Pioneering doctor still leads Haitian healthcare fight in Miami 35 years after AIDS battle
In the mid-1980s, as the HIV/AIDS epidemic was spreading rapidly, Haitians were stigmatized and being Haitian was erroneously labeled by the U.S. government as one of the four risk factors for contracting the disease.
Many Haitians in Miami dying of the disease were afraid to look for help because of their undocumented immigration status.
Dr. Laurinus “Larry” Pierre wanted to know more. It was 1987 and he had just relocated from Haiti, where he attended medical school and was working on HIV, to Miami, where he had a fellowship at the University of Miami.
As part of his fellowship, Pierre wanted to know how denial, myths and stigmatization were affecting Miami’s newest immigrants’ ability to cope, and he wanted to know why Haitian women, who were positive with the virus that causes AIDS, were having multiple pregnancies.
“We started looking,” he recalled. “I thought maybe they were in denial or they didn’t know, because we had a number of situations where people were coming back and forth. I thought, ‘There is something missing in the transmission of the message.’ “
That curiosity and the erroneous lumping of Haitians by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — along with hemophiliacs, heroin users and gay men — as a risk factor for HIV/AIDS set Pierre on a 35-year course to help Haitians confront the epidemic, as well as new ones like COVID-19.
Through his Center for Haitian Studies, which he founded in Little Haiti 35 years ago this month, Pierre battled the AIDS epidemic in the Haitian community in South Florida by treating patients and taking on both the Catholic Church over the use of condoms and the CDC over its classification and banning of blood donations from Haitians.
Today the center continues to provide primary and specialty care to the uninsured and undocumented, while training doctors, medical students and researchers.
“The Center of Haiti Studies is an invaluable resource, and in many ways a necessary gatekeeper to outsiders who want to work collaboratively with the Haitian diaspora community to understand and address persistent health inequity,” said Dr. Erin Kobetz, a cancer researcher and vice provost of research in the Department of Medicine at the University of Miami.
Kobetz first met Pierre, 70, two decades ago when she discovered an alarming rate of cervical cancer in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood when she worked at UM’s Miller School of Medicine. Pierre, she said, would give her important insight and a history lesson that helped her appreciate the broader context for her work in a community to which science has not always been kind.
“Larry Pierre is kind of like a shepherd,” she said. “He’s a tireless and quiet advocate on behalf of the Haitian community in South Florida and in Haiti; he’s always on the right side of right and does so much to make sure that a community that has been very, very marginalized doesn’t get lost in our collective understanding of how ancestry and culture and lived experience matter as critical determinants for health outcomes.”
One critical lesson, Kobetz said, is that “we can’t group all people of shared race together. There is really important variability in people’s ancestry and culture that needs to be explicitly addressed as part of research, or you miss the opportunity to uncover the variability that is driving health disparity and is ultimately the lever for necessary intervention.”
It’s a lesson that Pierre continues to teach to those who walk through his doors, whether as physicians coming to provide care to newly arrived migrants or seeking training.
‘We serve a multi-ethnic population’
Today, the center, referred to as CHS, has expanded its operations thanks to partnerships with Miami-Dade County, the University of Miami, Jackson Memorial Hospital, Borinquen Medical Centers and others.
“We don’t serve only Haitians. We serve a multi-ethnic population. We have Hispanics and even Ukrainian patients,” said Pierre, who has a master’s degree in public health from UM. “We have an attorney on board. We have a social worker. So we help people in need.”
This includes physicians in Haiti who are in need of continued medical education.
During a recent visit to the center at 8260 NE Second Ave. in Little Haiti, Pierre, a married father of two daughters whose wife, Michele Jean-Gilles, is a child psychologist, took pride in the personal and professional legacies he’s built.
The center’s multi-story blue-and-white building stands out amid a changing, gentrified neighborhood that includes a high-rise food hall and disappearing Haitian-owned mom-and-pop shops. The Jean-Jacques Dessalines Community Center is still there, but the building that once served as the nerve center for gathering Haitian grassroots organizations is now empty.
Every day developers come with offers, Pierre said.
“I kicked them out every day. I tell them this is not for sale.” he said with a laugh. “Even if they were to level this building, we would have to use this site as a place where we provide care.”
Training to Haiti-based physicians
Dr. Joseph Durandis, a Haitian-American physician, met Pierre 12 years ago when he relocated to Miami from New York. Since then he’s been assisting him with his vision of training medical students who studied in the Caribbean as well as Haiti-based physicians.
“For a lot of them, besides their training in the islands, it was the first time they had a connection with someone who was of Haitian or Cuban background,” Durandis said. “Thousands of medical students have come to South Florida for their training but on top of that we’re able to help the Borinquen Medical Centers with putting in place a very culturally sensitive medical residency program that trains physicians.”
Durandis, the program’s director at Borinquen, said the idea of the residency program came from Pierre, who wanted to have more physicians in South Florida who understood the makeup of the population, and could relate culturally.
“This helps not only the South Florida community but the country as a whole because there is a shortage of primary-care physicians in the country, and this tries to close that gap,” Durandis said.
Durandis, who runs a private practice, said one of his more fulfilling roles is his weekly Thursday visit to CHS to provide free medical care..
“It’s very rewarding,” he said.
In addition to the exam rooms at CHS there are several classrooms. One stands out: Located on a second floor, the seats are carved out of wood and encircle the amphitheater where Durandis and other doctors conduct continuous medical education classes and training for physicians in Haiti.
“We have over 100 physicians who are living in Haiti in different regions and over Zoom we provide medical education for them in the primary healthcare field so they can be equipped to see their patients and renew their medical knowledge,” Durandis said, adding that such training, while mandatory in the U.S., is not required in Haiti.
Pierre sees a two-way benefit to the new initiative. While his Miami-based physicians are providing information on new treatment techniques, doctors in Haiti serve as reminders on how to treat patients with access only to basic medical tools, such as X-ray machines.
Reflecting on the role CHS has played in the transformation of South Florida’s burgeoning 50-year-old Haitian community, Pierre said there is no doubt progress has been made — even if his Haitian homeland remains in peril.
“That’s why on the 35th anniversary, we are saying ‘Passing the Torch,’ ” said Pierre, a North Miami resident.
There is something else that gives him hope and speaks to his effort to change the Haitian narrative.
“One of the things I find among Haitian Americans, young Haitian Americans, is that they’re all interested in Haiti. It’s across the board. It’s not just in Miami,” said Pierre. “We have people from different fields who are all very concerned about Haiti.”
And that includes him.
He is a co-founder, along with retired Miami neurosurgeon Dr. Barth Green, of Project Medishare, which provides humanitarian care in Haiti, and serves as a board member and supporter of Hopital Bernard Mevs in Port-au-Prince.
When not imparting his knowledge or helping to recruit doctors, Pierre is either fundraising for a Democratic candidate he believes will advance U.S. policy toward Haiti or promote the community in a more positive light.
He was among a small group invited to meet with President Joe Biden when he came to Little Haiti to court Haitian-American voters in 2020 in his bid to unseat Donald Trump. Along with fellow South Florida physician Jean-Philippe Austin, Pierre is involved in the Haitian-American Foundation for Democracy.
The walls of his conference room are a testament to his role as a sought-after member of the community. There is a photo of Pierre with Biden, one with Vice President Kamala Harris and another with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Also on the walls of the center are works of art that speak to the issues Pierre deeply cares about.
One in particular, says “I see humans, but no humanity.”