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Facing Haiti's hopelessness, she helps

Grateful patients are nothing new to doctors, but for Tampa surgeon Sylvia Campbell, one woman's gratitude has left a lasting impression.

Campbell performed an emergency Caesarean section on the woman last year. When they were reunited this year, the woman presented her with some handpicked flowers. It may not sound like much until you learn the woman lives in the mountains of Haiti.

"I have nothing to give you, so I give you these flowers," the woman told Campbell.

The story exemplifies the plight of the Haitian people. Campbell has made 14 trips to the Caribbean island nation to work at the Covenant Hospital, a modest clinic in the town of Mombin Crochu. Along with a 10-person contingent from Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, she returned from her latest trip last week.

The conditions were the worst she had seen, but she continues to be awed by the Haitians' struggle _ and their unyielding humanity.

"It's so much sadder than it was before," said Campbell, who has been traveling to Haiti for years. "They're so much poorer, so much hungrier.

"But they are such gentle, kind people. It's so horrible that they have to go through more tragedy. You wonder how could people survive, yet they have incredible faith, an incredible gentleness to their spirit."

Devastation has reigned in Haiti this year, the 200th anniversary of its independence. Political unrest peaked when armed rebels ousted President Jean Bertrand Aristide in February. An interim government has had little success stemming the tide of poverty.

Then there was last week. Hurricane Jeanne reportedly left more than 1,500 dead in the city of Gonaives. Hundreds more were missing, and thousands were homeless, without food or water.

The struggles are all too common in the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. Political solutions are complicated and seemingly unattainable for a place that has no resources to push it higher on the international agenda.

In seeking independence from France in 1804, Haiti was the first nation to try to emulate the United States' democratic principles. It's a thought seemingly lost upon the most recent administrations, but I wonder if that would change if there were a miraculous discovery of oil on the island.

Despite the hurdles, Campbell says we can't turn our backs on Haiti. It's why she takes on these missions, often performing more than 30 surgeries during her weeklong tours.

"There are people there just like us that hurt," Campbell said. "They love their families just like we love our families. They're just planted in a place that's very difficult to grow in."

Suspend the fact that Haiti is a two-hour flight from Miami. In terms of infrastructure, life for the mountain residents near Mombin Crochu is 400 years behind the United States. Campbell says you have to mentally take yourself back in time. There is no water, no electricity. Everyone is barefoot, and most wear tattered clothes.

Neighbors walked five hours with a woman who was in need of emergency surgery.

What they lack in material goods they make up for in faith, Campbell says. Many continue to go to church. "They try very hard, yet every time they try, something else happens."

Campbell is something of a local legend. Not only did she initiate the first trips to Haiti, but she also is president of the board of the directors at the Judeo Christian Health Clinic in Tampa. Earlier this year she received the clinic's Good Samaritan Award.

After listening to her descriptions of Haiti, I felt both sadness and guilt. What am I doing to help?

Campbell says everyone gets different knocks on their door. "We all have different talents to use and different causes to serve. This was one for us.

"I don't think anyone should ever feel guilty as long as they're doing what they're called to do."

Clearly, the good doctor is as good at dispensing wisdom as she is at giving of herself.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or