When the Saints Go Marching In: The Life and Times of Jeanne Fourrier

By Connie Barnard

When the Saints Go Marching In: The Life and Times of Jeanne Fourrier

Local dentist Jeanne Fourrier would assure you she is no saint. The only saints she knows wear Super Bowl rings and gold fleurs de lis on their football jerseys. Thousands, however, know first-hand there is another Louisiana saint living among us on the Carolina Coast, one her good friend Marnie Heck refers to as “the Mother Teresa of the United States.”

By birthright, with her ancient Creole pedigree and classic French beauty, Fourrier should be enjoying a life of ease close to her large extended family in Baton Rouge, where everyone knows her name – and how to pronounce it. She could have chosen a cushy major while at LSU, married the day after graduation, and spent the next 20 years lolling around the pool. She chose instead to become a dentist. While a student at LSU Dental School in New Orleans, Jeanne crossed paths with med school student Jeff Eggert, her old high school flame. Though she was engaged, Jeanne and Jeff fell in love, married and never looked back. Together the couple completed residencies, took initial staff positions, and 1982 settled in Myrtle Beach. Jeanne opened a private periodontal practice in Georgetown and Surfside. A few years later, Jeff moved his OB-GYN practice to an office building adjacent to Jeanne’s on Glenns Bay Road. They have enjoyed a rich full life and raised three extraordinary children: Daniel graduated from the USC School of Medicine and is currently a neurosurgery resident at LSU. While in medical school he started a non-profit organization to support a children’s burn unit in Bolivia. Elise graduated from Harvard and currently works as an undergraduate admissions office there while completing a Masters in Educational Policy. Laurence is a math and physics major at Wake Forest with an interest in cutting edge medical research, perhaps in dentistry. When asked about her family, however, Jeanne will tell you she has seven children, not three – one more exciting chapter in the life and times of Jeanne Fourrier.

In 1996 Fourrier visited All Saints Church in Pawleys Island to hear Father Tommy “TJ” Johnston share his story about the Anglican Church’s mission in Haiti and the desperate needs of the people there. Deeply touched, Jeanne went up to him after the service and said, “I am a dentist. If I can help in any way, let me know.” Little did she realize the lifelong impact those words would have on her, on hundreds of volunteers she would recruit and thousands of undernourished children on a tiny forsaken island.

Almost immediately Rev. Johnston contacted Fourrier about forming a medical/dental mission team to go to Haiti. “I was very nervous about it,” she said. “I knew enough about Haiti to recognize the inherent risks, both for myself and for anyone I brought along.” In addition, she had a thriving dental practice and a busy, growing family. A deeply spiritual woman, she also felt a powerful pull to go to Haiti. The young priest continued to call. Meanwhile Jeanne discussed her dilemma on early morning walks with her neighbor, Wanda Howard. Finally, she said, “Okay. Here is the deal: If God wants me to do this, I need a sign – a clear, irrefutable message, and I want it in writing!”

The next morning her neighbor greeted her by saying, “Okay Jeanne, it’s time to pack your bags. You are going to Haiti.” Wanda had asked her children to check their daily prayer calendar, and on that day, May 28, 1996, there was a picture of a tooth and the message: “God bless dentists who to go poor countries to fix children’s teeth.” She tore the page off the calendar and handed it to Jeanne. Be careful what you ask for: ready or not, she was going to Haiti.

A few weeks, later Jeanne and Myrtle Beach oral surgeon Ed Eckert arrived on the island of La Gonave, Haiti. Nothing could have prepared them for what they saw. There was no water, no electricity, no food, no medical equipment. Jeanne broke down and cried, “I cannot do this. It is too much. There is too little.” Then a beautiful little naked boy walked up. He smiled and held out his hand to her. Jeanne took it, looked toward the open sky and said, “Okay, maybe I can.” She and Ed began extracting teeth and performing oral surgery outdoors from improvised cane-backed chairs, the beginning of Jeanne Fourrier’s lifelong commitment to the children of Haiti.

As with most true miracles, it was neither quick nor easy but one that re-invented itself time and again. While on a study trip to Cartegena, Columbia, Jeanne shared her Haiti experience with a dentist who advised her that prevention is critical for patients like these. In isolated areas people can die of complications from a tooth abscess. Providentially, shortly after her return, Clark Wyly, an area sales rep from Colgate walked into Jeanne’s dental office and said, “I heard you are doing mission work. Can you use any fluoride treatments? I have several thousand in my garage.” Since that day the Colgate Company has continued to provide Haitian children with tooth brushes, toothpaste and fluoride which they keep in zip lock bags at their thatched hut schools where teachers supervise oral hygiene. Fifteen years later, tooth decay among children on the island has decreased 50%.

Since her first journey, Jeanne has returned almost every year with a group of volunteers from as far away as Washington State and as close as Conway. Some are experienced; others are not, but all share the common desire to help “the least of these, our brothers.” They load medical, dental, and sometimes veterinary equipment on jeeps and drive into the back country, then often re-load everything (including operating tables) on the backs of burros for the final climb to isolated families. Volunteers use Frisbees as medical trays for administering fluoride. They experience incredibly long days doing work that is both physically and emotionally challenging. Yet the most common shared memory among volunteers is the gentleness and gratitude of the Haitian people. One said, “We were out in the boon docks with no electricity and no running water. Yet these are happy people who love to sing. They ask for little and are grateful for anything.”

Perhaps the most life-changing aspect of Jeanne’s experience in Haiti came through her friendship with Anglican priest, Pere Fritz Valdema, and his wife, Carmel, who have dedicated their lives to changing the face and the future of their country. Long before last year’s earthquake, children were starving all over Haiti. It was common to see a beautiful ebony-skinned child whose hair had turned blond from lack of protein. Regular food will kill a person at this stage of starvation. Through Global Health Action training, Carmel developed a way to grind just the right mix of nutrients into a powder which can be mixed with water. One pound bag costs about $10 and can feed a child for a month. Because 70% of Haiti is illiterate, Carmel turned directions for the life-saving mixture into a happy song they can easily remember. She says, “The way out of poverty is education, but a child cannot learn if he is starving.”

Over time the Valdemas became like Jeanne’s extended family. In 2004, during a time of extreme political unrest, Carmel shared her concerns regarding her children’s safety and bleak educational opportunities in her country. Jeanne threw herself into finding a way for the two older siblings to attend school in the States. Again and again she ran into roadblocks until one day her son Laurence looked at her and said, “Mom, it’s so simple. Let them live with us.” And so it was. Pierrot and Nathalie Valdema came to live with Jeanne’s family in Myrtle Beach and enrolled in Socastee High School where the Eggert kids were students in the IB program. It was a life-changing experience for all involved, including the staff and students at Socastee who continue to hold a fund-raiser each year for Pere Val’s schools in Haiti. Dr. Paul Browning, the school’s principal and strong supporter says, “People need to be taught to give back.”

On December 11, 2010, Nathalie graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a 3.85 GPA. She is currently applying to medical school. Pierrot is completing coursework at CCU in computer science. Both plan to return to help their country. In January, 2010, Haiti’s paralyzing earthquake struck, and the barely functioning country lost all semblance of normalcy. Once again, Jeanne and her family opened their arms and their home, this time to the Valdemas’ twins, Dominique and Donald. They became Jeanne’s sixth and seventh children in what Marnie Heck describes as Fourrier’s personal version of The Blind Side.

Looking back over the last 15 years, Jeanne says, “If I knew then what I know now, I am not sure I could do it.” Day by day, inch by inch, however, she and her bands of angels have achieved miracles. Their work will never be complete. A year after the earthquake, secondary schools have not re-opened and two million people are still living in tents. Beyond disease and devastating natural disasters, Haiti struggles against poverty, illiteracy and corruption which threaten its survival but never the spirit of its people. “The Haitians are happy people,” Fourrier says. “They are materially poor but spiritually rich. We in America tend to be just the opposite. Family and faith mean everything to them. We could and should learn from them.”

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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4 Responses to “When the Saints Go Marching In: The Life and Times of Jeanne Fourrier”

  1. Laura Claverie says:

    It is impossible to read about Jeanne’s life and not be moved to tears. It is a privilege to know Jeanne. She inspires all of us to do more, give more, believe more. Thank you Jeanne, for all you have given to and done for others. I am proud to call you my friend, for nearly 40 years. Much love and admiration, Laura

  2. Louis Lefebvre says:

    I have known Jeanne Fourier most of her life. We were long time neighbors in Baton Rouge. I knew that she was doing “volunteer work” in Haiti, but this wonderful article brought it to me in close focus. My esteem for Jeanne has always been high, but the work that she is doing brings great emotion to me. She is a one-of-a-kind lady!
    Love
    Louis Lefebvre

    • jeanne says:

      just read this sweet note. thanks for being my friend. even though time and distance separates us. i still feel you are at my back door..many blessings

  3. Susan Zoller says:

    This article shows you to be the person I have always known you to be. The very best to you and Jeff.

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