Alumna Battles E. coli, Cholera, Hurricanes and Earthquakes
Amber Munger ’00 is being forced to watch and wait.
But action is more this alumna’s style. So despite recently contracting a near-fatal illness while conducting relief work in Haiti, Munger has continued to work from her bed as the island nation—still reeling from massive earthquakes earlier this year—battles its biggest cholera outbreak in five decades and prepares for the imminent landfall of Hurricane Tomas.
For 13 years, Munger has worked on social issues in the far-flung regions of Haiti. This summer she traveled to an extremely remote mountainous area that lacks proper sanitation. Although she drank only treated water while she was there, Munger got sick. Really, really sick.
Because she became ill immediately after drinking the water, Munger believed she had a bad case of giardiasis and began a full course of antibiotics. Though not feeling much improved, Munger continued to work and traveled to Boston to attend a conference. By the end of the meeting, she was in so much pain that she could hardly walk.
She finally went to a doctor, who put her in the hospital immediately. The diagnosis? A massive E. coli infection in her kidney that had abscessed into her left side and back. She was hospitalized for a week. A drain was inserted into her side to release the infection and a catheter inserted into her arm for intravenous antibiotic doses.
Even such a dire illness didn’t stop Munger. While she was recovering, cholera broke out in Haiti for the first time in 50 years. As the waterborne infection sickened more than 4,500 Haitians and claimed some 300 lives on the island, Munger worked to translate important cholera information into Creole for the people of Haiti. She also communicated via e-mail to help calm fears and dispel rumors about the disease.
The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on her. “My personal health situation is just so emblematic of the need for sanitation and water support in the region,” she said.
Four weeks after release from the hospital, Munger still has the drain and catheter. And she’s still in the U.S., waiting on clearance from her doctors to travel back to the land she loves. She’s especially eager to return to Haiti because of the looming hurricane and her experience in dealing with natural disasters.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can go back to Haiti in the next few days,” Munger said. “It would just kill me if I would have to sit here and watch that hurricane hit and not be able to assist.”
Falling in Love with Haiti
Since her first trip to the Republic of Haiti, Munger has felt a deep connection to the island country. After that initial visit, she traveled to Haiti several more times to volunteer with rights-based organizations while completing degrees at UNC Asheville and the University of Oregon School of Law. In 2008, Munger became a full-time resident of Haiti’s remote desert region of Anse Rouge. There, Munger, who is fluent in Creole, worked with grassroots organizations to tackle women’s rights, sustainable agriculture and health care.
Then, in January 2010, a massive earthquake struck the island, killing some 300,000 and forcing millions more from their homes. Munger rushed to Port-au-Prince to help rescue people trapped beneath the rubble.
In the hours after the quake, she organized native Haitians and small relief organizations into the Haiti Response Coalition. This non-profit organization is unique in that it gives those who need help a voice in how aid is distributed. “We formed the group the day of the earthquake,” Munger said. “It’s Haitians supporting Haitians.”
With Hurricane Tomas headed toward Haiti, Munger and other relief workers fear the worst for the island nation.
The Next Chapter
Hurricane or not, changes are in store for Munger when she becomes well enough to return to Haiti. She will move from director of Article 29 Organization to its board, and will begin working full time with Oxfam America, launching its Haitian economic recovery and livelihood program.
“I’m very excited,” said Munger. “The team is so talented. There is a wealth of knowledge within Oxfam America. I’ve admired their advocacy work for years. Their human rights-based approach has formed the basis for a lot of my work with Article 29 Organization.”
She is also spearheading a campaign to raise funds to install composting toilets in Haiti’s rural areas. The devices will help stop the spread of waterborne diseases like E. coli and cholera, as well as provide agricultural soil amendments to Haiti’s environmentally devastated landscape.
She credits her studies at UNC Asheville for helping form the idea. “UNC Asheville gave me a really great platform. It is where my interests in human rights met the environment. I’ve brought those lessons to my work in Haiti.”
In spite of illness and natural disasters, Munger still believes in the potential of Haiti and its people. She believes there is hope for this tiny beleaguered nation, admitting that she’s an optimist who can find the silver lining in any situation—even in E. coli, cholera, hurricanes and earthquakes.
“If I couldn’t see the silver lining in things, I probably wouldn’t be working in Haiti,” she said.