The earth growled and rolled like crashing waves, causing ceilings to cave, walls to collapse, and roads to buckle. Among the chaos in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that fateful afternoon of January 12, 2010, was Mason graduate student Regine Jean-Francois, who was visiting her parents over the Christmas break. She was scheduled to catch a flight back to Northern Virginia the next day.
When the quake hit, Jean-Francois was chatting with friends online from her mother’s office computer. “Pictures from the walls started to fall,” she recalls. “Then I heard was my mother yelling, ‘Earthquake! Earthquake!’”
Seconds later, they raced to find a way out of the building where her mother, Dr. Dianne Jean-Francois, MD, worked as country director for the Catholic Medical Mission Board. A secretary directed them in one direction, but that way out was blocked. Finally, after maneuvering through the dust and debris and out of the building, they darted into a clearing, where they started calling loved ones. Jean-Francois’ 92-year-old grandmother survived, but an uncle did not.
A public health student, Jean-Francois has been back to Haiti once since that horrific day almost one year ago. Last summer, she spent a month in Port-au-Prince helping run a camp for nearly 100 children affected by the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks. As part of her Practicum in Public Health I class, she evaluated the health of the children and taught them how to deal with emergency situations.
“The people of Haiti are very resilient,” she says. “But there is still much building to be done there.”
Despite the devastation, her parents still live in Haiti, where Jean-Francois was born, with her mother using her health care expertise to find medicine for ailing residents and prosthetic limbs for others with more lasting injuries.
In terms of helping Haiti heal, Jean-Francois hopes to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Which is why just five days after the quake, she reluctantly returned to Fairfax, prodded by her parents to continue her studies.
“My parents said I had to go back to school because Haiti would need people like us (educated public health experts),” she says, adding, “But it made me happy that I was there [during the quake], because I could be with my family, and I could help my mother,” who aided countless Haitians moments after the quake struck.
Jean-Francois, who also has a BS in psychology from Mason, will graduate this spring. She plans to remain in this area for a couple more years to gain valuable “work experience.” After that, she hopes to return to Haiti to help in her homeland’s continued recovery. Something, she says, that is possible—albeit, not without a great deal of work.
“We can get back to where we were,” Jean-Francois says without hesitation. “But it will take a lot of sacrifice and effort.”