There comes a time in any journey, when initial prejudices have been shed and before nostalgia settles, when one can see things as they are. I spent the month of October working with Floating Doctors, and for me that moment came while traveling from Bocas town to Kusapin on the panga, the group’s small run-about boat. Ben was at the helm. Tall Greg was at the bow intently listening to a book on tape. Little Greg had claimed the good seat, a plastic chair. I was lying on my back, mid-boat, reading about three men adrift in a tiny raft after their plane crashed in the Pacific ocean. It had been a still and shining morning, but when the sky turned dark I sat up to watch the sea, slightly concerned we might become like the characters in my book. I was more afraid that the increasing wave size would mean we’d have to turn around and I wouldn’t get to visit the fabled Kusapin.
I had extended my time in Panama in order to do one more mobile clinic: five days in Kusapin, a large Ngabe-Bugle community situated at the end of a peninsula jutting out from the mainland and accessible only by boat, a 3-hour ride from our Bocas base. Due to inevitable developing world delays the clinic had been postponed, and because it is not possible just to send a memo, we had to go in person to relay the news. Which is what we were doing when, watching the coast slip by, I had my moment. Being rather simpleminded, my epiphany was not exactly fireworks. It went like this: This is good.
In the preceding weeks I’d fretted over how I was practicing medicine in the clinics we held. I am accustomed to fully
equipped emergency rooms, the latest technology and medications at my fingertips. At home I check diagrams, doses and drug interactions on my phone, then I recheck them on the computer. I call the neurologist, the urologist, the hematologist. I go the radiologist reading room for further explanation, repeat labs, and have my patients come back for 24-hour follow-up visits. I was not always so neurotic. Prior to studying medicine I had dropped out of university, a few times. I’d worked on dive boats, monitored chimpanzees on an island in Lake Victoria, studied Indonesian in Oregon, called a horse-trailer home. I’d worked for a newspaper in Austria until I quit in order to climb. Then I traipsed around central Africa and worked for magazines. My shining minute was performing at the New York Metropolitan Opera. I rode a horse across the stage, which, although less than 30 seconds in the spotlight, would have been brilliant had I not been forbidden to open my mouth. Despite being tone deaf, I really wanted to sing.
The more we engage with the world the more it makes us want to sing, and the more it breaks our heart. At some point I realized it wasn’t enough to dance around stealing stories. I decided I must do more, it was time to become… something. Medicine seemed a good something, so despite the fact that I didn’t know the difference between an organ and a hormone, I applied to Cornell Medical School’s PA Program in New York City. My application was about how I would return with a skill to the places I’d been where there was a lack of even the most basic health care. I wanted to be able to offer something solid to the people who had so graciously welcomed me into their homes and lives. I wrote my essays about malnourishment, malaria, child mortality.
The next couple of years were spent stressing about microbes and molecules and mundane things like exams. Then came the humiliating experience of clinical rotations. There was the New York-Presbyterian cardiologist who interrupted me as I waffled through an EKG interpretation: “I’m a bullshitter too, Antoszewski! But this is someone’s heart you are assessing so I advise you get it right.” To this day, despite having now practiced medicine for six years, I’m haunted and inspired by those great doctors and nurses who taught me accountability. What test have you forgotten Claire? What question are you not asking? I learned responsibility. I also learned fear. It is one thing to play with our own lives, but someone else’s life… First do no harm.
Yet here I was, in remote Panama, seeing patients, not in a white coat but surf shorts, relying often only on hands
and stethoscope. I was handing out puppies instead of pain killers, prescribing antibiotics without the benefit of cultures, assessing limbs and lungs without imaging. There were parrots on the examining tables for crying out loud. I was very happy. I was also rather uneasy. Is it better to do something, even if that something is imperfect, rather than do nothing? I banged my head against this question, turned it over and over in my mind and in conversations. But what if we do harm by not believing in our dreams, by not putting them into action?
Floating Doctors dispenses soap, toothbrushes and vitamins at every clinic. This is a good thing. In the communities we visit worms are rampant leading to dehydration, malnutrition and other complications. The worms can be eradicated with one dose of the medication albendazole. Also very good! The Ngabe think the free eyeglasses are great. Education about water purification, nutrition, and sexually transmitted diseases is desperately needed as the modern world encroaches on even the most isolated peoples. And whether or not there is a hospital, there are always sick people. Should a tumor be ignored because there is not an operating room one floor above us? May be in the over developed word we rely too much on technology. Certainly I have often balked at scanning the head of a child who took a small tumble. A CT scan of the head is equivalent in radiation to roughly 100 chest x-rays, and studies show an increase in the risk of cancers secondary to medical radiation. When I quote this as reason for observing instead of scanning I am asked to imagine what the prosecuting attorney will say in court if the child has an intracranial bleed. There is a trend in the United States to practice medicine defensively. This is not necessarily good. I suppose wherever we work there is room for improvement, and we are constantly weighing the good against the bad.
Like many of those who practice medicine in the world’s neglected places, the Floating Doctors do not have the luxury of MRIs, there is no lab, no specialists waiting at the end of a pager. Where we practice we go on small boats, skinny ponies, our own feet. The donated medicines are carried in plastic bins. But the patients are the same whether seen in a city hospital, a private doctor’s office or during a home visit to a thatched-roof hut in the forest. They have a pain, a concern, or a question they need someone to address. They are pregnant and worried about the baby. They have headaches, constipation, wounds that wont heal. They have a child who is not eating. They have a child who faints. The child who faints has a hole in his heart. Whether or not we listen to the heart doesn’t change the hole. But because he listens Ben can put in motion the steps it will take to get the boy the surgery he needs, and that changes everything.
All of this I thought about, or rather I felt, as we bounced along in the panga that day. The dark had become a storm and the storm drove us to seek shelter on an uninhabited island. Ben drew a diagram in the sand with a stick, made squiggles to show the currents, more lines to denote wind, and an indentation to represent where the ocean floor sloped. Basically, given the conditions it was not safe to make the ocean crossing to Kusapin in our small open boat with its one outboard engine. We had to turn around. I was more subdued on the ride home, but the panga’s loud engine precludes conversation and the sea and salt are conducive to contemplation. I felt a quietening of the questions. My pendulum has had a wide arc, but with Floating Doctors I seemed to be finding a balance. I was remembering why I wanted to study medicine in the first place. It is important to doubt. But we do ourselves and the world a disservice if we forget that shining, elusive something called faith, or hope, or may be just a better tomorrow. After we tied up the panga that evening, Ben said, “Well, we’ll try again tomorrow.” I took a hot shower, and curled up in a hammock to finish my book. Against all odds, having lost everything including the clothes on their backs because the raft capsized again and again and again… the three men were rescued after 34 days at sea.