For weeks, Lynsa Mathieu collected a few cents from friends and relatives each time they visited her at the tuberculosis center at the University Hospital. To buy a little extra food, she would say.
But the young woman was saving the money for a different reason. It made her smile to think about her planned surprise. Helped her forget her terrible loss, the pains in her legs, her trouble breathing.
Then, on May 31, her doctor entered the center and saw the balloons and the basket of fruit and the bottle of champagne, all arranged and paid for by Mathieu. The patient stood up and, with a broad smile, yelled out, “Happy Birthday, Dr. Coffee!”
“I love her so much,” Mathieu says, explaining why someone with no money and little strength spent so much of both to arrange a surprise birthday party for an American doctor. “I am crazy about her.”
“That was such a nice surprise,’’ says Megan Coffee, of Maplewood, a young woman who, in her 34 years, has achieved much and used it all to help strangers.
Coffee interrupted a fellowship on infectious diseases at the University of California at San Francisco to come here. She had no plans and no place to stay, but learned Haiti’s largest hospital needed someone to run the tuberculosis unit.
She got the job. For no pay, she works 12 hour days seven days a week, the only doctor, and supervises 14 nurses. The “center” is three tents in a parking lot, patients and staff sweltering in the day, not much more comfortable at night when flood lights from a noisy generator throw the place into dark shadows and sleep-depriving harsh light.
Although scores of American doctors came to help, she is the last to stay at the nation’s largest hospital.
“I decided I’d just go there and not worry about how I’d live,” says Coffee. “I love it here — I want to stay indefinitely.”
Since Jan. 26, she has returned to the United States twice — once to provide a consultation on cases of infectious diseases afflicting transplant patients and again to speak at a woman’s leadership conference at Harvard.
That’s where she earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry after graduating from Columbia High. She was named a Star-Ledger Scholar in this newspaper’s effort — suspended after 22 years — to identify and reward New Jersey’s brightest seniors.
From Harvard, she went to Oxford University to earn a doctorate in mathematical modeling of epidemics, work she used to produce scholarly articles on the spread of AIDS in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
“I met so many people dying of AIDS there and I felt just couldn’t look into their eyes and ask them questions from a survey,” says Coffee. “I had to help them.”
So she went back to Harvard, to medical school, earned her degree and continued her specialized study of diseases like malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis.
The conditions seem intolerable but Coffee calls it “the pure practice of medicine — applying what you know directly to people who need your help — there’s nothing like it.”
The nurses have all but adopted the young doctor, each bringing home-cooked meals for her and insisting she sit and eat it. Coffee, a strict vegan vegetarian, lost weight in Haiti but attributes that to hauling around giant canisters of oxygen for her patients.
She says making money as a doctor is not important to her.
“It’s also nice seeing people live because of what you’ve done,” she says.