In 1985, Mother Teresa herself asked Dr. Jeremiah Lowney to go help in the town of Jérémie,
Haiti. “You don’t say no to Mother Teresa,” he said, “so I went.” Lowney, awarded with
this year’s Humanitarian of the Year Award from the ADA, reflects back on what is now 30 years
of humanitarian work in Jérémie, Haiti. Jérémie is home to 40,000 people and an additional
200,000 in the surrounding villages. Before Lowney, health care in the area was minimal.
Prior to Mother Teresa’s request, Pope John Paul II appealed to bishops in the first world to
consider using some of their resources to help the poor in the third world. Bishop Daniel P. Reilly,
the Roman Catholic Bishop of Norwich, Connecticut, asked Lowney and a group of nine others
to go to Haiti, just to survey. “I’d never been to a third-world country before,” Lowney says. That
week, Dr. Lowney set up a clinic in the courtyard at a home for the dying run by sisters of Mother
Teresa, hundreds of patients came to visit him.
“After the week was up I was very taken with the need. I saw some of the most infected and
diseased teeth I had ever seen. I asked if I could come back in three months. I went back to
Haiti three months later and have gone back to Haiti every three months for 30 years.” Infected
teeth may have been what initially attracted Lowney to Haiti, but the progress he sees is what
keeps him coming back. “Jérémie is a small enough area that we can really see the fruits of our
labor. We see progress,” Lowney says. Dr. Lowney established the Haitian Health Foundation
(HHF) in 1982 to help alleviate the dental need, and has since expanded into many areas of
Lowney had no shortage of schooling. He earned a liberal arts degree at Tufts College in
Boston, Massachusetts, then went on to dental school at Temple University, graduating in 1961.
Serving three years in the Navy led him to orthodontics at the State University of
New York at Buffalo. In the 1990s, after more than a decade of work in Haiti, he
returned to school part time to get his master’s in public health.
Lowney founded the HHF with a different philosophy than many charitable
organizations. “We’re not looking to change the world,” Lowney says. “And I’ve
never had a plan. If you look at the spectrum of problems, you might as well just
pack up and go home. They’re overwhelming. So we just take one person at a time and
pretty soon you’ve helped a family, then a village, then five villages…”
Lowney’s now-established medical teams rotate through the many villages of Jérémie.
HHF has an outpatient medical clinic that sees about 400 patients a day, and a dental clinic
that treats around 20 per day.
In the dental sector, the most
common dental problems are caries
and periodontal disease. “We usually
treat adult perio with a pair of forceps
because if we take the tooth out, the
perio goes away,” says Lowney. He adds that many patients have just stubs or roots and many of
them come in with severe infections because they don’t know not to put heat on the outside of
their face when they have a toothache. Luckily, the clinic is able to treat patients who come in
with very serious life-threatening infections by inserting drains and prescribing antibiotics.
The clinic hired Haitian doctor, Marie Ramlyne Cherilus – better known to patients as Dr.
Ramlyne – three years ago. Lowney comments on her eagerness to learn from other volunteer
dentists who come to Jérémie. “She and I try to limit her practice to children between three and
16 because if you start getting into adults, you could spend a week on one patient,” Lowney says.
Ramlyne spends much of her time performing fluoride and hygiene treatments on children. She
gives them toothbrushes and teaches them prevention techniques.
The clinic is able to perform a range of procedures, but can’t offer prosthetics. He notes, there
is a young dentist in town who does offer prosthetics and who is trying to make a living. Lowney
says it is very hard for a dentist to make a living in private practice in Haiti, so the clinic doesn’t
take any patients who look like they could afford to go see a private dentist. “In every society there
are the ‘freeloaders,’” he says. “And when we see them we refer them to the doctor in town.”
Extractions are by far the most widely practiced procedure by the clinic. Lowney calls charitable
dentistry “crude dentistry” because it often results in extractions, one of the differences
between practicing in a third-world country and practicing in the first world. For a long time,
Jérémie didn’t have access to X-rays or other diagnostic tools, so they would just take teeth out.
This is how most dentistry problems in third-world counties are dealt with. “It upset me terribly
when a pretty 14-year-old girl would come up to me with caries in her two central incisors and
the only thing I could offer her was the extraction of her front teeth,” he says. Now, with Dr.
Ramlyne on staff, Lowney can write a referral and Dr. Ramlyne can perform a root canal. “Now
we don’t have to remove the teeth!”
In noting other differences between charitable and non-charitable dentistry, he adds, “and,
of course, with non-charitable dentistry I guess you get paid.” But this seems only an afterthought
Lowney doesn’t take a salary, and he and his wife have personally given around a half a million
dollars over the lifetime of the foundation. But money for the foundation is a struggle to
come by. “I have to raise $4 million this year,” he says. HHF operates on only eight percent overhead
and has been rated on CharityNavigator.org with a four-star (the best) rating for five years
in a row – a feat that only four percent of charities that it evaluates can claim. Lowney says 70
percent of donations come from individuals, 30 percent from foundations, civic clubs and
It didn’t take Lowney long to realize Haiti’s lack of health care beyond just dental needs. “It
was a terrible situation. It was obvious that these people needed more than just dental care, so I
branched out,” he says. HHF opened the first outpatient medical clinic in the area in 1987, now
they can perform everything from optical exams to sonograms, and is the only facility in the area
that can do so. Now, the Haitian Health Foundation runs the Center of Hope and has developed
a public health network that practices the “Chinese Barefoot Doctor” model, where residents
from villages are trained and act as health agents for their village. HHF’s work extends into
house building projects and animal distribution.
The two most vulnerable types of people in any population are perinatal women and children
at risk. To meet the need for these two groups, HHF built an inpatient facility called the
Center for Hope.
Many of the villages are an 18- to 20-hour walk from Jérémie’s health facilities, so when these
pregnant women would come to term or have an emergency, they would start to walk in to seek
help or medical care and many would die on the road, or lose the child on the way. With the
Center for Hope, HHF can identify these women and bring them to the clinic before they come
to term. The center has 50 beds designated for this purpose.
The other 25 beds in the clinic are designated for children at risk. Children at risk usually
have one of two issues – poor hygiene or poor nutrition, and in some cases, have both. Protein
disorders like kwashiorkor and marasmus are common for children in Haiti since their diets consist
of high-starch foods, or, in some cases, no food at all. “Too often we see children who eat
mud out of the rivers because their hunger pangs are so bad, so they fill their bellies with mud
to get temporary relief,” Lowney says.
Brendon, a Haitian baby, came into the Center of Hope severely malnourished. Lowney
says he looked like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button, the baby who was born looking old
and wrinkled. The nurses didn’t think he was going to live the night, but he did, and then he
lived the next night. At the end of the week, he was still there. “I went back three months later
and Brendon was being discharged and he looked like a million bucks,” says Lowney.
HHF has established a whole public health network based on the Chinese Barefoot Doctor
model. When you have a billion people – like in China – in order to get health care out to rural
areas, you take a capable person out of a village, who has the ability to work and you train him
or her for a year to become a health agent. HHF practices this and sends the trained patrons back
into their villages. “We pay them and they become the medical care for that village,” Lowney
explains. Health agents trained by HHF have immunized about 200,000 children against all the
“usual” childhood diseases. In fact, they have a higher rate of immunization for children ages one
to five than most U.S. states do. Health agents are taught how to deal with most of the ailments
for that area and each agent is responsible for 4,000 to 5,000 people. They call the ambulances
when needed and also let villagers know when a clinic rotation will be in town.
Not only does the Haitian Health Foundation depend on money to stay afloat, they also
depend on donations. Every year Lowney sends four 40-foot containers to Jérémie. It costs
$10,000 to ship a container from Connecticut (the location of the HHF headquarters) to Jérémie,
so they put only the most useful supplies aboard. These specifically include tuna in oil and Spam, for the animal fat content. “Spam is the world’s worst food,” Lowney says, laughing. “It’s full of
fat and salt. But these people need fat and salt because they’re eating mostly starches like corn and
rice and bread.” The tuna in oil also helps children’s development due to the Lysine.
The HHF is feeding 1,100 kids a hot meal at school each day and feeding hundreds in the
villages every day. In order to keep costs down, HHF buys products at wholesale and does a lot
of negotiating. They also accept donations from church groups or civic club drives.
Aside from building all of the clinics, HHF has built a residence for the volunteers who come
to help. HHF gets volunteers from Temple University and University of Connecticut, among others.
There are two types of volunteers – short-term volunteers who stay between one and two weeks,
and long-term volunteers who commit two years. Ninety percent of volunteers are short-term.
Animal distribution has become a large part of HHF’s outreach. Lowney and his team
replaced all of the pigs in their part of Haiti that were lost to the peasants by the swine flu that
struck in the early ’70s. They replaced 8,000 sows, and have been giving out goats and chickens
Lowney believes in people reaching beyond themselves. “I believe we are all stewards of the
gifts that we’ve been given, stewards of our professional gifts, talents and financial gifts. As a steward,
we are responsible to share these. I’m not talking about everyone going to Haiti or going to
Africa, but there are certain things people can do in their own areas. There is a joy that you experience
when you reach out and help others. Those who can’t work with the poor, broken or the
disabled, should support those who are.”
Right now, Dr. Lowney does mostly administrative work. He makes trips back to Haiti every
three months for a week or two at a time, and works with the administrator and the director of
finance to ensure they stay as close to their budget as possible and everything is running smoothly.
Before Lowney retired, he worked at a practice in Connecticut, which his daughter now runs.
When he takes the occasional break, he enjoys traveling with his wife and children. He also enjoys
spending time with his 10 grandchildren. “I don’t play golf,” Lowney comments, contradicting
the stereotype often held about dentists’ out-of-office activities. But then again, Lowney isn’t your
“When I was in college we used to have to take the Kudor aptitude test. Everybody had to
take it,” Lowney says. “I got called into the counseling office. The counselor said
my aptitude was for animal husbandry and ministry.” Lowney laughed. He was
working toward his pre-dent requirements adding, “I wasn’t going to church and
I don’t even like cats!” But as he reflects back, he says there was something deep
in his psyche even then that led him
toward Haiti, since, it seems, animal
husbandry and ministry are exactly
how he has spent his life’s work.