There’s nothing like a small town doctor. Known, trusted, available, indispensible. Gene Rigstad was that doctor in the small Wisconsin town of Shell Lake and the surrounding communities in northwest Wisconsin. He still is.
Over the last 20 years, he also developed that same reputation in the comparative metropolis that is Appleton through his family medicine practice (Health and Family Wellness Care inside Fox Valley Hematology & Oncology) as well as in his role as Medical Director at Recovery Inn, the skilled nursing facility attached to the Orthopedic & Sports Institute of the Fox Valley (OSI).
Now, Dr. Rigstad is dedicated to serving another community, albeit one a bit outside the Badger state. Located in Haiti, the coastal village of Lozandier is a microcosm of the Caribbean island nation: a place where severe poverty and hardship is confronted by some of the most extraordinary people on the planet.
How Rigstad found himself in Haiti is one of those small town feel good stories: Northwoods physician works with Northwoods nurse who happens to be founder of a mission group. She explains their work and enlists the physician to join others to make a difference in a place not only dealing with the level of poverty that affects the entire region, but also one that seems to be directly in the path of yearly natural disasters.
The individuals who come together for this cause collectively call themselves Love for Lozandier; they visit the island twice a year to help with the health concerns and spiritual needs of the area’s residents.
In an area where most have little, Love for Lozandier knew they had much to do. They started by building a church. In partnership with another aid organization, they helped erect a freshwater well. Next came a clinic. Coming soon, a permanent school.
Currently the church building is used as a temporary school for more than 80 students, each sponsored by individuals in Northwest Wisconsin. Sponsorship includes school uniform and one meal a day for students. The group also provides basic healthcare services to enrolled school children, their families, church families, and the community at large.
“We exist to positively impact the community of Lozandier,” said Susan Dodd, the nurse whose passion and dedication for the people there led to the formation of the group.
Her simple yet powerful statement moved Rigstad, who joined the November mission as part of the medical group (the March visit is primarily for building & construction). With no other medical facility for 100 miles, he expected a line for the free clinic.
He and three other physicians saw 750 patients over the course of four days.
Some came from great distances via motorcycle; others walked. Much of the care consists of well child exams and the treatment of childhood illnesses, many directly related to poor nutrition.
Rigstad and the medical team also saw many adults. Primary concerns included arthritis, untreated hypertension, acid reflux, and anemia. To facilitate treatment for these afflictions, the Love for Lozandier group purchases generic medication in bulk ahead of time, which is sent to the clinic by an organization in the United States.
The goal is to have enough medication to stock the clinic, which is open twice a year.
Also in great demand from the group are eyeglasses and sunglasses. The very sunny and windy conditions on the island lead to a preponderance of eye problems.
“One resident we gave glasses to was brought to tears,” said Rigstad. “The most important thing to her was to be able to read her bible, and now she can.”
Despite seemingly ever-present hardships, the island inhabitants are a source of great strength for the missionaries. Most resident have small, dilapidated houses, dirt floors, no windows. Basic necessities are lacking. Yet through it all, the islanders seem to brim with life-affirming optimism.
“The people were terrific and children amazingly happy despite having essentially nothing,” Rigstad said.
Rigstad hopes to return to Lozandier in November of 2018. Looking back, he is proud of the work that was done.
“The group I went with worked terrifically as a team in difficult conditions, but the end result was we provided a lot of good medical care to the people of the area, people who most likely would have gone without any care at all,” he said.
He also has precious memories of his visit, including the bumpy and sometimes treacherous bus ride to Lozandier he shared with two goats (a wedding gift); punctuating each full clinic day with dip in the Caribbean (“Nice to cool off.”)
Most of all, this small town doctor remembers and cherishes the many new friends he helped.
And that’s why everybody loves a small town doctor.
To learn how you can help, visit LoveforLozandier.org.