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The daily life of this Haitian doctor will inspire you

Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square

Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA

Isabella H. de Carvalho - published on 02/15/24

The Pontifical Academy for Life gave this year’s Guardian of Life award to Dr. Marie Guarda Coicou, a Haitian physician who shoulders on in her country, despite the crisis.

“There can be very simple days, where I have scheduled operations, or there can be very complicated days where we get 10 people with gunshot wounds.” This is how Marie Guerda Coicou, describes her workday as a doctor specialized in anesthesiology and intensive care in Haiti. Despite the difficult security and political situation that her country is facing, she finds purpose in her faith and in taking care of those who are disadvantaged.

“The more my faith grows, the more I am aware of others’ problems, the more I pay attention to the other who is in front of me and his needs,” she said.

Her work has been recognized by the Vatican, as Dr. Coicou was in Rome on February 13, 2024, to receive this year’s Guardian of Life Award from the Pontifical Academy for Life. They gave her the award during the Academy’s General Assembly in Rome, which lasted from February 12 to 13.

She spoke to Aleteia about her work in Haiti and her emotion at being recognized for her work taking care of others. 

Marie Guerda Coicou, a Haitian physician who won the Pontifical Academy for Life's 2024 Guardian of Life Award

Her life’s mission

“Coming to the Vatican, […], seeing the Pope, knowing that I will receive a prize for taking care of those who are destitute, sharpens my awareness of my life’s mission,” Dr. Coicou explained, highlighting especially the need to take care “of those who have nothing and deserve, like everyone, standard medical care.”

Dr. Coicou has been working as a doctor in her home country since the 1990s, after she completed her studies and specializations in Haiti and France. Upon returning to Haiti she and some friends opened a surgery center close to an impoverished neighborhood, Cité Soleil, in the capital city, where they would treat people for whatever the patient could give, even if it was nothing at all. 

She explained that it’s always been “a priority” for her as a physician to treat people regardless of class, ethnicity, or whatever other category. She in fact has continued working in the private and public sector, often taking care of people for free, and has also been on the frontlines during emergency situations such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, where around 220,000 people died, or the COVID-19 pandemic.

A difficult situation in Haiti

Haiti today continues to be plagued by political instability and gang violence has become widespread, meaning Dr. Coicou is often treating people with bullet wounds or other injuries related to the situation on the ground. The UN special representative for Haiti estimated that the number of victims killed, injured, or kidnapped by gangs in 2023 doubled in comparison with the previous year. Six nuns were recently kidnapped on January 19, 2024, and then released five days later. 

Dr. Coicou described the situation as “difficult and terrible” and explained that often when she leaves her home she does not know when she will be able to come back.

“If I am at the hospital and it is advised not to be out in the streets, then I sleep at the hospital. I live day by day,” she said, highlighting that she was not even sure until the last moments whether she would be able to board her flight to come to Rome.

My faith keeps me grounded

However, she doesn’t lose hope. “It’s difficult, but I’m always driven by the feeling of caring for others who need it more, who are weak, who are in poor conditions, who are destitute,” she said. “I don’t think about the fear […] I am careful and it does not stop me from doing my job.”

“I refuse to be scared and refuse to leave my country because I am sure that things have to change, that they will change. It is maybe one of the hardest moments to get through but it will be ok. […] In general, Haitians are hospitable and friendly and it is a wonderful country […] It is a country that was very green, that was very beautiful and a good place to live: I have known all that and I hope not to be too old to be able to see it again.”

When asked what keeps her grounded among the difficult situations she sees daily, she replied without hesitating : “my faith.”

“I believe in God and I believe that I always need to help my brothers and sisters and all those who are in need,” Dr. Coicou said. 

The Pontifical Academy for Life’s award

She in fact emphasized that Francis is a Pope who particularly “moved” her because of his constant appeals to care for others. Being in Rome and receiving this award, that is given to non-academics who have distinguished themselves for the protection of human life, has inspired her and she sees it also as an encouragement for other medical professionals who share her mission. 

“I love what the Pontifical Academy does, I love that they put life at the center, because life does not have a price, and in my country it is constantly threatened,” she said. 

It was Bishop Pierre-Andres Dumas of Anse-à-Veau-Miragoâne in Haiti, who urged Dr. Coicou to share her story with the Pontifical Academy for Life, even though she explained she was reluctant at first. When she then found out she won the award she was “amazed,” “astonished” and “blessed.” 

“I want to thank God, the Catholic Church, the Pontifical Academy, the Holy Father, and Bishop Dumas, and all those who have allowed me to get here. […] Everything I did in my life, I didn’t do it to receive this, but I am very touched and grateful.” 

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