FALMOUTH — Rupal Shah didn’t want to leave Haiti after spending 18 months working in hospitals there between 2017 and 2019.
But when her time ran out as a contracted public health worker, she had to come home. Shah began looking for ways to continue helping the medical community in Haiti.
The South Portland resident is now the executive director of Konbit Sante, a Falmouth-based organization that for the last 20 years has been working to improve the healthcare system in Cap-Haitian. The community, the second largest in Haiti, has had a sister city relationship with Portland since 2003.
Shah replaces Nathan Nickerson, who retired after 15 years in the role and now serves as an advisor for the organization.
Shah was in Haiti as a consultant to set up a tuberculosis and biosafety laboratory for one hospital and worked as a grant and data manager at another.
“I would have liked for it to have continued and the people I worked with would have like for it to continue,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave Haiti. Being there was definitely a pleasure.”
While many people associate Haiti with the 2010 earthquake or the cholera outbreak a year later, she associates the country with “beaches, greenery everywhere and delicious fresh fruits and vegetables.”
“People are always very friendly and willing to help. The reason I didn’t want to leave is because Haiti reminded me of Moshi, Tanzania, where I grew up as a child, she said. “In terms of beauty, I have never seen a place that gives you the beach against the backdrop of a mountain. Haiti does that.”
Shah also has worked in other countries and as a quality improvement specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital and biosafety laboratory manager and research assistant at Harvard School of Public Health. Leading Konbit Sante seemed to be the “next obvious trajectory” in her public health career, she said.
Kathleen Healy, president of the Konbit Sante Board of Directors, said the board is pleased to have Shah take the lead.
“We are impressed by her smarts, commitment to public health, energy and enthusiasm, as well as her prior experience in Haiti,” Healy said. “We hope that Rupal will continue the precedent established by Nate Nickerson to work collaboratively and skillfully with our partners in Haiti to strengthen the Haitian healthcare system and improve the quality of health care for the Cap-Haitien community.”
The organization was founded by Portland resident Michael Taylor, a retired dermatologist, and his wife, Wendy in 2001.
“The impetus was there was a number of people who had done medical mission trips and while they were gratifying in the short term, they wanted to explore ways to have a different, more sustaining impact,” Nickerson said.
Over the years, the organization has worked to improve health care in Cape Haitien by improving infrastructure, increasing and training the workforce, providing medicine, supplies and equipment and strengthening the community’s healthcare capacity, he said.
Since 2002, the organization has donated between $2.5 million to $3.5 million worth of supplies and equipment to Haitian healthcare providers. Last year it raised more than $200,000 to open a medical clinic in Bande du Nord, a rural community of 25,000 people just outside Cap-Haitien.
Konbit Sante’s work is driven by the needs expressed by the Haitian medical community.
“We don’t come in with a vision of what we want to see in Haiti because we believe Haitians should control their future,” he said.
Shah comes on board at a time when much of the focus of Konbit Sante is focused on helping residents in Cap-Haitian make it through the coronavirus pandemic. According to the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, as of Nov. 6, there have been 9,106 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Haiti, including 380 in Cap-Haitien.
Shah said wants to continue the effort at Justinien University Hospital – Konbit Sante’s first healthcare partner site – in its study of how to improve its medical care.
As that work and other initiatives continue, Shah wants to also focus over the next two years on increasing the organization’s presence in the greater Portland area by working with local colleges and universities on internship programs in Haiti.
“There are a lot of students here. I think the organization has a lot to offer in terms of teaching and awareness building,” she said.