The abject poverty and medical needs of the Miskito Indians there pulled at him. Early on he enlisted the help of Ennis Whiddon, a builder and Holy Cross parishioner. Whiddon, who usually accompanies Dr. Petit to Puerto Lempira, says of his friend: “I knew him as [an emergency department] doctor first. Then I realized his extraordinary spiritual commitment. I went to Puerto Lempira on his first mission trip and I asked myself why anyone would want to be there, but I knew Chuck couldn’t bear not to be there. I also knew he wasn’t just going to give people two aspirins, come home and pray for them.”
Dr. Petit returns to Puerto Lempira three or four times a year with a team of doctors, seeing several hundred patients a day. During one two-week stint he dispensed $200,000 worth of medication he cadged from drug companies for $600 out of his pocket to rid the town’s youngsters of debilitating parasites.
Dr. Petit works with a Miskito nurse who runs their rudimentary clinic in his absence. He also uses hyperbaric medicine to treat divers whose crippling injuries result from diving deeply using pressurized oxygen tanks and rising too quickly to the surface.
“You wouldn’t believe the indescribably poor facilities we found there,” Whiddon says of the town’s clinic. “You wouldn’t have your dog treated there if you loved your dog.”
Last year Dr. Petit ratcheted up his commitment to Puerto Lempira, dreaming of building a permanent clinic there.
He decided to use his money to buy land to build a clinic, but got stonewalled by a stubborn local bureaucracy.
Then Andres Leone, a like-minded younger doctor who was part of the mission trip, stepped in with handy language and cultural skills. Leone who had attended medical school in Ecuador, is a Lutheran seminarian, and is completing a geriatric hospitalist fellowship at Palmetto Healthcare.
“We were in Puerto Lempira for two weeks and visited the mayor several times to buy land,” Dr. Leone explains. “He said the price was $600,000, which was ridiculous. In the town I overheard some conversations, which led to us meeting the 77-year-old daughter of missionaries. She sold us some of her land and even donated money to help build the clinic, which will be dedicated in her name.”
Thinking big, Dr. Petit is adding an apartment complete with air conditioning and a modern bathroom to the clinic’s blueprint, to attract residents in a to-be-formed international medicine program. As an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of South Carolina’s (USC) School of Medicine, he intends to oversee those residents.
Just back from Puerto Lempira, Dr. Petit finalized the clinic’s design, lined up local workers to figure out how to make concrete building blocks with native materials, and met with Anglican bishop the Right Rev. Lloyd E. Allen, bolstering support for the new clinic and the possibility of HIV outreach. Side by side with Honduran and Cuban doctors, Dr. Petit treated hundreds of Puerto Lempira’s villagers every day.
Back in the Hospital
Dr. Petit always wanted to be a doctor. Although his father suggested he become a hospital orderly, Dr. Petit knew being a physician was his calling, graduating from the University of West Virginia School of Medicine (Morgantown) family medicine program in 1978.
He enjoys hospital medicine as a holistic approach to caring for patients, consistent with his work early in his career.
An earlier 10-year stint as a hospitalist at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital, also at USC, involved teaching residents and students rotating through the hospital, as well as a consultative service for neurosurgical patients at Richland. At Wheeling Hospital early in his career he became comfortable as a generalist, covering intensive care, assisting in surgery, and delivering many babies.