July 29, 2012
Blog by Las Tablas Peace Corps Volunteer Doug Martin
Sometimes, early in the morning, the mist from overnight rain storms envelopes the town and hides her from outsiders. Sometimes the murky brown waters of the Sixaola River creep higher and higher until they stumble up and over the only road into and out of town. Its a place to get lost, a place to start over.
La empresa showed up one day, years back. They brought complex irrigation systems, John Deere tractors, and an airplane. The menacing drone of diesel fuel combusting hundreds of feet high shakes the town from her slumber. The cool evening breeze carried the seductive whisper of modernity; the people from the mountain came down.
For three days in July, sister Sky and brother Dr. Ben LaBrot and the volunteer group they head
offered free medical care to the communities of Las Tablas and Barranco Adentro. One can see in the hour long queues that the service their group Floating Doctors provides is desperately needed.
Their volunteer medical professionals work hard. Long days start when the rooster crows and often don’t end until after the sun has long settled behind the mountains. They sleep in hammocks strung up over cement walls, on sleeping pads strewn out over the floor, under mosquito nets. On Saturday the baseball game doesn’t end until two in the morning. Neither does the blaring reggaeton coming from the trunks of several baseball fanatics cars. But they never complain.
Many people here do not have access to medical care. There exist several barriers – cost, culture, language – that have kept the people from the mountain out of a doctors office. The Floating Doctors work to remove these barriers, and not just by providing medical care free of cost. Dr. Ben is a leader by example, and his volunteers all show a genuine sensitivity and interest in the diverse culture of the indigenous groups that they attend. He also converses in Spanish after spending time in Honduras and Panama, and might accidentally greet you in the Creole French that he picked up in Haiti.
The end to each of their three multi day mobile health clinics has been bittersweet. Imagine being the captain of a sinking cruise ship with only one life boat. Mothers weeping to include their sons and daughters. Adult children pleading for their elderly parents. An uncomfortable undertone, asking “what more could we have done?” often lingers after the last patient has gone.
Somewhere beyond the mountains to the north there are children grown fat from too much and too many. Here the children’s bulging bellies speak not to a fast food diet and cable television but to malnutrition and constant parasites. What response quells the crying eyes of a six month old child, forgotten by the world and unable to access the most basic and fundamental care that he so desperately needs?
Fortunately, the Floating Doctors are continuing to grow. The most recent clinic expanded its offerings to both the thirty five hundred people living in Las Tablas and for the first time to another one thousand living in Barranco Adentro. The life raft is getting bigger, better stocked, and more efficient.
“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.
Blog by Volunteer Doctor Jesus Niebla, MD (United Kingdom)
I am a man who before this trip was scared (well I’d say apprehensive) of heights, mountain paths with sheer drops and free running river crossings.
I was not too fond of thunderstorms either.
In the early hours of the 16th of July I set off with the Floating Doctors on a surgical follow-up appointment. In the UK its normal for the patient to come to the hospital, wait an hour or so and get seen by the surgeon who operated on them, then go home. This appointment was different, we went to them, that’s the fundamental difference in our mission.
But when I say ‘We went to them,” what exactly do those few words mean? We took a high-speed water taxi from 25 miles from Bocas to Almirante on the mainland–it takes about 35 minutes bouncing and thudding through the sea. From Almirante we bundle our way into a taxi, pick up some supplies (water, tuna, rice, condensed milk, Gatorade and the important Panamanian Hot sauce). It takes about an hour to sliver up the shoulder of this mountain motor-way to our first base camp. The scenery is lush, I’m pretty tired from the early rise, but I stil take some time to enjoy it while my team-mates sleep (a wise choice with what was ahead of us).
Eventually we get to our base camp, Pueblo Nuevo. It’s the rendez-vous with our guides and pack horses. We charge up on some rice, chicken and the tastiest avocado I’ve set my hands on. We meet our guides and horses to help take the heavier loads; they ride ahead. The horses effortlessly cut through the path ahead–they go first as they scare any snakes or nasty surprises away. They pick their way up the steep climbs with practiced ease; its what they do almost every day and they know the way better than we do. We find ourselves walking on a parallel and tricky path, crossing an Indiana Jones style bridge (except we’re not surrounded by bad guys and its in fairly good shape, although the odd broken panel wasn’t too reassuring).
We make our ascent, climbing up and walking down the steep- clay-brown-well beaten tracks, but this didn’t make them easier. Our guides soared up the tracks with embarrassing casualness.
In-between the sweat, heat, humidity, knee-deep mud baths, sheer drops and snake shaped branches there was a different assault of the senses, a real appreciation of the beauty of this place. Our path dissected fields through flowing rivers, to the butterflies that garnished the clear, blue-sapphire sky above us. It felt like scenery that was the mostly an inspiration of the Steven Spielberg classic Jurassic Park. At every bend in the trail I expected to see a Tyrannosaurus.
Four hours later, sore legs and sweat soaked we make our 2nd base camp of the trip. La Savana, “The Grasslands” and such an aptly named place. We try and rehydrate and rest, an hour or so passes, and too soon it’s time to find and see our patient. We head off again, although this time only for an hour; I’m relieved at this small amount of time, but the path is much different. It was such a steep incline compared to the other paths. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of the trip, the dehydration, missing the most important meal of the day (breakfast; I know, schoolboy error), but I think I must have hit the wall as soon as I reached the house where our patient lived. Luckily Ben had a Gatorade, it made such a difference.
This didn’t matter, the fact our patient was pretty much running down the hillside to meet us. His actions and motion answered so many of our questions effortlessly. He was fine, he pulled off his wellington, the amputated toe we came to see had healed nicely. There were no signs of infections and the skin flaps were opposed nicely. There were no problems with his balance or ability to continue with his daily routine, although I expect he is a bit more cautious with his machete.
So we made our way back down to Las Savana, make a few house calls on the way (including ANOTHER machete wound), see some patients with pulmonary TB (surprisingly a clear chest on auscultation). We bump into some National Health workers and have positive interactions regarding sharing the responsibility for the medical treatment of the patients with TB.
Eventually we settle back to our camp, have an impromptu clinic under the village’s rancho and soon meet a 6 year old boy with a tricky problem. His father mentions he has a piece of maize in his ear. Ben attempts to extract it, but we just didn’t have small enough tools (my first Job is ENT; I’ll see if I can borrow a set next time). One part of Floating Doctors’ mission is to bring healthcare to patients, if this can’t be done we bring the patient to healthcare. That is exactly what we decided to do–help with the transfer of this young patient and his father to the local hospital. This would normally mean a good 4 hour walk, a few bus trips and perhaps a taxi, so we would accompany them and cover the cost of travel and any medical fees.
The next morning we set off down the mountain with the corn-in-the-ear boy and his father, thinking that descending it would be a little easier. The horses have the heavy loads and we are pretty much on a continuous descent. We still cross the same rivers, and there a few steep sections, but the sun is a lot kinder than on the way up.
A few hours into our walk back it starts to rain, at first a welcome change. We progress, but the rain doesn’t stop–instead it intensifies; the heavens have opened above us. It doesn’t take long for the well-trodden path to become a quagmire. Now it’s a like playing hotch-scotch, planting one’s feet on anything that isn’t the centre of the path otherwise you’re the stick in the mud–a knee-deep mud bath. The downpour also makes the river crossings a tad trickier, as the water level rose significantly in less than 20 minutes.
I am all up for a bit of a challenge, the mud isn’t too bad, we all get used to it, but it saps one’s energy. There is the odd fall, but nothing too serious to anything other than pride. The quagmire now turns into small rivers of chocolate-milk-mud, and then the heavens open a little bit more and decided to spice things up. A thunderstorm starts, we are about 1-2 miles from Pueblo Nuevo, and the more we walk through the jungle trenches the smaller the gap between seeing the lightning above and around us in the canopy and the sound of thunder. We are walking into the eye of the storm. The pace and urgency naturally pick ups, each snap of thunder signals a small sprint for me, then a lull, a sense of dread and then back to a fast march.
An opening is ahead of us, not only are we void of the “protective” jungle canopy but we have to ascendand cross a high, open hill. I recall saying to Ben and Steve we have to clear this ASAP. All the pain, muscle ache and fatigue from the last and current day of trekking for miles of tricky terrain and river crossing all disappeared, the adrenaline was released with a mighty crash of thunder directly above us and and fight-or-flight chemicals coursed through my arteries and veins…. I sprinted up the hill, I slipped on the muddy slope, I got up. I am on my hands and knees trying to get up this hillside as quickly as possible. The desire to get over this death-trap is like nothing I have experienced before. I crest the hill and slide down on my backside, it looked inviting but a few stones and rocks proved otherwise on the way down.
Only a small stretch of jungle is left, and at last we step onto a concrete path that signals our re-entry into Pueblo Nuevo. Stumbling our way through the village back to the shop where we had eaten before making our ascent on the mountain path. To my amazement the town is bustling with Ngabe who have come down from the mountains to place their vote in the general elections, tightly packed under the tin roofs of the local school to shelter from the storm. It gets more ridiculous–there is a local football match ( Soccer) in the football pitch, at the centre of the school. I make a comment to Steve ‘How could the officials allow this match to be played, the pitch is waterlogged”, the players showed no concern of playing in the middle of a lightning storm…until a lightning bolt hits the ground 30 yards from them…then they scarper like they should have 90 minutes before.
We take a short break from the downpour, under the overhanging roof of a house, and the pain starts to re-defuse through my feet and is interrupted only by the thunder and crash of another lightening strike; this one shrieks and booms onto someone’s roof near by. Unfortunately this is followed by cries and panic. The message got passed through the crowed…shouting that someone had been struck by the lightning.
I turn to Ben; “Let’s go check it out”. We now make our way to two houses about 50 yards apart. These houses are elevated about 2 meters off the ground on wooden stilts. Underneath we meet a ring of 200+ people crowding around an 18 year-old Ngabe woman, crying and in obvious distress. Ben checks her out and she seems ok, just in shock (literally) and hyperventilating with some muscle spasms and pain. As we calm her we here cries of two more lightning-struck victims.
I sprint over to the other house (trying to avoid being hit by the continuous lightning attacks), but she is in another house–apparently they were inside when they got struck through the thatched roof. The crowd surround my patient; they eclipse my light; I can’t see. A few choice words and they let the light in.
I notice that her abdomen is distended. This lady is pregnant, 8 months pregnant. My adrenal glands squeeze their last drop of adrenaline. The baby!
She isn’t saying much; visibly shocked, dazed. So I’m thinking to myself, what do I do, its time to get this woman assessed as best we can and transport to hospital. ABCDE, it all comes back. Her airway is good, she is breathing, her lungs are clear, equal air entry. She is pulse is slightly elevated, with a normal character and volume. Heart sounds are normal. She seems a bit dazed, but is responsive. Phew! I notice she has a zig-zag burn starting on her right scapular, working it way down her back to about L5. Presumably the energy dissipated through her feet as she was complaining of severe tenderness in her ankles.
The third patient was a man who had been struck and hurled ten feet across the grass, and wasn’t able to move his arm. I was worried about compartment syndrome, another condition requiring a speedy intervention.
We needed to get the patients transported to hospital as soon as possible for a full review and appropriate investigations, in particular an ultrasound of the 8-month pregnancy. Practically this would mean hailing down a taxi on the jungle highway, or maybe a bus. Fortunately for everyone, this challenge was made much easier as we met some police officers who were able to drive us in a safe and speedy manner to the nearest Hospital in Rambala, a town some miles down the road from Pueblo Nuevo.
How the story ended…
The little boy with a piece of corn in his ear was admitted and had it removed under a general anaesthetic.
The two sisters who had been struck by lightning were both ok and thankfully so was the baby (although perhaps it will be born with super powers).
The man did not have compartment syndrome and eventually regained arm function.
Soaking wet, tired, feet-blistered, hungry and drained we sat outside the hospital and I realized this is what it takes to provide healthcare to these remote communities. On the long taxi ride back (in clear weather at last), and on the water-taxi back to Bocas in the deepening evening, the fear is now replaced with the drive to help these communities further. After a couple of hours of travelling we arrive back in Bocas del Toro absolutely devastated with exhaustion and satisfaction…and I realize this is just another day for the Floating Doctors.
I’m coming back.
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