North-central Minnesota surgeon Paul Severson was enjoying a full life and a successful career, but he was looking for the chance to make a bigger impact. The 1978 Medical School, Duluth campus graduate had joined the medical community serving Crosby/Aitkin in 1984. He had championed the advancement of new surgical and medical services there and, later, with Howard McCollister, M.D., cofounded and codirected the Minnesota Institute for Minimally Invasive Surgery.
He was teaching anatomy and GI classes twice a year at the Duluth campus and working with Rural Physician Associate Program students in his clinic. All valuable work, thought Severson, but the stuff expected of a surgeon. On one of his many trips between Duluth and Crosby, he met someone recruiting physicians to go to Haiti. That encounter put him on a new path.
To Haiti and back, many times
Severson began volunteering his surgical skills in Haiti in 1989, and he just kept going back. In 1992 he founded Project Haiti, a nonprofit organization dedicated to medical care, education, and related services in Haiti. Under his leadership, Project Haiti teams built a second-story surgical wing on the hospital in Pignon, 70 miles north of Port au Prince, adding satellite connections to Crosby/Aitkin surgical suites for teaching. His volunteers have built numerous support facilities, including an orphanage, grade school, vocational school carpentry shop, missionary dormitory, airport, and more.
When a major earthquake struck and destroyed Port au Prince in January 2010, Severson and his team quickly mobilized supply and support teams, collected donations, shipped 10 tons of supplies in three cargo shipments, mostly through the U.S. Coast Guard, and coordinated efforts among multiple nongovernmental organizations. The teams they organized traveled to Haiti to care for victims—performing many amputations and housing children who had lost their parents.
An unending need
The work continues today and is unending, says Severson, adding that Haiti still needs money, medical care, help for disabled amputees, and massive investment by the world community to provide jobs and rebuild the poorest capital city in the hemisphere
Severson, who has taken 45 trips to Haiti since 1989, manages Project Haiti with Patty Nelson, coordinator and secretary-treasurer of the organization. Both are unpaid. He travels to Haiti up to three times a year, often bringing along medical students and medical/surgical support teams, including orthopaedists, urologists, and other specialists.
What drives this doctor, husband, father of four and grandfather of 19? “What makes me do it? I don’t know if I’ve ever stopped to think about why I take care of people in need,” says Severson. “I just can’t sit in my comfortable lifestyle as an American citizen after seeing such unimaginable suffering and be comfortable forgetting about [the people of Haiti]. You can’t see that poverty and not be overwhelmed by their situation.”
To learn more about Project Haiti and how you can help, go to www.Projecthaiti.info.
By Michelle Juntunen