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Alumni Spotlight | Patricia Wolff, M.D.

Patricia Wolff, M.D., examines a child in Justinian Hospital's malnutrition clinic in Cap-Haitien. (Photo courtesy of Meds & Food for Kids)

An enduring commitment to Haiti

While short-term relief has its place, Patricia Wolff, M.D., is partial to the permanent fix. Wolff, a pediatrician, 1972 Medical School alumna, and founder of the nonprofit Meds & Food for Kids, is focused on combating malnutrition in Haiti — starting with its root causes.

“‘Rescue’ is simpler, and it looks really good in the media,” the Minnesota native muses. “But you need to employ people, educate and mentor people, as well as preserve brain capacity by fighting malnutrition.” That’s why supplying a nutrient-rich supplement to impoverished children in Haiti is only part of her group’s mission.

The ready-to-use therapeutic food, a high-calorie, protein-dense peanut butter product called Medika Mamba, is recognized by the World Health Organization as “the world’s best” treatment for childhood malnutrition, says Steve Taviner, Meds & Food for Kids’ development director.

Medika Mamba — adapted from a similar product used throughout the developing world — is doing more than treating malnourished kids (20,000-plus in Haiti so far); it’s also aimed at bringing a measure of health to the Haitian economy by creating income for health care professionals, agronomists, farmers, and factory workers. Meds & Food for Kids currently employs nearly two dozen Haitian workers, “many of whom can’t read or write but now know all about food safety, hygiene, and maintenance,” says Wolff.

Addressing hunger’s root causes

“We try to buy most of our peanuts locally, grown by Haitian farmers,” Wolff says proudly. The factory, located on the second floor of a small house near the northern coastal city of Cap-Haitien, currently produces enough Medika Mamba to treat 8,000 children a year. Wolff’s dream is to increase that capacity tenfold, and a capital campaign is under way to build a new factory that could do that.

Wolff — who received the Medical Alumni Society’s 2009 Distinguished Alumni Award — splits her time between Haiti and St. Louis, Missouri, where she has a group practice and works as a professor of clinical pediatrics at Washington University’s School of Medicine. Her first Haiti experience was in 1988, when she and her husband went with their then-adolescent children to volunteer in Port-au-Prince at residences founded by Mother Teresa for dying children and adults.

“Lo and behold, they were all dying of treatable diseases,” Wolff remembers. “It’s horrible to be a physician and be unable to help people who could be kept alive if only you had the resources. It was one of those profoundly unsettling, grief-inducing experiences. I thought, ‘I need to figure out a way to go back.’”

Locally grown peanuts are used to make Medika Mamba, a high-calorie, protein-dense treatment for malnutrition. (Photo courtesy of Meds & Food for Kids)

‘Rescue, over and over again’

She began traveling to Haiti periodically with a Methodist medical group — but the Band-Aid approach demoralized her. “It was rescue, over and over again. You’d come back, and the same kid is sick again — or has died of an infectious disease because she was malnourished.”

Haiti’s extreme poverty — 76 percent of Haitians live on less than $2 per day — stems from a tangled array of factors, including centuries of foreign occupation and exploitation. It continues to be exacerbated by biblical-scale crises: the massive 2010 earthquake, hurricanes, flooding, cholera, as well as disputed presidential elections and political violence.

The oldest of 13 children in a St. Paul family, Wolff was raised with the conviction that “we are our brother’s keeper, and justice and mercy require that we lend a hand.” A lack of financial resources didn’t quash her dream of attending medical school at the University of Minnesota.

“We didn’t have a lot of money, but I always wanted to be a doctor,” Wolff says. “The Minnesota Medical Foundation was extremely generous to me in all my years of medical school at the U.” And that’s where, she says, her commitment to social justice was cemented. “I got out of medical school in 1972 without owing too many loans.”

University of Minnesota Medical School alumna Patricia Wolff, M.D., founded the nonprofit Meds & Food for Kids. Currently working to battle malnutrition in Haiti, Wolff and her group have treated more than 20,000 Haitian children. (Photo courtesy of Meds & Food for Kids)

‘There is progress in Haiti’

Wolff, who comes across as efficient, direct, and deeply compassionate, doesn’t have much patience for Americans who make dismissive assumptions about Haiti and its people. Haiti is not its government, she says.

“People throw up their hands because they see that the Haitian government doesn’t do anything. I think things are getting better, and I think the [general population] in Haiti is getting more sophisticated,” Wolff says. “There is progress in Haiti. But you have to be persistent, and you have to stay.”

The ingenuity and resilience Wolff has seen in the Haitian people astonishes her. “In the U.S. … we have a social safety net. Most people — at every socioeconomic level — can take basics like clean water for granted.

“You put any of us on the streets of Haiti for a few days, and we’d be [history]. Haitians are just incredibly creative and skilled at problem-solving,” adds Wolff, who maintains a hopeful belief that the competency and integrity of many Haitian people will someday be reflected in their government.

Today, Meds & Food for Kids is focused on building the new, more efficient factory with a vastly larger capacity. Wolff sounds matter-of-fact about achieving that goal — and in the process, helping to create more jobs, finance more long-term development, and provide an inspiring model for industry in Haiti: “It’s going to be a center of excellence in food manufacturing in Haiti,” she says with assurance.

By Susan Maas, a Minneapolis freelance writer and editor who traveled to Haiti last fall as part of a partnership with the rural community of Bigonet

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