Having known Kariné and Dr.Ben for many years, and seeing how passionate they are about their work, I jumped at the chance to volunteer in Panama, and experience the Ngäbe-Bugle communities Floating Doctors serves with such steadfast dedication. My journey took me from the glittering skyline of Los Angeles to the lush green rainforests scattered across the archipelago that makes up Bocas Del Toro province. Teeming with wildlife and mystery, these islands inspire both awe and a healthy respect for the potential dangers that abound in an area so remote from the resources and safety nets of developed areas.
This need for self-reliance creates an unprecedented atmosphere of teamwork and camaraderie between the volunteers and the Ngäbe-Bugle communities, and I was continually impressed by how incredibly patient and considerate all participants were. Whether slicing across choppy straits in our small motorboats or making sure we maintained meticulous records for the follow up care of our patients in the Ngäbe-Bugle communities, we all had to remain alert and rely on each other for our wellbeing.
Every day was an adventure, and I gained a deeper appreciation for Floating Doctors after seeing just how much work goes into preparing and setting up remote clinics: careful packing of pharmacy cases and loading of boats, wading through mangrove swamps and carrying heavy equipment through the rainforest, sleeping in hammocks under nets, forgoing everything from electricity to mirrors, bathing in the ocean,and falling asleep to the otherworldly percussion of frogs.
Above all, it was so rewarding to see so many concerned parents and sweet kids receive care by dedicated experts volunteering from all over the world. The delicious food the villagers cooked for us and the intense soccer games didn’t hurt either!
As trust is built between Floating Doctors and the Ngäbe-Bugle communities, more and more people attend clinics, and volunteers skillfully juggle resources to try to help everyone. Accordingly, each consultation would take as long as was needed, and we only packed up our pharmacy cases after the last patient had been seen for the day. Generally, that meant around 80 people were seen every day, and included a pregnant woman enduring complications, a boy who needed an insect extracted from his ear, and a man receiving a long-awaited prosthetic leg. I was incredibly privileged to be able to witness magical moments such as near-sighted adults finally receiving the gift of glasses and expectant mothers lighting up during their ultrasound upon learning the sex and health of their baby. All of this, plus incredibly crucial preventive care, contribute to providing the only source of support for communities in which childhood fevers or small wounds might otherwise become life-threatening.
On an excursion to a stunning blue lagoon with the volunteers, Dr.Ben remarked on how incredibly beautiful this paradise is, yet when something goes wrong it has the potential to spiral out of control due to lack of resources. Little did I know how prescient his words were, and that within a couple of hours, I would find out what it was like to be on the receiving end of Floating Doctors’ care.
That day was my first time driving an ATV, and with Kariné as my passenger, we were having an exhilarating time in the golden afternoon sunlight, flying past the surfers on the turquoise waves. Suddenly, I took a turn too fast and we launched over a fallen tree trunk and into a panicked oblivion.
We regained consciousness in the sand, the ATV upside down and seemingly distant shouts in Spanish and English made even more surreal by time dilation and disorientation. I was waking up into everyone’s worst nightmare; a hurt loved one before me, crying out in pain, and me powerless to help her. The horror, the helplessness. The sickening fear in that aftermath is something I will never forget, a bottomless pit opening up within me as I feared the worst. And I will always remember the miraculous waves of relief washing over us both when, on the horizon, the doctors and nurses of Floating Doctors appeared and rushed over. They surrounded us with their assured presence; preventing us from going into shock, checking to see if we had broken bones, making sure our wounds were washed. Words cannot express my gratitude for the way that from the moment they arrived, we were safe and on the path to recovery.
Having experienced that agonizing fear and helplessness firsthand, for a dazed few minutes that were the longest of my life; I can only imagine the suffering felt by someone without any help at all. Thinking of a mother’s desperate worry for her child after an accident or during a feverish sickness, staying awake all night and all day, willing them back to health with love and pleas but unable to do much else.
When communities and families lack the resources to prevent further complications from accidents or disease, preventable tragedies become an agonizing fact of life. Injuries can escalate into amputation or worse, preventable childhood fevers can progress to wreak havoc in a child’s heart and cruelly cut their life short.
The gift that Floating Doctors brings to so many people is unquantifiable; the gift of security, of being able to help a loved one in need, of a greatly improved quality of life, of many more years and meaningful moments on Earth with loved ones. This greatest of all gifts is only possible thanks to you, and your willingness to reach out through donations of funds, time, advice, and encouragement. Together we are making a real difference, one life at a time.
Written by: Genie Melisande
Photos by: Genie Melisande