Meetings with Remarkable Haitians: Dr. Emmanuel Justima

April 26, 2010

By James S. Gordon MD

Dr. Emmanuel Justima

I originally met Justima (it’s his last name; as he said, he likes to be called that to distinguish him from “other Emmanuels”) at a “psychosocial cluster” meeting to which Lee-Ann and I had been invited. Perhaps 30 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were present. All are working with “psychosocial” issues: the emotional challenges, psychological, and social needs of the close to 2 million people who have lost family members and/or been displaced by the earthquake.

Justima, tall, broad shouldered, slim, in black pants and a crisp checked shirt, entered the room halfway through the meeting and shook hands with the UN coordinators. He stood tall and at ease at the front. When his turn came, he spoke in a voice loud and clear enough that even I– aurally challenged, and still scrambling to recover my French–could understand. And just in case I or anyone else had missed his meticulous instructions on prompt program registration with the Haiti Ministry of Health, he repeated it in flawless English.

Afterwards, Justima began our hour-long private meeting by announcing that PNI (psychoneuroimmunology— the scientific foundation of mind-body medicine), was his “passion as well as [my] professional field of expertise.” For a moment I thought he was putting me on. Another Emmanuel (last name Streel), the psychologist who coordinates the NGO psychosocial programs, had just told me about his own interest in mind-body medicine. “Vraiment?” (“Really?”) I said to Justima in my best, quizzical French.

“Yes,” he replied. “And, of course, we have to teach people to help themselves. There are only 10 psychiatrists in all of Haiti, and not many more psychologists.”

It has long been clear to me, after work with many other traumatized populations, that self-care and mutual help are logical centerpieces of a population-wide mental health program. But how surprising, and how wonderful, that someone so central to the Haitian mental health plan not only welcomes our way of working, but is steeped in the science that supports it.

Justima sits across from me at a narrow table in a prefab corrugated metal UN building, flanked by internationals concerned with similar issues. He takes care of business carefully but briskly, reminding us again of registration requirements, offering to find the most competent translators to put our materials into French and Creole. He carefully repeats phrases I don’t understand.

Around his mouth and in Justima’s eyes, amidst striking efficiency and intelligence, I see the smile of a man who, with all the weight the world has put on him, still enjoys life. I look forward to working with him, and to spending more time with him.

I regret that we didn’t get any pics of Justima. More pics next installment, when we meet Drs. Guiteau & Amedee-Gedeon of the Haitian Red Cross . . .