When Minnesota surgeon Paul Severson first visited Haiti more than 20 years ago, the health care needs of that Caribbean nation went beyond anything Severson had ever seen.
"You know, a majority of the children running up and down the streets didn't have any clothes on," he says, recalling his very first trip. "I mean, didn't have any clothes when we first got there. We weren't used to that kind poverty. There was no running water, no electricity, no paved roads, no modern infrastructure of any kind. There weren't even latrines."
That first trip in 1989 came as the Crosby man's prominence as a surgeon was on the rise. He helped develop minimally invasive techniques that shorten hospital stays. But he says he was on the lookout for a mission, a carryover from his youth when he spent time in a preparatory school for Catholic seminary that he was certain would lead to the priesthood. But something changed his plans.
"I went out on my first date," he laughs.
Instead, medicine became Severson's calling. He founded Minnesota-based Project Haiti, and the 60-year-old humanitarian has made more than 50 medical trips to the poverty-stricken country.
After medical school, and with his circle of surgical contacts growing, he heard of a Haitian doctor working in conditions Severson could not imagine.
"He was the only surgeon, in fact the only doctor, serving a population of close to 200,000 people," he said of the man he met in the dusty little Haitian hill town of Pignon. And for the past twenty years, Severson and other volunteers have helped build and train staff for the hospital there.
The organization he helped found, Project Haiti, now has a long track record of mobilizing medical teams. Right after Thanksgiving, Severson will make his fourth trip this year.
"We need to figure out a way to help them stay in their own country, receive great education, train their own people, so they can operate on their people," Severson said.
One successful example: Medical volunteers are training two Haitian doctors at the hospital in Pignon to treat a devastating condition affecting women called vesicovaginal fistula.
A complicated or unsuccessful cervical birth can lead to vesicovaginal fistula, which causes incontinence, turning the women into outcasts.
"The stench that occurs as a result of them being unable to keep themselves clean -- and you can imagine, no running water, no bathrooms -- their husbands immediately reject them. Their own mothers and fathers can't even stand to have them in their own huts or their own places, so they literally would be like lepers in the ancient societies," Severson said.
One of Project Haiti's newest volunteers is a Minnesota urologist training Haitian surgeons on the repair procedure.
While much of Haiti is rebuilding from a devastating earthquake nearly two years ago - it also destroyed Haiti's only medical school -- the hospital at Pignon remains intact, where contributions have built a state of the art operating facility for minimally invasive surgery.
Severson says those procedures are a boon to poor people who can't afford a hospital stay: "For them it's a matter of life and death. That's why I fight for modern surgery, minimally invasive surgery, high tech surgery. And by the way, that can be done low cost, for the poor."
Another way his organization helps is through working with other U.S. medical educators to use video links to train the next generation of doctors and nurses in Haiti.
"If they could do this without having to make a trip, without all the money that it takes to get down there, as long we get broadband in there which we believe is going to happen next month, then we're going to be able to accomplish this," Severson said.
Severson and the next team of medical volunteers leave for Haiti after Thanksgiving.