It was a Tuesday, and Bekert DesCollines, a first-year engineering student from Port Au Prince, Haiti, felt sick. So he decided to stay home. That same day — January 12, 2010 — a catastrophic 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck, destroying 90 percent of his university, killing all of his professors and nearly the entire second-year nursing class. In total, the quake killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti and led to a devastating cholera outbreak.
DesCollines mourned, but he also took action. He became a community organizer and a translator, and that’s how he met UW School of Medicine alumnus Karen Kwong, M.D., Res. ’95, professor of surgery and director of the global surgery program at Oregon Health & Science University, and her husband, Martin Schreiber, M.D., Res. ’92, Fel. ’96. The couple came to Haiti, post-earthquake, as part of Lane Haitian Relief.
The translator must have sensed that Kwong might be interested in more than surgery. So he tested the waters.
“He called me up one day and he said, ‘You know, the way out of poverty is through education,’” says Kwong.
As it turns out, DesCollines was right. Kwong was interested. Together, they started a school for children who couldn’t afford to go to public school in the remote area of Belle Anse, Haiti. They’ve also provided scholarships for a number of students seeking higher education in engineering, communication and medicine.
But, as it happened, DesCollines had another goal he wanted to run by Kwong: the creation of a radio station.
What the community wants
He talked about the station constantly. At first, Kwong was reluctant to join in, worried about being spread too thin. But DesCollines was persistent.
“Ultimately, I realized he was saying, ‘This is what the community wants,’” says Kwong.
The more she thought about it, the more a radio station made sense. For a country without a lot of electricity and with little means of communication, she realized, the radio station could serve as an early warning system for natural disasters and as a means for dispensing much-needed public health information.
“If you think about the U.S. before television, people would run home and listen to the radio,” says Kwong. “Here, although most people don’t have their own radio, there are places where people gather for drinks and sodas, and someone will blare a radio for everyone to listen together.”
On the air
Now convinced of the benefit of a radio station, Kwong started talking with people at Free Radio Berkeley about community radio, including how to buy equipment and get it through customs. In 2016, RABBI (Radio Bekert Belle Anse Inter) 92.5 FM was launched.
For their first medical program, DesCollines and Kwong hosted a panel of people, including three Haitians: a doctor, a medical student and a surgical resident.
Having seen so many patients in Haiti, Kwong had a fairly good idea of some of the region’s most pressing health concerns, including hypertension, diabetes and cholera. Haiti has around half of the world’s cholera cases, Kwong says. The panel talked about how to treat water to make it safe to drink.
Kwong also saw a lot of women with vaginitis in her clinic, so she asked her Haitian colleagues if they could talk about that. “They said ‘Of course! We also want to talk about kids not getting pregnant too early, STDs and how those conditions affect their futures,”” says Kwong.
After the show, they received a lot of positive feedback. “People are listening, and they called in to thank us and comment,” says Kwong. “People everywhere are worried about their health.”
For now, the group can only record programming while Kwong is visiting Haiti. But they hope this changes soon. Already, they’ve reached out to other speakers. Eventually, they hope to conduct full-time programming that includes the news, weather, education, culture and music, in addition to shows about health issues. And, once the station has its license, RABBI will become the first and only educational public radio station in the Belle Anse area.
A reason to return
Kwong and DesCollines have plans to expand the radio’s reach to serve adjacent areas, particularly in the mountains. They’ve even secured a local farmer’s permission to place an antenna on his land.
Kwong is heartened by the people of Haiti — people like that generous farmer. And people like her partner, DesCollines.
“Bekert had a vision for what could be after the earthquake, especially in rural areas,” she says. “He cares deeply for his community, and his commitment to progress and development mark him as a true leader.”
You might say the same thing about Kwong. And whether she’s performing surgery or figuring out how to help run a community radio station, she’s found one thing to be indispensable — the ability to remain flexible when taking on new ideas and projects.
“Often, you end up in a place you never would’ve thought when you started,” Kwong says.