Couple Bring Hope, Health to Haiti

Couple Bring Hope, Health to Haiti

By Cindy Murphy McMahon, BA’74

In talking to Ellen Cunningham, BA’86, MD, about her life and Lamp for Haiti, the nonprofit organization she and her husband founded, it’s the enormous pride she has in her husband, James Morgan, BA’86, MD’91, that shines through in her voice and words.

They met as juniors at Creighton, both studying psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Our latter years at Creighton opened our minds to not only higher-level psychology classes, but also the study of philosophy. Honestly, I think it was Jim’s love of studying concepts like goodness, freedom, justice, the presence of the Divine in one’s life, beauty and so on, that cheered me on. He was challenged to look at how one chooses to live out a life.”

Ellen worked part-time at a local hospital, helping drug- and alcohol-addicted teens. “Combined with my studies and my relationship with this socially conscious guy from New Jersey, I took a new look at the world around me,” she says. She thought about becoming a physician, the path Jim was already on.

Jim attended the School of Medicine and during his fourth year, Ellen started medical school at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. They married when he was a second-year resident and she was in her second year of medical school. “By the time I graduated, we had two children, a handful of debt, and some decisions to make about our futures.”

They settled in the New York/New Jersey area; Jim went to St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, and Ellen started a dermatology practice in New Jersey. St. Vincent’s, now closed, served the poor in Greenwich Village.

“The medical and social side effects of home­less­ness, loneliness, drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the late 1990s — these were all placed before him and he rose to the occasion,” says his wife.

During that time, Jim accompanied his former high school religion teacher, the Rev. Vincent Biagi, SJ, a Jesuit and friend, on a service trip to Haiti. Jim came home with a renewed perspective on poverty and serving the needy.

He returned to Haiti in early 2005 after Ellen gathered supporters to fund his trip. He had made connections in Cité Soleil — an extremely impoverished community of over 300,000 — and set up an alley clinic with a backpack of medicines and a stethoscope. Ellen later learned that Doctors Without Borders would not even go to Cité Soleil then because it was too dangerous.

The Lamp for Haiti health center officially opened as a nongovernmental organization in 2006.

Today, Jim is Lamp’s medical director and board chair. The primary care clinic is staffed by a professional health team, all Haitian, including two physicians. The clinic is open five days a week and sees more than 1,000 patients monthly. Services include a women’s health clinic, child nutrition program and EKG and digital radiology services.

Lamp for Haiti provides physician consul­ta­tions, medical testing and medicine. The medi­cine and testing are free, while fees asked for consultations equal about 25 cents per patient.

Lamp also sponsors water and sanitation projects, supports local schools and provides health education and humanitarian aid. Since 2012, Ellen’s fundraisers have celebrated Haitian art and culture. She also helps support Jim’s Haiti trips through their practice in Cedar Grove, New Jersey.

“My role as the support person became less financial and more as a wife and mother, ‘holding down the fort’ at home and being a sounding board to the innumerable obstacles my husband faced in this desperate part of the world.” She also has worked side by side with him in Haiti.

She says they hope that the Lamp model, with staffing by local professionals, can expand to more communities.

“Lamp looks to stay true to its mission of working with and for some of the most marginalized by providing health care and related services to even more vulnerable communities.”