When he started his Crown Heights family practice 20 years ago, Dr. Jean-Claude Compas remembers, his role as interpreter of patients’ symptoms was more than medical. “One way we express ourselves when we are in pain, is to use the word ‘gaz.’ Haitians say, ‘M’gen gaz. M’gen gaz nan tèt.’ Can you imagine to an American, or anybody else, who’s been trained scientifically in quote-endquote Occidental medicine? Hearing somebody say they have gas in his head-so that for him, that person is crazy.”
There are an estimated 600 Haitian doctors practicing in New York State, or about one in one thousand Haitians here. It’s a profession of status and security. But instead of seeking a comfortable affiliation with a hospital, Compas, 53, works exclusively in his own private clinic. There, he has the flexibility to address the often undertreated health needs of his Haitian patients, who see more than their share of hypertension and diabetes. He tries to spend close time with patients with chronic illnesses, such as HIV and cancer and, if necessary, give them a break on fees.
Compas’ medical mission has long reached beyond his clinic. In 1985, he helped secure the removal of Haitians from the Centers for Disease Control’s notorious “4-H” list of likely carriers of AIDS. Five years later, he rallied thousands to cross the Brooklyn Bridge in protest of a federal advisory asking blood banks to reject donations from Haitian immigrants. More recently, he has served as the personal physician for Abner Louima. Following the recent reversal of police officers’ convictions in Louima’s brutalization, Compas manned a megaphone in front of the 70th Precinct, pleading for the police to “serve us-not destroy us.”
His vocal presence isn’t admired by everyone. The left-wing newspaper Haiti-Progres has charged that the doctor, as well as the Haitian-American Alliance, a civic group on which he sits as a board member, have “repeatedly sought to present themselves to the U.S. establishment as the ‘leaders of the Haitian community,’ seizing on any opportunity to parade in front of microphones and television cameras.” The paper has also attacked him as a “rightist” who keeps “putschist” company for his criticism of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide–the democratically-elected leader who succeeded the Duvalier dictatorship–as more of a charismatic figure than a manager to solve the country’s entrenched problems. Compas doesn’t ignore the political chasms–“we’re divided, it’s true”–but prefers to think pragmatically. “In reality, it’s not a leader that we need–we need better organizations and better institutions. If you have better institutions, then you have better leaders.”