John Krajewski decides who gets health care in Haiti.
It's a concept the 48-year-old regional sales manager for Kumho Tire U.S.A. Corp. has had to cope with for the last five years since he began making annual trips to the poverty-stricken country with the group Friends of the Children of Haiti (FOTCOH).
Started in 1985, the group first consisted of founder Richard Hammond and five others who treated more than 500 Haitians in their first mission trip. Now the Chicago-based non-profit organization runs six teams of 15 to 20 volunteer medical and non-medical personnel each year, providing medical care to thousands of Haitians at the 6,000-sq.-ft. clinic in Cyvadier, which it hired Haiti residents to build.
As head of crowd control, Mr. Krajewski is a proverbial gatekeeper, responsible for deciding who receives aid. With so many people and a variety of health problemsfrom scabies and chicken pox to diabetes to poorly treated cuts and burnsit can be difficult to make such a choice, he said.
``That's the thing, and I've gotten a little hardened to that, and you have to have thick skin ,'' he said. ``It's most important to take care of chronic problems, but from there it's a crap shoot.
`` (P)retty much everyone in their first time comes back with tears in their eyes and says, `So I'm the one who decides who gets health care in Haiti,''' he said.
Mr. Krajewski joined FOTCOH after some ``gentle arm twisting'' by a pharmacist he knew from his church. At the time, he was still working with the company that is now U.S. Auto Force, a wholesale distribution entity of U.S. Oil Co. Inc., which recently combined its U.S. Tire & Exhaust tires and automotive parts distributorship with three other acquisitions to serve car dealers and independent automotive service providers across 14 states.
Five years lateras an outside salesman handling Kumho's ultra-high performance, passenger and light truck tire lines for distributors in Illinois, Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of MichiganMr. Krajewski continues to devote his time to FOTCOH, logging six trips to Haiti and even leading teams for the last three years.
``My job complements and provides the opportunity for me to help the people of Haiti,'' he said. ``I have many customers that provide financial support for FOTCOH. My employer is also supportive of my efforts.
``Bottom line, I like helping people solve their problems and whether it is a tire for their business or medical help for their child, I am helping them.''
Mr. Krajewski said the organization offers many opportunities for people to help the Haitian people. Most volunteers outside of the medical staff serve to keep the crowd organized, but others may work as pharmaceutical assistants or help by taking temperatures and blood pressures.
In his most recent trip in March, Mr. Krajewski's team treated about 1,900 patients over the course of two weeks.
Fearing the unknown
Mr. Krajewski wasn't always so upbeat about entering a country that the U.S. government still designates as an area where Americans should not travel.
``The first year I went there, literally there was no leader installed and it was very chaotic,'' he said. ``I was very apprehensive.''
He described his first image of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, as something out of a movie, with droves of people yelling, touching others coming off the plane and asking to carry their bags. However, there were no violent outbursts.
``This community we go to, we're pretty much the only blondes (Caucasians) they see, and they realized we're there to help them,'' he said.
Mr. Krajewski had his share of expectations and stereotypes about Haitian people, but many of those turned out to be unwarranted, he said.
``I thought they were gonna be a little gruff and different from anything I ever encountered, but when I got down there (I saw) they're just people,'' he said. ``When it comes down to it, they're just like us.''
The Haitians wield machetes as they walk down the street, but ``those are like their pocket knives,'' Mr. Krajewski said. ``They're so poor that there really isn't a lot of theft, and there's no drug addicts because there's no drugs.''
In general, the people of Haiti are much kinder than he expected them to be.
``In their culture, and this is just unbelievable, they always want to show you their little houses,'' he said. ``They bring you there and they always have one nice chair and they sit you in the chair. If they have enough food for one person, the visitor always eats before the people who live there. In America, who would do that?''
Even when FOTCOH shuts down the clinic at the end of each trip, and hundreds of Haitians waiting outside are still left untreated, they thank the group for coming to help them.
Though Mr. Krajewski said no one has died in the clinic during his trips, in a country where the average life expectancy is around 50 years and many children never make it to adulthood, a lot of patients don't return.
``I wonder if I'd still be alive if I was raised there,'' he said. `` (T)he biggest picture, first and foremost, is I was born and raised in America and given all these opportunities that I take for granted. There are a lot of countries where, no matter how hard you try, there's just no infrastructure and ability to have all this comfort.''
When Mr. Krajewski needs to motivate himself for his next trip to Haititi, one thought jumps into his mindan old man and a pair of sandals.
In his first outing to the country, FOTCOH had been giving out shoes to the local residents, many of whom were walking around barefoot. Eventually the crew ran out of shoes to provide, but Mr. Krajewski noticed an old man who was still waiting for a pair. Instead of giving him the disappointing news, he slipped off his own sandals and gave them to the man.
``He gave me a hug I'll never forget ,'' Mr. Krajewski said. ``Every time I think, `Should I really spend all my time in these efforts to get my team down there?' I always think of that old guy,'' he said.
As a team leader, Mr. Krajewski handles most of the planning for his trips, a task that can be quite demanding logistically because volunteers tend to come from multiple areas of the U.S. Additionally, he starts preparing for the trip six months in advance, communicating with his team and sending medical supplies to the country in advance.
The planning process, and naturally the trip itself, both cut into Mr. Krajewski's personal life, but he said his family has supported the cause.
``My wife is so supportive ,'' he said. ``Without her support and willingness to let me be gone for two weeks, I couldn't do it.''
Mr. Krajewski also has two children, an 18-year-old son who wants to take a trip to the country with him eventually, and a 16-year-old daughter who is still unsure of her future involvement.
``They've learned a lot through me about how other people live and the materialistic culture in which we live,'' he said. ``A lot of the stuff Americans are told to value really aren't that important.''
He also said both Kumho and U.S. Auto Force have been very supportive of his trips. In fact, U.S. Auto Force still helps fund his trip each year.
While FOTCOH has been expanding its reach, adding more trips during the year and finding more volunteers, its ultimate goal is to have the Haitian clinic staffed year round.
``Who knows, but our long-term plan, and this is pie in the sky, is that sometime this location is taken over by the Haitians ,'' Mr. Krajewski said. ``We want them to take this thing. We want it to be theirs.''
Until then, he will continue his role in providing aid to the Haitian people.