Alpha Frater returns to Haiti on mission of mercy as a Navy doctor
When Mill Etienne’s family fled Haiti in 1981, he was just 5 years old, not much bigger than the broken little body now stretched before him on a gurney aboard the USNS Comfort. Growing up in suburban New York, Etienne had wanted to sever any connection to that violent, impoverished Caribbean nation. He sought a comfortable American life and cringed at the sound of his family’s tropical lilt. He acted as if every book he devoured and every test he aced could help him forget the squalor. But when he turned on the TV the first night after Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake, he knew almost instantly that, as a neurologist and one of the few in the Navy who speaks Creole, he not only had to be there, he wanted nothing more.
Late last week, when Etienne bent over the seriously injured boy, with a foot wrapped in bandages to the knee and an intravenous line running from his little hand, he spoke softly to him in his native tongue. And he knew, with certainty, that he was doing his life’s work.
“The two countries that I’ve grown to know and love all my life, now I [am] on a mission to serve them both,” he said.
Lt. Cmdr. Etienne, 34, is one of the 1,100 doctors, nurses and support staff aboard the Comfort, a hospital ship that sailed from Baltimore to help some of Haiti’s most seriously injured quake victims.
On board, he is equal parts doctor and diplomat, in demand to treat patients and to help the medical staff and Haitians understand one another. As the ship sailed south, Etienne led its staff through a crash course in Creole.
As the only doctor and only officer aboard who speaks the French-based dialect, he worked with 15 others during the trip to arrange cultural awareness seminars and write a manual describing Haiti’s history and people.
“When they see a doctor that speaks their language, they feel like they’re at home, like this guy is looking out for them,” he said. “They’re going to trust me.”
Etienne and his seven brothers and sisters grew up in a town called Spring Valley, in suburban New York. His father drove a cab; his mother cleaned houses. Though their English was poor, his parents made sure their kids understood the value of education.
The message clearly got through to the young Mill.
Vinci Etienne remembers his little brother being so excited about school that he would be up and dressed earlier than anyone else, standing at the front door with his lunch box.
Mill Etienne knew in high school that he wanted to be a doctor. He won admission to Yale. His sister, Murille, suspects that some of his drive to excel stems from watching his parents struggle to make a living.
“It frustrated him to see how hard my parents worked, wanting us to have everything they didn’t have,” she said. “He tried very hard to be the best.”
It was in high school that Etienne, on a path to success himself, became almost obsessed with helping underprivileged children join him.
While in 10th grade, he was the creator and host of a local cable television show that spotlighted role models, and he tutored the neighbor’s kids. After he started at Yale, he’d make the nearly two-hour trip home once a month to tape new episodes.
He won a prestigious Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans in 1998 that largely paid for his medical degree at New York Medical College. More than a decade later, fellowship director Warren Illchman remembers him as a standout in his pool of achievers.
“When I got his e-mail saying he was going to Haiti, I was not surprised. He was never looking just to be a doctor. He wanted to be a doctor to do something.”
In medical school, Etienne volunteered to be a mentor to young people in the Bronx, tutoring them in physics and helping them to prepare for college interviews.
“Even after he graduated, he’d come back on Saturdays to help teach,” said Marva Richards, who coordinates the volunteer program and came to know Etienne as a person she could call when she needed anything. “I think it’s just his nature. I always say, ‘Some people are born to be healers,’ and he’s really that kind of person – a real doctor.”
After medical school, he signed on with the Navy, completed his residency in neurology at Columbia University Medical Center, and then simultaneously earned a master’s degree in public health while completing two more fellowships. Somehow, Etienne, who is single, also found time to tutor minority high school students through a chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha service fraternity based in Harlem.
His hospital colleagues were appalled that he was joining the military.
“They thought it was career suicide,” Etienne said.
He says they couldn’t have been more wrong. He liked taking care of patients in New York, but says taking care of the troops is even more fulfilling. He feels better helping those who have made deep sacrifices, those who have literally given themselves for their country.
It’s not that Etienne is so patriotic. His desire to become an American citizen only evolved after medical school when it occurred to him: “Wow, I’ve really gotten a lot from being in the United States. I’m really proud to be here, and I want to be an American. One day, it just struck me.”
Etienne has been on active duty in Bethesda, where a large Navy hospital is located, since August. He has offered to help the medical center start an epilepsy center, his specialty.
And he’s thrilled that his service is taking him to Haiti. Hours after the earthquake, he’d gone into his office to resolve all of his projects so that he would be free to take leave and head to the disaster site. But before Etienne could ask his supervisor for time off, he heard the Comfort crew needed a neurologist and promptly volunteered.
“I was like, ‘Oh, so you’re going to pay me to go do what I’d be doing anyway?’ ” he said, laughing. “This is what I’d be doing right now, regardless.”
Etienne’s mother wept when she heard that her son was on his way to Haiti – not out of fear but out of joy.
With her son aboard the Comfort this week, Marie Etienne was in the Dominican Republic, trying to get to Haiti. The family still has many relatives and friends there.
Etienne last visited Haiti on vacation in 2004. He was not treated like a native. They knew somehow that he was an American. Perhaps it was his clothes, his accent, maybe his conspicuous lack of poverty.
This time, he’s hoping to be one of them. In essence, anyway. He’s pretty sure it’s why God told him to join the Navy.
He’s met dozens of Haitians already, the patients quickly filling the ship’s 1,000 beds. He’s listened to their terrible stories – about houses falling on top of them, how in a matter of seconds, they became homeless with five children in tow. He’s seen the paralyzed and those who have lost limbs.
But he has also seen a lot of people smiling. And he’d like to think he’s had a hand in that.
“You can’t save everyone,” Etienne said. “But we can help as many as we can.”