March 21, 2019

Changing Lives - One at a Time

This is the story of Dr. Jeremiah (Jerry) Lowney of Norwich, Connecticut. He was born in an Irish section of Fall River, Massachusetts, the oldest of eleven children. The family was of modest means, yet it produced six physicians, an orthodontist, an attorney, a state police detective, a registered nurse, and a teacher. Ambition coupled with hard work resulted in success.

Jerry graduated from Tufts University and Temple University School of Dentistry. After serving as a dental officer in the US Navy for three years, he attended SUNY at Buffalo for two years, earning an MS in Orthodontics in 1966.

In 1961, Jerry married Virginia Winiarski, R.N. They moved from Buffalo to Connecticut and established an orthodontic practice with offices in Norwich and Colchester. In 1981, Jerry survived a nasty bout of a serious cancer and, in February 1982, he joined his friend, Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, who was leading a group of ten volunteers on a journey to Haiti. Jerry was the only health professional among the group. The trip was in response to a request from Pope John Paul II, who asked for bishops from affluent countries to share their blessings with the less fortunate in third world countries.

Because he had not extracted a tooth since his years in the Navy, Dr. Lowney took a refresher course, borrowed instruments, and purchased the supplies needed to extract diseased and infected teeth. 

On the group’s second day in Haiti, they visited one of Mother Teresa’s “Homes for the Dying”, operated by her Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity in a slum area of Port-au-Prince. At their request, Dr. Lowney set up a crude dental extraction clinic on their grounds, using a straight chair with a headrest attached by a c-clamp, with the sun and a flashlight as his light source. Dr. Lowney’s son, Mark, had accompanied him on the trip and served as his assistant. Each day, they removed more than 300 teeth – diseased, infected, and very painful.

Seeing the devotion of the Missionary of Charity Sisters, the poverty of the patients and their gratitude, and the disease and malnutrition that was so evident, Dr. Lowney felt compelled to continue to help. When he returned home to Connecticut, he formed the Haitian Dental Foundation and went back to Haiti to serve again three months later. He has continued returning to Haiti every three months for well over thirty years.

After three years (1982-1985) of working alongside Mother Teresa’s Sisters in Port au Prince during each visit, Dr. Lowney became friendly with Mother Teresa. He spoke with her (in India) very often from Connecticut, passing messages along from the Sisters in Haiti. 

In 1985, Mother Teresa told Dr. Lowney that she was sending four Sisters to the city of Jérémie, in southwestern Haiti, to open an orphanage. She asked him to take his small group of six volunteers there to help the poor of Jérémie.

Jérémie is 140 miles by road from Port au Prince, but the trip took 14 hours because of the terrible road conditions. Approximately 600,000 of Haiti’s poorest people were living in this area called the Grand’Anse. The only source of healthcare for the entire population was a poorly equipped, inadequately staffed, decrepit government hospital.    

Jerry Lowney is a problem solver. An informal survey of the health needs in Jérémie determined that the area was in desperate need of much more than dental extractions. A Haitian friend of Dr. Lowney’s, who lived in Norwich, had a 10-acre parcel of land in Jérémie, which he offered to gift to the Haitian Dental Foundation. Soon after, as the Jérémie area’s needs became more apparent, the outreach evolved into the Haitian Health Foundation (HHF), and the Lowneys (Jerry and his wife, Virginia) used personal funds to begin the construction of an outpatient clinic and staff residence that would offer both health and dental services.

By 1988, HHF had completed a 27,000-square foot, three-story outpatient clinic and volunteer residence at a total cost of 1.3 million US dollars. Today, HHF’s outreach serves Jérémie and over 100 rural villages – with a total population of over 250,000 of this hemisphere’s most impoverished and vulnerable people.    

Dr. Lowney’s credo is, “No one can solve all the world’s problems, but you can help to alleviate pain, treat disease or malnutrition, and even save someone from death... one person at a time.”

Because of HHF’s early success in southwestern Haiti, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) approached Dr. Lowney in 1988 and offered to fund a maternal health/child survival program. He developed a proposal with assistance from friends at the University of Connecticut, where he served as a trustee. The result was a three-year, $850,000 grant to reduce maternal and child mortality. HHF dispatched outreach medical teams to Jérémie and the villages to provide immunizations and preventive care for children and pre- and postnatal women.

Over the years, HHF’s programs expanded to include health and dental care,  nutrition, education, and community development. The Foundation’s mission is to “improve the health and well-being of women, children, families and communities in the greater Jérémie region.” Promoting self-sufficiency is at the core of HHF’s work.

Today, 97% of the children in HHF’s catchment area have received all necessary immunizations. They receive food rations and medicine, as needed. Many thousands of women have received pre- and postnatal care and medication, treatment for STDs and HIV, and supplemental nutrition.

Lowney’s wife, Virginia, a registered nurse, started HHF’s Save-a-Family program in 1988. Nearly 500 of Jérémie’s neediest families are currently receiving assistance with school tuition and uniforms, health and dental care, food, rent, etc. Virginia has been a full-time volunteer for over 30 years.

In 2001, HHF built the Center of Hope in Jérémie. It is the only residential facility in Haiti specifically for the monitoring and care of women in high-risk pregnancies. HHF also has two 4-wheel drive emergency transport vehicles, which serve as ambulances, evacuating seriously ill patients and pregnant women with complications from the mountain villages to HHF’s facilities in Jérémie or the local hospital. The maternal and child death rate among our population has dropped substantially due to HHF’s ambulance service and the Center of Hope.

The Center of Hope also treats and rehabilitates children with severe malnutrition. The type of malnutrition seen most often in the area is Kwashiorkor, caused by protein deficiency. When the Center was first opened, it was common to have all the beds at the Center occupied by extremely sick young children, too weak to eat, with their survival in question. Today, trained health workers in the field regularly monitor the growth and nutritional status of every child in HHF’s catchment, identifying malnutrition early. Although malnutrition continues to be widespread in Haiti, there is much less need for the children to be hospitalized. 

HHF regularly distributes food kits to malnourished children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, HIV and diabetes patients, the elderly, and other at-risk groups.  In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, HHF distributed nearly 12,000 food kits.

HHF has built over 3,500 cement-block houses with poured concrete foundations and intact tin roofs since 1997. The “Happy House” and, more recently, the “Happier House” (with several added features) replace shacks made from scraps of wood, rusted metal and cardboard, with thatched roofs and dirt floors; these are the typical dwellings of the poor in rural Haiti. HHF’s houses, funded by individual donors, cost $1,950 each.

The Foundation has distributed nearly 11,450 breeding goats to poor families in the rural villages. Goats give families the opportunity to develop a herd, which serves as a source of income, animal protein, and self-sufficiency.

HHF’s newest initiative - Micro-Lending - provides small, interest-free loans to eligible individuals and community groups to help them establish small businesses. These kinds of opportunities result in some income and the pride of being at least somewhat self-supporting and self-sustaining.

October 2016’s Hurricane Matthew devastated HHF’s catchment area, with 80% of the structures in Jérémie damaged or destroyed. The subsistence gardens and fruit trees that rural villagers depended on for food and income were lost to the Category 4 winds. Thousands of highly valued goats, chickens, and other domestic animals died.  HHF is the only source of assistance to the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people living in the Jérémie region of southwestern Haiti. The Foundation has spent the past two years in recovery, restoration, and rebuilding efforts.

Dr. Lowney says that marrying Virginia, surviving two battles with cancer, and his work in Haiti are the three most influential experiences in his life. He also lists his sense of humor as having helped him cope with the inevitable challenges he has had to endure. Dr. Lowney, Virginia, and their four children are very involved with HHF. His daughter, Marilyn, has been the Executive Director of the Haitian Health Foundation since 1999. Virginia and each of the children and grandchildren have been to Haiti as volunteers and all have helped to raise funds for different HHF projects.

At age 82, Jerry Lowney is doing very little direct orthodontic patient care. He works full-time doing administrative work and fundraising.

HHF is the second largest employer in this region of Haiti, with close to 200 full-time employees, 99% of whom are Haitian. Hundreds of volunteers have journeyed to Jérémie to work with HHF.

For his extraordinary efforts in helping humankind, Jerry Lowney has been honored and recognized many times. He has been knighted (twice) by the Pope. He was awarded the Congressional Certificate of Merit. The ADA has also awarded him its Certificate of Merit and he has been invited to Fellowship in both the ICD and the ACD. Additionally, he was the first recipient of the AAO Humanitarian Award in 2011 for his, at the time, nearly three decades of humanitarian work in Haiti. The list of honors is too extensive to mention all of them in this article. We are so proud that Jerry Lowney is a Fellow of the International College of Dentists. He has devoted his life to “Serving Others.”

You can learn more about the HHF and make a donation by going to HaitianHealthFoundation.org or by contacting the Haitian Health Foundation, 97 Sherman Street, Norwich, CT 06360. Call them at (860) 886-4357.


Featured Image: “Dr. Lowney providing dental care for a Haitian woman in Jeremie, Haiti.”

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