HIV in Bahia Azul
“Turning a ‘No’ Into a ‘Yes’–How To Adapt Your Mission For Success When Conditions Change”
Blog by Volunteer Doctor Jordan Amor-Robertson, MD (Pediatrics; Australia)
On my last weekend with the Floating Doctors a multiday clinic was scheduled in Bahia Azul (Bluefields), a Ngobe village which is on the mainland, however is only accessible by sea. We were fortunate enough to have some rather impressive friends (JP, a doctor, and Marie, a dietician) with a rather impressive boat called ‘Domino’ who invited us aboard for the journey. We even managed to fit in a spot of fishing along the way, reeling a couple of decent sized tuna, with the first fish-catcher (luckily not me) being required to eat the tuna’s still beating heart!
We had initially planned to run the weekend as a standard primary health clinic, as well as going house-to-house conducting a survey at the request of the community leaders to establish the degree of health knowledge with regards to HIV/AIDS, risk factors of the individuals and to perform clinical screening examinations for any features suspicious for AIDs. Unfortunately, shortly after our arrival, we received word that our application to practice medicine in Bocas had finally reached the national Ministry for Health and, whilst we had been granted approval to run clinics by both the local and state health ministries over a year earlier, we were advised that we were to suspend all clinical operations until such time as we managed to clear the required bureaucratic hurdles.
Now this posed a problem. The local Peace Corps Worker had invested a lot of time spreading the word to the community that we would be coming to do a clinic and laying the foundations for our HIV surveys. How could we now explain to people that yes, we had arrived in Bahia Azul, but actually no, we would not be doing a clinic. And, even worse, how could we possibly turn away the sick patients that would undoubtedly present for treatment? Do we turn-tail and commence the 4 hour boat ride back home straight away?
As it turned out, this was not the disaster it first appeared to be, but rather an opportunity in disguise. After a hurried brainstorming session, the decision was made to host a ‘charla’ or discussion and to share a lunch with the community. This would give us a rare opportunity to develop the Public Health aspect of our operations, something that is an important long-term focus for the Floating Doctors, however is often put aside somewhat during a multiday, in the face of a hectic clinical work-load.
We split into groups of 3 or 4, heading off in different directions in an attempt to reach as many families as possible to advise them of this unexpected change of plans (and to invite them to lunch!) A casual stroll through the jungle, thought I, on this glorious tropical day. Appointed our trusty guide, a young Ngobe boy who wants to be a teacher one day, Jenny, Lorie and I set off into the jungle, stopping at each dwelling along the way. We were welcomed into homes where we were given gifts of shells, bananas and guayaba and I even managed to fit in a little shopping along the way – in the form of a colourful traditional handwoven bag.
Unfortunately Lorie had difficulty negotiating the first major hurdle – a dauntingly steep and slippery hill – and parted ways with Jenny and I. I later learned that Lorie, in true Lorie fashion, had befriended the occupants of the house at the bottom of the hill (despite speaking minimal Spanish) and spent the morning engaging them in songs and colouring-in sessions.
Meanwhile, back on the jungle trail, Jenny and I were feeling increasingly like intrepid explorers, ducking under vines, clambering over rocks, leaping over puddles. And then it got real! Our guide ushered us into a kayuke (a traditional dug-out canoe), making sure that the inexperienced gringas were carefully balanced to avoid capsizing, and started paddling up through a mangrove river. We arrived at our…destination? A patch of muddy mangrove ground, indistinguishable from the other patches of muddy mangrove ground we had passed along the way. Apparently this was the only way to access the next lot of houses up on the hill that lead around the bay.
I stepped out of the kayuke tentatively, immediately realizing that my trusty Aussie thongs (or flip-flops as the rest of the world seems to call them) were grossly inadequate for this kind of terrain, losing both in the mud at the very first step. So shoes off it was, and I set off, barefoot, through the mangrove mud, as the crabs and miscellaneous other creep-crawlies scuttled out of the way. Now this is not the ideal way to greet strangers; barefoot, sweaty, mud up to the knees (and splattered even higher as a result of various misadventures), but still the matriarch of the next house greeted us warmly, offered us water to wash out feet and proudly showed us her garden.
And so this continued, from one house to the next, until it was time to return to the centre of the village for the Charla and the delicious lunch that the village women had prepared from our supplies. And, as exciting and memorable as the morning had been, this is the moment that all our efforts came together. After a brief introduction we opened the floor to the community, encouraging them to identify their key health concerns, common issues in the community and things that they would like to learn more about.
The session ran better than we could possibly have hoped! With a very good showing from the community (we filled a whole classroom and many more peered in through the windows), and an even representation of both men and women, everyone was granted the opportunity to have their say. Quickly the conversation turned to the topic of HIV, something that we knew the community were concerned about, however we were not sure whether they would be keen to talk about such sensitive matters in the public forum.
Much to our delight both men and women stood up and spoke openly and frankly on what they knew about HIV, giving us the opportunity to dispel a few myths and to outline the basic facts about disease transmission, progression, symptoms, treatment and, most importantly, prevention strategies. As one older Ngobe woman pointed out to me – topics of sex and sexual health were traditionally taboo, however now the discussions are too important to be avoided. For the sake of the health of her children she wanted to make sure they were educated on such matters so that they would know how to protect themselves.
Rather than being upset or annoyed that we were, on this occasion, unable to provide the primary health care services that are so needed, and so inaccessible to the people of Bahia Azul, they were excited to have the opportunity to discuss the key health concerns of the community, knowing that this would help the Floating Doctors and the local community to work together better in the future. That weekend was just the beginning – on subsequent visits to Bahia Azul the Floating Doctors intend to have ongoing conversations with the community about what they want and ongoing Public Health Education sessions. We are also hoping to do some capacity building with the local parteras (midwives) and other interested members of the community, many of whom have already nominated themselves as wanting to up-skill in basic health care so that they can act as Community Health Workers, allowing for a permanent health-care presence in the community.
That particular weekend was special, but it was in no way unique. During my time with the Floating Doctors there were countless occasions where we had the opportunity to engage with the local community, working with them and for them, to enact change and to begin establishing grass-roots health initiatives. I returned to my home in Australia revitalised and inspired, already planning my next stint in Panama with the Floating Doctors and the Ngobe communities of Bocas Del Toro.