Alumni in Action: Dr. Elisson Adrien ’17 brings hope and health care to Haiti

In his home country of Haiti, Adrien brings medicine to those most in need and fulfills his childhood dream of being a doctor.

Dr. Ellison Adrien ’17

From a young age, Elisson Adrien ’17 felt compelled to become a doctor in the hopes of alleviating the daily suffering he saw in his home country of Haiti. Today, he is fulfilling his dream, working to bring modern medicine to those that need it most.

“Since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a doctor. At first, I was just curious and found it fascinating to be able to help someone. But, as I was growing up, I also found it very rewarding to help others,” Adrien said. “My curiosity persisted and after seeing many young people dying in Haiti, I was eager to know what was wrong with them medically and what I could do to alleviate their pain and suffering from the widespread illness I was witnessing.”

Growing up, Adrien lived in a remote farming village that was largely abandoned by its people due to a lack of resources. However, both his village and his life began to change in 2003, when Our Lady of Grace parish was established nearby, bringing more opportunities to both Adrien and his community members. These parishes are built by the Catholic church, where a priest will serve the community and the parish will provide resources that help sustain the people living there.

One year later, the parish in Adrien’s village was linked with a sister parish in Memphis, setting into motion a fateful connection between Adrien and John McGreevy ’10.

In one of his first classes on campus, McGreevy began learning more about global efforts to improve access to health care in areas that lacked sufficient medical resources. Knowing that his aunt, Debra Bartelli, went to Haiti twice a year for her work with the parish, McGreevy decided to visit the country in the summer of 2007. That trip brought Adrien and McGreevy together for the first time.

“I did not do much in conversing with him because I did not know enough English to hold a conversation,” said Adrien, “but Dr. McGreevy has fallen in love with Haiti since then.”

Three years later, when McGreevy traveled to Haiti again, Adrien knew enough English to work as his translator and guide throughout the dirt paths in the mountains and valleys of the community.

Elisson Adrien '17 and Dr. John McGreevy, PhD '10 photographed together in Haiti
Elisson Adrien ’17 and Dr. John McGreevy, PhD ’10

“We bonded over our interests in learning each other’s languages and cultures,” said Adrien. “While he was a senior in college doing research to better the lives of the people in rural Haiti, I was a senior in high school filled with dreams and aspirations to go to the university in Port-au-Prince and become a doctor.”

However, on Jan. 12, 2010, one event changed everything that was planned for Ellison Adrien. After the 2010 earthquake destroyed Port-au-Prince and killed more than 300,000 people, it just so happened that McGreevy was in Haiti, in Adrien’s home village.

With most of the universities in the capital city having collapsed, the two friends contemplated the option of Adrien studying in the United States. McGreevy agreed to advocate for him at Elon, with the goal of getting Adrien a scholarship that would allow him to pursue a pre-med track. Adrien was accepted at Elon and received a four-year grant from Elon to cover the cost of tuition, while Bartelli and other parishioners covered the cost of his room and board.

“This story shows how a meeting of two people from different countries can create a relationship that transcends all barriers,” said Adrien.

Adrien '17 with lab partners at Elon
Elisson Adrien ’17 with his lab partners during a class at Elon.

During his time at Elon, Adrien majored in biology and received a grant from the Center for Research on Global Engagement to research the medicinal uses of plants in rural Haiti. He credits that experience with reinforcing his desire to pursue a career in the medical field. As he read more on the topic and conducted focus groups and interviews with Haitian peasants, he gained more understanding of the fragility of the health care system in his home country.

“This opportunity that Elon gave me fueled my passion for the medical field,” said Adrien, who also interned at the prestigious Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, Maryland, as a student.

He took full advantage of Elon’s many opportunities, working for the Elon Poll, the Global Education Center and Residence Life. He was also an active member of Catholic Campus Ministry (CCM), a French Honor Society inductee and a volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club. Various service trips took Adrien to Long Island, New York, to assist with relief after Hurricane Sandy; Washington, D.C., to assist those facing hunger and homelessness; and Montego Bay, Jamaica through a CCM trip, to work with Mustard Seed Communities that provides care and support for impoverished and vulnerable groups.

Following graduation from Elon, Adrien returned to Haiti and volunteered with Happy Haitian Productions Institute, an organization that helps teach English to Haitians of all ages. In September 2017, he enrolled in medical school at Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince.

Elisson Adrien '17 with CCM members on retreat
Elisson Adrien ’17 (pictured back middle) with other CCM members on a retreat.

There, he had the opportunity to reconnect with his fellow Elon classmate, working with McGreevy in the south of Haiti to complete research on disaster vulnerability that was recently published. He also completed clinical rotations at Saint Nicholas Hospital in Saint-Marc, Haiti and held mobile medical clinics in rural areas including his hometown of Layaye.

And yet his pathway to graduation was anything but easy. There were many days when roadblocks, gang violence and protests prevented his attendance in class or kept him on campus long after classes had ended.

“There are times you need to come up with ways to face many obstacles,” Adrien said. “Medical school is filled with challenges but doing it in Haiti comes with a thousand more challenges.”

He also came face to face with the broad range of his patients’ needs as he completed clinical rotations at Saint Nicholas Hospital in Saint-Marc.

“It was very challenging to see patients not be able to buy their medications and I was not able to help them,” said Adrien. “Many times, they would come to me, and I felt helpless.”

He encountered additional needs as he provided education on cholera prevention and participated in mobile medical clinics in rural areas, including his hometown of Layaye.

Adrien '17 teaching in Haiti
Elisson Adrien ’17 teaching a group of people in Haiti.

“Currently, the most challenging thing is doing healthcare outreach to remote communities where the needs are more than just health care,” said Adrien. “Many of the remote areas I go to are places that need schools or drinkable water but I alone cannot provide everything needed.”

Despite these challenges, Adrien realized his childhood dream last September when he completed medical school. With the many lows in his career come many highs as well. The most rewarding part of Adrien’s journey so far, he said, is seeing the gratitude of his patients.

“A lot of the time we do things that are routine, but that means the world to these patients,” said Adrien. “I remember walking to the internal medicine ward one morning and one of my patients said to me, ‘Dr. Adrien, after God, it is you.’ I am in no way near God but for him, I was the closest thing to God he has experienced.”

Adrian believes the education provided by Elon sets students up for success, and he attributes his time at Elon for uncovering his true passions. He is grateful for the undergraduate requirements that encourage hands-on learning, including research, service and internships.

Adrien '17 holding his diploma at Elon graduation
Elisson Adrien ’17 with his diploma at his Elon graduation.

Adrien’s future goals include opening a health clinic of his own in Layaye that would serve as a center for health care outreach for the surrounding community. It is a bold dream that will bring its own challenges and costs, but he hopes to find funding to be able to help some of the most vulnerable and deserving people get the quality health care that they need.

What started as a happenstance meeting has led to a lifelong friendship for Adrien and McGreevy, who continue to keep in touch. Over the last several years they have been able to truly support each other, both personally and professionally. The two are close still to this day, with Adrien even serving as godparent to McGreevy’s young son. To learn more about their story and their current research and work, listen to this podcast from the Elon biology department and student Frieda Walsh ’24.