Doctor bridges language, cultural gaps to treat patients in Haiti

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joe McFadden
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
"Bonjour Madame, je m'appelle Docteur Cousineau et je parle francais. Qu'est-ce-qu'il vous êtes arrivez?"  / "Hello, ma'am. I am Dr. Cousineau and I speak French. What happened to you?"

As he spoke those words to Haitians affected by the Jan. 12 earthquake, Lt. Col. Jacques Cousineau became more than the right man in the right place. Not only is he a family practice physician with the 1st Special Operations Medical Group, he also speaks fluent French, one of Haiti's official languages.

"By asking simple questions like 'what happened to you?' you put yourself in their shoes, and they like to tell you what happened to them," he said. "It was easier to establish communication if you spoke their language."

Born in Quebec, Canada, Colonel Cousineau spoke French until his family moved to New York when he was 5 years old. After he graduated college, he attended medical school in France, thereby completing his dream to become a doctor and reintroducing him to the language. He later joined the Air Force, earning the nickname "Calypso"--the name of undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau's research ship--by his colleagues in flight school.

After landing in Haiti Jan. 14, Colonel Cousineau immediately worked with public health officials to establish a base of operations near the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince.

Once the base of operations was completed, he began site-surveying local hospitals and resources that withstood the quake's damages, often interacting with the Haitian people in the process. His language enabled people to look past any disorientation from the quake and their unfamiliarity with him.

"Breaking the language barrier also gave me an insight into any troubles that person had," he said. "I knew an entire building collapsed, but what happened inside? They would say they were stuck in a room for 10 days and their arm was hurting. I knew it was probably a crush injury and they were dehydrated. I then had an idea of the trauma they were exposed to before we gave them an actual exam."

Colonel Cousineau said once the Haitians knew he spoke French, they were more open to help him locate patients and hospitals.

"We were looking for a hospital and couldn't find it," he said. "Suddenly, a local came up and asked, 'How can I help?' I asked him where a hospital was, and he said, 'Oh yeah, it's this way!' The hospital was right up the road, but, unfortunately it was completed demolished. Aside from that, we got all the information we needed with no problems."

The impact of his medical and language skills was not lost on the colleagues he worked with and the patients he treated during the first critical days of the humanitarian efforts in Haiti.

Colonel Cousineau's contributions were immeasurable to the success of the mission said Lt. Col. Sean Holloway, 1st Special Operations Medical Support Squadron commander.

"For some time, his was the only information getting out of Haiti to AFSOC and air staff levels," Colonel Holloway said. "His skills were vital to our assessments and the interaction with local hospitals. He was the perfect person for that situation."

Between the airport and any site surveys, Colonel Cousineau acted as an interpreter between patients and other doctors. He also stabilized and prepared patients for flight evacuations to the United States.

After returning to his job at the Hurlburt Field Spectre Clinic Jan. 28, he said he was grateful his first language helped the recovery efforts to treat people and save lives.

"We got on their level and broke down any barriers we would have had," he said. "The Haitians were always appreciative of what we were doing and were very happy with the care they received from us and other countries. Plus most people want to help out anyway they can and I'm glad I could."