Oct 19, 2021

Baptism of fire: How a Haitian doctor found a home in Australian aged care

Guy-Robert Lahens’ story

As the brightly coloured, gingerbread-style homes of the Port-au-Prince hillside overlook its bustling Caribbean coastline, the layout of Haiti’s capital city makes it feel like an oversized, outdoor amphitheatre.

Taking centre stage amongst the vibrant scenery, a young boy by the name of Guy-Robert Lahens spent the mid-’90s playing the role of a pint-sized diplomat amongst children in the neighbourhood.

With his ability to charm others coming so naturally, it wasn’t long before Guy-Robert’s father took notice. 

“When I was around 12 years old, I remember my father asking me if I was going to become a politician,” said Guy-Robert.

“I said no, but ever since he asked me, I would always point at the Presidential Palace in the city and tell my friends that I was going to live there one day.”

While clearly blossoming into a social butterfly, responsibilities in the family home ensured that Guy-Robert remained grounded and mindful of the needs of others. 

As a teenager, Guy-Robert developed a medical condition that required routine surgery. Aided by a family friend’s medical journals, his curious nature saw him delve deep into the finer details of his upcoming procedure. 

As expected, the surgery went off without a hitch, but the sparks of interest that formed when Guy-Robert initially researched the operation had grown into a burning passion for medicine.

The boy with a keen interest in helping others had become a young man with an interest of his own.

Young Guy-Robert Lahens
Image of a very young Guy-Robert taken in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Hamburgers and catastrophe 

At the age of 18, Guy-Robert enrolled in medical school at the Université Notre Dame d’Haïti (UNDH), with his sights well and truly set on becoming a doctor.

However, as much as his life had changed since childhood, one glaring issue remained unresolved.

“After starting medical school quite far from home, I asked my father for the money to buy a car and he told me that he would give me 20%. So, I decided to try and sell Jolly Ranchers to raise the rest of the money.”

“My mother is the best at making hamburgers, so I started making them just like her and selling them at university. In time, I was able to buy a black Honda Prelude. It wasn’t new, but I felt like Batman,” said Guy-Robert. 

The same determination that saw him become the proud owner of his own vehicle, propelled the aspiring doctor through eight gruelling years of medical school study.

Graduating in December 2009 was the realisation of a dream for Guy-Robert. And while it was certainly cause for celebration, unfortunately, all festivities were about to come to a catastrophic end.

Only four weeks after Guy-Robert’s graduation, Haiti was rocked by the largest earthquake in the country’s history. At a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale, the casualties and devastation were incomprehensible.

“After rushing home to check that my family were OK, I went straight to the hospital and started helping people. The things that I saw … I didn’t think that I would ever witness something so horrific. Can you imagine in a country where there is only one state hospital, the number of people that we had to absorb?”

With as many as three million people affected by the quake and over 300,000 deaths, Guy-Robert spent the following two years working to improve the health and safety of his local community through health promotion, research and disease prevention.

Guy-Robert performing surgery
Guy-Robert (left) performing surgery in Haiti.

Education and relocation

With his focus now firmly on the public health space, Guy-Robert decided to apply for a scholarship to study abroad. 

In 2013, at the age of 29, Guy-Robert arrived at the University of Melbourne seeking his Masters of Public Health. Interestingly, his pursuit of education yielded some pleasant, yet unexpected results.

“When I first touched down in Australia, I knew I wanted to study and return to Haiti with my qualification. In the meantime, while I was studying, I met my partner and we fell in love” he expressed.

“When I completed my studies she came back to Haiti with me.”

Together, the pair spent the following three years working in the public health field while exploring the natural beauty of Haiti and travelling throughout the Caribbean.

“It was a very hard time, there were elections coming up and it was a very chaotic political climate,” said Guy-Robert. 

“When we returned to Australia, it was with mixed feelings because I knew it was not for study, I was going there to live for a long time and Australia would be my new home, far from my sunny island”

Guy-Robert Lahens on graduation day

Return to the red zone

Upon returning to Australia, Guy-Robert sought out the help of an esteemed professor from the University of Melbourne who had been a previous mentor. 

This connection helped Guy-Robert to broaden his network and eventually land a research role with the Fred Hollows Foundation that saw him working in the Indigenous eye health sector for the following year. 

“Things were going well. I had a new area of work and an upcoming conference in Brisbane, and then COVID happened,” said Guy-Robert.

“I finished the contract from home and unfortunately the follow-on project was suspended due to the evolving pandemic.”

“To be honest, I was scared because everything was still a mystery at this point, but I gathered my courage and told myself to just be careful.” 

Guy-Robert’s new role saw him arrive at an Arcare aged care home located in the Victorian suburb of Sydenham.

It was here, working in a ‘COVID Red-Zone’ in Melbourne’s inner-west, where Guy-Robert would meet an elderly woman who would have a significant impact on him.

“They had a specific task for me. There was a resident who had had the virus who was always touching things and trying to move around the home. It was my role to work with her,” said Guy-Robert.

“In the beginning, it was very difficult for me because she could only speak Italian and I didn’t speak Italian, and of course we had all of the PPE which was making it harder to communicate, so I had to use a lot of Google translate.”

“She loved to sing and I loved to dance, so I started playing Italian music from her era,” he explained.

“We were always dancing together and it was just so much fun. The only problem was the PPE, all the dancing had me sweating so much.”

As things began to return to normal at the Sydenham home, Guy-Robert was no longer required to work at the home, but his bond with the resident made a lasting impression on staff at the home.

A few months later, he was offered a full-time role as a Lifestyle Coordinator at another Arcare home. 

“The lady that I was taking care of, the energy that was spent when we were together, that’s what people noticed and that’s why they remembered me,” said Guy-Robert.

Guy-Robert spending time with residents
Guy-Robert embracing his role in aged care.

Playtime with purpose

Facilitating the needs of residents who can often have a combination of both physical and mental health issues has proven to be an intriguing prospect for Guy-Robert.

His medical expertise has also proven to be an invaluable asset to the rest of the team.

“Today, I am coordinating activities, which allow me to interact with people and be creative, and I am really very happy. We share kindness here daily and it makes me feel alive. It makes me feel valued.”

Guy-Robert continued, “Being a doctor, I know when someone is dehydrated and I can observe small changes in behaviour that may indicate a health problem. I have a leadership role here, and when I speak in meetings, our staff take note. Everyone is very respectful.” 

Although many view activities in the aged care space as a means of entertainment, he uses every interaction with his residents as an opportunity to get them thinking about things outside of their immediate environment.

These insights are then used to better understand each resident’s background and build stronger connections between residents and staff.

“We might talk about the sunshine that we see, we talk about the Vitamin D that comes from the sunshine, then we will talk about the ways that Vitamin D helps to prevent depression. This gets them talking.”

He added, “If we are doing an activity, it is an opportunity to socialise and have a good time together.”

Guy-Robert M&M
Guy-Robert is willing to embrace any role to engage his residents.

After conquering many significant personal goals since adolescence, there appears to be only one accomplishment that he has yet to achieve. 

However, childhood dreams of one day residing in Haiti’s Presidential Palace no longer appear to be something that Guy-Robert aspires to.

He shared, “This place has given me back my peace of mind. I will always continue to follow the little voice inside that tells me to chase my dreams. I don’t know where that will take me next, but it gave me this opportunity and I am grateful and happy.”

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