Haitian refugees.
By 2009, Henry was becoming more comfortable with the culture and healthcare issues in La Romana. The 2009 medical team also introduced a new aspect to the medical team. Already offering experiences to a variety of motivated young professionals with an interest in health advocacy, Emery came up with the idea of extending the volunteer experience to high school students. By targeting underprivileged, but promising and proactive young students with an interest in healthcare, the volunteer medical team could simultaneously help the people of La Romana while also providing mentorship to local students from their home communities. During the pilot year, local organizations sponsored a scholarship for one student, who has since gone on to study nursing in college.
The year 2009 also brought the addition of new team members. Lawrence Loh, a public health physician, and Chang Kang, a marketing strategist, were recruited to join the team. Both Lawrence and Chang quickly identified the potential for collaboration in La Romana and they brought their expertise in capacity building. Taking a trip to assess needs, they compiled the information gathered from previous medical trips and began closer collaboration with the Good Samaritan Hospital staff and volunteers.
Today, the group continues with annual medical mission trips, with Emery working as the volunteer liaison, recruiting interested student and young professionals alike. As the collaborative effort progresses, the team continues to grow with the recent recruitment of Shu Chow and Heather Lin. In 2011, the addition of these team members, along with the sustained partnership of Good Samaritan Hospital and a growing interest in collaboration led to the creation of an official organization, known as The 53rd Week. Its mission was to study how best to foster a collaborative model for short-term volunteer efforts abroad at a local level; starting with the knowledge gained in La Romana.
So wait – what is a batey?
A batey is a company town where sugarcane workers live. Bateyes can be found in the Dominican Republic, primarily around La Romana. A batey consists of the housing for workers, the sugar fields, the sugar mill and refinery, and administrative offices. The Pluribus Network visited Batey 62 outside of La Romana, Dominican Republic, and captured images of the batey and residents at this December 2011 post. The Good Samaritan Hospital // Hospital El Buen Samaritano // hospitalbuensamaritano.org in La Romana was built solely to provide primary health care to the cane cutters who work and live in the bateyes. The majority of batey residents are of Haitian descent.
A detailed map of bateyes surrounding La Romana:
Map of Bateyes in La Romana