by Jill Patel
Jill Patel joined us as initially as a global health student in the summer of 2018, and has been working on a research project focused on mental health within the Ngäbe-Buglé population. She will continue to work on Phase I of the project both in Panama and in the US through the Fall. Keep reading to know more about her initial time spent in Bocas, and be sure to check back in a few months with an update on her research!
Note: Written in summer 2018- future dates noted reference 2019
Words cannot begin to justify my experience in Bocas del Toro this summer with Floating Doctors. What I thought would be a simple medical mission trip turned into a life changing opportunity that has inspired my new path to global medicine. From the outside, I saw a beautiful landscape filled with lush green trees, tall mountains, and colorful houses. However, hidden behind this was a community that has daily contact with the jungle, high worm loads, untreated water, latrine sanitation, and wooden huts. Despite this, the Ngäbe-Buglé people welcomed me with open arms—they laughed, cried, and went on an emotional journey with me, never making me feel more or less than they were. I thought I would be helping them improve their health, but they gave me a whole new perspective on life that enriched my physical, mental, and emotional well-being. All of this may seem so abstract and good-to-be-true, and I would have agreed before coming here.
My most memorable and favorite moment was doing a community health project on mental health with children in Cayo de Agua. Nicole and I had brought coloring books and crayons, as well as prepared activities, from breathing exercise to hand-shakes, to teach children how to relieve stress We also created a simple questionnaire to better understand their emotions. Our activity started with five students. I used my broken Spanish, which was surprisingly better than I expected, to introduce myself. As more children joined our activity, our coloring circle grew from 5 to 30 students scattered, around us. Here I quizzed students on what they were coloring to practice my Spanish. The funny part was that I did not know if they were right—I was just asking to expand my Spanish vocabulary. However, I think they soon realized that and possibly taught me some inappropriate words because they kept laughing every time I repeated it—I wish I remembered the word so I could look it up.
This fun quickly turned upside down when I interviewed a five-year old boy. I still quiver every time I think about him. He was very reserved and would not look up at us when we spoke to him. At first, I thought his actions may be driven by socio-cultural factors and thus was common in this community. However, I soon realized that this was not the case. When we asked him what makes him happy, he said nothing, and he does not do anything to make himself feel better. He also told us that “ellos”—everyone—scares him; instinctively, I leaned in to give him a hug. He disclosed that a girl, who was present in the circle, was bullying him at school. My eyes watered up because I was no stranger to bullying myself. I was bullied up until high school for having thick facial hair, not shaving my legs often, and wearing long, oily braids- I know what it feels like to be different and to want to be a normal teenager. Before he left, I told him, “Tú eres muy fuerte y yo soy tu amiga.”
Mental health remains unknown and under-served in the Ngäbe-Buglé community, but the need is very large. From bullying at school to young mothers, children and teenagers are vulnerable to various mental health conditions as they are pushed into adult roles from a very young age. We all have been fearful, anxious, nervous, scared, and traumatized. Unfortunately, these communities lack the resources and support we receive here, and Floating Doctors has taken the initiative to address this issue. In January, a Family Therapist and a PhD candidate will come for a year to examine the mental health statues and needs of the community. I will join this team to further my community-based project in hopes of delivering better tailored care, and I encourage others to join the cause so no child ever has to cope with sadness and fear alone. Whether one is a volunteer, student, or professional, we can all make a difference in our unique ways as long as we have hands to serve, ears to listen, and a passion to help.
From clinic and beyond, I made many new friends and strengthened bonds with others. To continue Floating Doctors’ mission to improve the health of all, my group and I volunteered at Asilo, a nursing home in Bocas town, to address patient’s non-clinical needs—painting their nails, massaging their hands and legs, bringing water. When I entered the nursing home, I was surprised by the conditions of these elders- they were so frail and weak. My eyes watered up as I realized that many of them were either the same age or even older than my grandparents, who I am tremendously attached to. When I asked an elderly woman if she wanted to color or get her nails painted, she reached her hand out. As I held her hand in mine for a couple of minutes, her face relaxed and she closed her eyes. She reminded me of my grandmother, who would hold my hand as she watched TV or laid down because she loved having someone physically close to her. I sat with this woman for a while, just holding her hand without saying a word. This is the true power of a simple touch, something that many people may disregard but is immensely valuable.
Here I also met my new friend, Richard Garret from Queens, New York. I introduced myself and asked how his day was going in Spanish. To my surprise, he responded back in English—another lesson: never assume what one can and cannot do. From Turtle Beach to Summer, he gave me an oral tour of the entire town and listed all the places I should visit. When I asked if he goes to Summer, a dance bar, often, he enthusiastically said yes. Just like me, he loves to dance. We spent the next thirty minutes talking about our passion for dance. I shared with him pictures and stories from my previous dance competitions. Before I left, we took a picture together. He told me to show this photo to my family and tell them that I made a new friend at Bocas. He gave me a hug and told me to come visit him when I come back to town.
The Asilo opened my eyes to the struggles of the elderly in Panama and more significantly, the importance of addressing a patient’s non-clinical needs to provide holistic care. Sometimes medical mission trips get caught up in providing preventive and surgical care but forget that health encompasses much more than the physiological. Floating Doctors is unique and successful because it improves health at the clinical, social, and personal level. And this is what has, is, and will always pull me to Floating Doctors
As my story comes to an end, I want to leave with a final lesson: Dr. La Brot always says that in order to serve, we must learn from those that we serve. No matter how superior my knowledge or skill may be, I can never provide the best service or obtain the best outcome if I do not listen to my patients. While living in an open church and eating with locals in wooden huts at Cayo de Agua, I witnessed the lack of infrastructure and services. But through these activities, I also learned about the community’s lifestyle, needs, and wants. This helped me understand why certain medications and preventions were utilized in situations that we normally wouldn’t in the US. Learning and applying these social, cultural, and economic determinants of health in practice has been a humbling experience. I remain driven by the knowledge that easing the service gap can mean drastic change for neglected populations, which motivates me to continue my path in global and community medicine. I cannot wait to return back in January to help further the Floating Doctors mission! Thank you to Dr. LaBrot and his Floating Doctors’ team, the Ngäbe-Buglé and Asilo communities, and my wonderful colleagues for making this a memorable experience.
By Dr. Kevin Lan, Dental Director
“You can never cross the ocean unless you lose sight of the shore.”
Now more than ever, we face a rising epidemic of dental caries in the teeth of children from the indigenous Ngäbe communities we serve. The combination of their inability to afford basic oral health products such as toothbrushes and toothpaste, poor education, lack of access to healthcare, compounded by a sharp increase in consumption of refined, sugary hot and cold drinks, has resulted in many children with decayed and broken down teeth, especially in their newly developed adult teeth, ones that will not be replaced.
2018 saw the Floating Doctors dental program explore new horizons and greatly increase our services provided to the communities of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. We established our first mobile dental team, held independent dental clinics, provided continuous oral health education and prevention, recorded dental health in the communities for research and we have hosted dental groups from the University of California Santa Barbara and the Dental Humanitarian Outreach Program (DHOP) of the University of Southern California.
14 undergraduate students from UCSB and 3 dentists visited and stayed in the communities of Nance de Risco and Cerro Brujo, where 156 patients were seen and treated. The challenges faced by this team were numerous; it was our first dental only deployment away from the medical team, the first time we had stayed in two communities and worked 4 days consecutively, whilst setting up and packing away our equipment in between both communities and working the same day. The success of this group can only be measured by the amount of hard work put in by our FD staff and the UCSB group where despite being constantly pushed outside of their comfort zones, numerous students embraced the opportunity to learn and be part of a positive life changing experience where they sought to give to those who had less, rather than how their time with us could benefit them.
DHOP held 6 clinic days from the 9th -14th December in Bocas del Toro. A total of 90 dentists, dental students and FD staff, worked tirelessly each day from 7am – 7pm in temperatures above 85°F, providing dental care to over 700 patients from 20 communities in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, where some were transported 3 hours by our boats. The DHOP clinic was a very emotional experience to work alongside such a dedicated, skilled and high spirited group where it was heartwarming to see people from communities that we know, receive high quality advanced dental treatment, like Root Canal Treatment which we could not normally provide when in their community. This is the difference between saving or losing a tooth. I will never forget the family of 4 who had traveled the whole day to attend our clinic, where a 10 year old girl had fallen and broken her upper front teeth 3 weeks ago and required Root Canal Treatment. Due to the required treatment time and inability for this family to return home that day, they were given accommodation as they were unable to afford this themselves. The next day, her father could not express to me without tears in his eyes, how grateful he was for the care and compassion we had shown to his family.
For me, it is not the numbers of patients that we can see that drives our ambition to care for the Ngäbe people, but it is to be present for those who have been forgotten or unable to access healthcare and being able to make one little girl smile again without losing her front teeth. Floating Doctors is proud to host groups like UCSB and DHOP so that we can try and inspire the next generation of healthcare providers to educate and improve the lives of others, so that we can leave our communities and world better than we found it.
Walt Disney once said “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” 2018 saw Floating Doctors take big steps towards continuous and sustainable dental care to the communities we serve. 2019 will see huge development and partnerships being established as our family grows with increasing support from Europe and America. 2020 is still unknown for what the future holds, but I can predict that we will continue to work hard in providing dental care and education for the people in the communities who need our time, compassion and support against the challenges we will face together.
Through the courage of our team and those supporting us, our dreams are not far away from reality.
As the last days of the year draw to an end, I’ve been handed an impossible task.
It is traditional for NGO founders to write a post at the end of the year to summarize the work of the past year and to share with everyone the vision for the year ahead. When I sat down to do so, I momentarily panicked….how can I, in a few words, convey even a small sense of what hard-won achievements by our staff and volunteers this year? We grew from a single team to two medical teams and a dental and veterinary team deploying nearly every week. We launched a surgical program and our veterinary program blossomed. We made many new partnerships and grew our infrastructure, including building a laboratory. We published research. Patients received impossible treatments such as a new heart valve. I could go on and on well into the new year and never do justice to the victories for humanity won by women and men whose names will likely never be known to the world but whose kindness and courage will never, ever be forgotten by the people whose lives they impacted.
People like to lament how there is so much ugliness in the world, and my dad is fond of saying, “Of course there are ugly things in the world. For example, there are people dying of cancer in a hammock hanging under a shack in the jungle, and that is a horrible injustice. But there are also people–total strangers–who will pull that person out from under their house, clean them up and do their best to help them not die in pain and alone. And this is a beautiful thing in the world; an astonishing miracle.”
And it was this taking such personal responsibility for strangers that I watched my team do all year long that really struck me. People talk a lot these days about ‘Global Citizenship’ and ‘Global Leadership’ but I think both of those terms lack something. ‘Global Citizenship’ seems to indicate merely living in the world, passive, and ‘Global Leadership’ smacks of the hubris of knowing better than everyone else what is needed to lead the world to righteousness.
And finally this fall I realized what it was that Floating Doctors inspires in our volunteers, our supporters, our communities, and ourselves–Global STEWARDSHIP: the commitment to stand up and make a better world our own personal responsibility, in whatever ways we can every day. And that may seem like a semantic difference, but I think it is a critical one.
Every evening that I can, I take my daughter (who just turned 1 year old) outside when the sun is setting and hold her to the west and I whisper in her ear. I say to her, ‘Look Aya, the sun is setting. This day is done, and will never come again. There will never be another day like it as long as we live; we can never return and change it. Were we kind and loving today? Were we honest and truthful, with others and with ourselves? Did we work hard? Did we find time for play? Did we find an opportunity to show compassion, forgiveness, courage? Is there something we put our hands on today that was more like us when we took our hands away?” I have no idea how much of what I say she can understand…all I know is that she definitely understands more than I think she does. So this is what I tell her…and, truth be told, I need to tell to myself every day also.
She’s too young to to know that of course, it’s impossible for us to do all of these things every day. We are not saints. But it’s important to always aim high. After all, when you study for an exam, would you aim to get a C? If that’s as high as you raise your sights, that’s all you’ll ever achieve. Living things aren’t made to aim at mediocrity. All things strive–every living thing strives in an unforgiving universe, and to be human is to often stand with our feet in the mud, but reach always upwards towards the stars.
The best part is that we don’t have to achieve all those great things every day in order to change the world. We don’t have to free a nation or launch a movement or solve world hunger. As Bobby Kennedy said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but…it is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” That still chokes me up very time I read it.
As you watch the sunset tonight wherever you may be, decide how you want to mark the end of the end of this year, for it will never come again. There will never be another like it as long as we live; we can never return and change it. But it is not too late–there is still time to show compassion, to be kind and loving, and to choose to be a steward of this world and send forth a tiny ripple of hope. 2018 was a year of staggering accomplishments by our staff and volunteers…but we are just getting started. A million different centers of energy and daring are building; the current against oppression and suffering will continue to grow but only with your help. A very funny and very wise lady, Lily Tomlin, said “I always thought ‘Somebody should do something about that.’ Then I realized I was somebody.”
Be somebody today, so that when the sun sets tonight, you can look to the west and hold your head high because in the twilight of the 2018 you put your hands on the world and made it a little more like you–a little more compassionate and caring–when you took your hands away.
Thanks for an amazing year, everyone. If you thought what we all accomplished together this year was something, just wait. We’re only getting warmed up. Happy New Year Everyone! Próspero Año Nuevo!
Dr. Ben LaBrot
by volunteer Trisha In
“Be sympathetic to the weakest, because the odds of silver and gold are what determines our lives. Some do not have the same fate as us, so if one day we have the ability to help others, do not overlook that.”
I took this quote from a reflection that my mom wrote in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, which makes up half of who I am. The similarities between Cambodia and Panama in terms of healthcare was also a large reason why I wanted to go on this particular trip to begin with, but beyond that, something about this Panama trip instilled a strong inclination within me to get a passport and apply. I just felt like this particular one was meant for me. And it was, truly. There are a couple of things in my life that I feel like were absolutely bound to happen and this trip was one of them. It’s a bit funny though, because even a few days after coming home, I still find it hard to describe to others what my experience was like when asked. So much had happened, and it feels like an injustice to just pick one or two things to tell them about.
However, with that being said, there are a few instances that really stood out to me, ones that I hope to never forget as I continue on my pathway to become a dentist one day.
My most difficult moment occurred immediately after doing my oral health and education charla with my partner, Jamie, as well as doing a solo one for the adults as part of my DK Fellowship. It was not doing the “charlas”, per se, but I remember debriefing with Mary about everything afterwards and I couldn’t help but tear up. I think in my mind, I had always thought that education would be the solution to everything (to a certain extent, I will always believe that). After all, that is why I spent so much time in the states trying to focus on making educational materials both in and out of dentistry. However, I don’t think I realized that education can only take you so far when you are in a really resource-limited setting such as this one. I could preach all that I want about flossing, mouthwash, toothpaste, etc., but it doesn’t do the community any good if they cannot access these materials. Mary seemed to understand what I was saying despite my ramblings, and she also mentioned that it’s similar for nutrition—a lot of these families don’t work. They might harvest foods for their families, wait for rainwater, and fish for their survival. So for an outsider to come in and say to do X, Y, and Z can be insensitive to their culture, resources, and way of life. I related this to how ridiculous I find it in the states that we often preach to eat healthy, but if one goes to McDonald’s, a salad costs $7 and a hamburger costs $1.50. Mary and I concluded our discussion with her telling me that despite all challenges, we must remember that we are helping the community as best as we can, given the resources that both we have, and that is something to be proud of.
That moment was also special to me, because a few of the children from the schoolhouse followed me after the charla. I couldn’t recognize them at first, because they had changed out of their uniforms, but they told me in Spanish that they were our students from earlier. They kept following me around and it was one of the cutest things that ever happened to me. I was a little confused as to what they wanted, though. When I saw them a bit later in the day, I realized that they had seen the plastic bag of sunglasses in the pharmacy, and that was why they followed me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as popular as I thought I was! I was, however, popular the following day in clinic when I was shadowing some of the other charlas. Since I was the one handing out water for a demonstration, I had about a dozen children follow me telling me to refill their cups so they could drink. Those cute faces made it so hard to say no, that I ended up giving them all of my water and eventually had to run away…but then they found me near the jerry can and I had to explain, “No tengo más aqua, lo siento.” On the surface level, it makes for a cute and funny story, but I could not help but remember the fact that this community does rely on rainwater as their main water source, do not have typical toilets or constant electricity.
Juxtaposition is one of my favorite words in the English language—my friends always make fun of me for using it, but it’s the perfect word to explain another aspect of my time in Quebrada Sal. A hilarious and unbelievable experience on our first day there: we walked to the beach in order to shower but were kicked off due to the filming of an upcoming reality TV show. Even more hilarious was when I learned that they wanted it to seem remote, which is why nobody could be on the beach. I couldn’t help but think: that seems so contrived, especially when we literally just walked through mud from an actually isolated community, on this same exact island, but instead here we are on this beautiful, white-sandy beach, that has a sign “Welcome to Paradise” right when you set foot. I had wondered if all of the cameramen and actors knew the life that existed right outside of this beauty.
Speaking of the community, there is something to be said about it here. Within the first 15 minutes of setting foot in it, while trying to find the Floating Doctors lodging area, a woman came running out of her house and asked us if there would be a dentist at the clinic the following day. When we told her that there would be, she told us “Mañana, yo voy.” I was surprised, honestly, because even in the states, I feel like going to the dentist is something that is severely under prioritized. I believed that most did not understand that oral health is an important part of overall health. It truly touched my heart that my first encounter in this community was dental-related. I also had learned how much the community respects Floating Doctors. Of course, I knew about this already from talking to Dr. Ben and learning about the organization online, but I didn’t really get it until I experienced it myself. Even in Bocas del Toro, I would use my broken Spanish to explain that I was a part of Floating Doctors and two people gave me their phone numbers to contact them if I ever needed help. One of those people was Toby, who apparently is a boat driver for Floating Doctors?! Dr. Ben also explained a while back in one of our pre-departure meetings that families will come from far away and dress up in order to visit the clinic. I witnessed this, as a line started to form before we even finished setting up the clinic, and despite rain.
Another thing that I noticed particularly in the dental clinic during the two days that I got to assist was how respectful all of the patients were to us. They were willing to hold the tray of materials if I needed to go get up and reload a syringe. They would wait patiently for their turn. But something truly incredible was something that I bridged what I learned in my Palliative Care class and this Panama trip: that different cultures express pain differently. In the states, I have watched everyone, from young kids to grown men, throw tantrums from receiving one anesthetic. I’ve seen patients push the dentist’s hands away, creating an unsafe environment for everyone there, especially with all of the sharp materials.
That brings me to my favorite patient: my first one. I was really lucky to swap places with the other assistant at this particular time, because I ended up with the coolest case that we had seen in the two days as my first one. We saw a young teenage girl present with an abscess on top of a tooth, and this this made me realize just how different dental care is here versus a resource-rich area. Elsewhere, this would be an easy-fix with a root canal, but here, we had no choice but to just extract her tooth. Despite being in pain because all of the anesthetic that we gave didn’t seem to work after a certain point, I saw tears in her eyes, but she still sat calmly and let us finish. My time in the dental clinic was one of the most meaningful: I was able to meet Dr. Philippe, who is one of the most humble and inspiring dentists that I’ve ever shadowed, I realized the disparities that exist, and got to assist for the first time in my life. I have always said that if I cannot become a dentist, then I don’t want to do anything else in the healthcare field because that’s just how much I feel like dentistry is for me, and that thought was solidified when I stepped into the dental clinic after being around intake and realizing how uncomfortable and foreign that space made me feel. My friends noticed this too, that even though I was nervous to be assisting, I also was elated to be there in that moment.
I feel as though a shout-out needs to be given to Dr. Philippe, who I learned has been with Floating Doctors for four years now. I do not think my experience would have been the same without him: in clinic, I told him it was my first time doing any sort of restoration mixture so I was very nervous. He told me that it was okay, and that after a few times, I would be better than him. Of course, that isn’t true, but the fact that he was so humble was very inspiring. Even outside of the clinic, he went with me to refill the can of water to clean our dirty feet and even held it for me when I tried to get all of the mud off my sandals. But the most heartwarming moment was when we were on the boat leaving Quebrada Sal, he was holding some of my DK Fellowship papers that I asked for feedback from, and despite us all getting completely drenched, he made sure to keep my papers dry despite me telling him that I had more copies. Sometimes in this field, especially in the states, I become disillusioned by all of the dentists that have admitted to me that they simply pursued a career in this path because it was lucrative or because the hours were good. It was refreshing to see someone who genuinely just wanted to help others.
My mom said something funny—that every time I called home, I was in tears. I’ll ignore the fact that she put me on blast like that, but there is some truth to that statement. I couldn’t help but think of a meme that I had seen (as ridiculous as that sounds), talking about how us first-generations are so lucky to be struggling with the highest tiers of esteem and self-actualization, when our parents were dealing with the lowest physiological and safety needs. I realized that the Ngäbe community is dealing with the same needs that my mom went through, yet somehow I managed to remove myself from that in my life of privilege. So in that sense, it’s hard for me to pick a favorite experience because I think I needed all of the aforementioned aspects to come together as a whole to make my time in Panama as meaningful as it was. I had thought that I lived a hard life, given that I’ve experienced what it was like to not access dental care because of my low socioeconomic status and didn’t know where my next meal or shelter would come from. But now I can say that I don’t understand, at least not in a global context.
People have always asked me what I imagine my end-all- be-all is, and I’ve always thought that it was to simply be a dentist. I had thought that if I made it that far, despite all obstacles that I thought I had faced, I would be eternally happy. I realize now that perhaps my purpose is greater, that I should do something more for the communities around me, both domestically and abroad. I hope that one day, I will be able to come back to Floating Doctors as a provider and do more for these communities. Thank you so much to Floating Doctors for making my first experience abroad an unforgettable one. I’ll always remember it as I continue my pathway in dentistry!
by long-time volunteer Dr. Anna Bazinet
At 9 years old, Mariana was confident, outgoing and so excited to see all the equipment we were unpacking that morning for the day’s medical clinic. She eagerly watched us set up the small pharmacy with medications, a scale, and a few blood pressure cuffs. She was wearing a bright green nagua, a traditional dress of the Ngäbe-Bugle people, but this was not the most striking thing about her. On her left cheek, she had a 3×3 centimeter ulcer that fortunately she seemed relatively unfazed by. As we continued to set up for clinic, I leaned over to Dr. Ben LaBrot to ask him about this lesion. Without skipping a beat he said, “leshmaniasis, a skin parasite that is carried by the sandflies.” I have since learned more about leshmaniasis and other fascinating parasites, but see this moment as the beginning of my interest in tropical medicine.
We later saw Mariana and her entire family in clinic and after learning more about her and performing an exam, we helped with the things we could but ultimately had to make the recommendation that her parents take her to the district hospital for treatment. The medication used to treat these lesions, a long course of pentavalent antimony, was beyond the scope of a one-day clinic. The family thanked us, and Mariana gave me a hug at the end of the day. I think she enjoyed watching us work and seeing patients.
This encounter happened during one of my first clinic days 7 years ago when I was first a Floating Doctor volunteer. From then on, I was hooked. I loved learning whatever I could about tropical medicine. Who would have guessed at my fascination with intestinal parasites and leshmaniasis? But, beyond the medicine, I loved the communities we were serving. I loved learning about the culture and language all while traveling by boat and regularly seeing porpoises on our commute to work. During this first trip, I had the opportunity to be in Panama for about 7 months before needing to return to Seattle to start medical school. I remember feeling very torn, both excited for the next step in my training, but sad to have to leave a part of the world I had grown to love and a set of incredible people.
Looking back, my current career path was heavily influence by this time in Panama. The mentorship and leadership that I received by Dr. Ben LaBrot and some of the other providers is one of the reasons I am currently training in family medicine. I love family medicine as it allows me to develop long-lasting patient relationships, connect with the broader community, and tackle some of the challenging issues facing patients today including healthcare disparities. This work is not unlike that of the Floating Doctors.
This September, after 7 years, I finally had the opportunity to make it back to Panama. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, I had heard rumors of new volunteer bunkhouse and base, 20 staff members, and a formal pharmacy, all of which were just dreams 7 years ago. And indeed, I was astounded by the amount of progress Floating Doctors made!
I will admit I was a bit nervous getting into the boat on the morning of the first clinic. Would I know enough? Would I live up to the providers that encouraged me along the path I am on? My nerves quickly faded as I picked up the first set of patient charts and sat down with a mother and her 4 children. My Spanish slowly came back and I started taking a history like I have done hundreds of times in many different situations. Despite the surroundings, seeing patients in Panama feels similar to the US. The chief complaints are for the most part similar; headache, rash, knee pain, back pain and insomnia. One thing I must admit is that for abdominal pain, I was not as accustomed to asking patients if they have seen worms in their stool!
Although so much has progressed with the Floating Doctors since I had been away, I was also amazed at how similar it felt. Even though they have been able to see more patients, do more clinics and keep better records, the sense of mission and commitment to the Ngäbe communities was completely intact. The feel of the clinics, the patients, and the empathetic care they receive was all just as I remember it. And finally, the organization still depends on everyone bringing new ideas, energy to problem solving and the occasional stroke of brilliance to push things forward.
There’s a lot of need for good problem solving when it comes to community healthcare in Panama. Even with all of the progress, I worry about the Ngäbe communities and the individuals I met. I worry about their increasing access to processed foods, snacks, sodas which is leading to increasing obesity rates, hypertension, and diabetes. These can be challenging issues to treat in remote communities where medication adherence and the need for at least occasional monitoring is important. This is coupled with a national health care system that makes it challenging for Ngäbe patients to get the care they need when they go to the larger hospitals.
During this most recent trip, I couldn’t help but think back to Mariana and wonder how she was doing. I could imagine her as a great doctor herself someday, with her inquisitive mind and openness with me 7 years ago. Unfortunately, I know that is a long shot for her as she is likely still living in a community where ~60 percent of people over 10 are illiterate and ~91 percent of people make less than $2 a day. For me, this is the challenge of working in Global Health and what keeps me engaged and passionate. The inequalities seem vast and sometimes insurmountable. I am constantly reminded of the work that needs to be done. I am so thankful for organizations like Floating Doctors who are able to slowly work towards change. After my time in Panama, there are a lot of projects I would love to work on, but alas, this only ensures that I will be back, hopefully sooner than 7 years…and when I come back, I can’t wait to see what Floating Doctor’s dreams have become reality.
by Veterinary Lead Dr. Thomas Easley
Veterinary Public Health (VPH) is an essential component of public health and incorporates various types of cooperation between the many relevant disciplines involved in the interaction between people, animals and the environment they share. VPH programs should not be viewed as operating in isolation, but as making an important contribution, as part of an inter-sectoral collaborative approach, to the improvement of a country’s infrastructure, economy and rural development.
Since the profitability and therefore the supply of private veterinary services is governed by several factors arising from economies of scale, such as the size of the livestock enterprises in the locality, the nature of potential or actual diseases, and the types of animals raised in the production systems, in areas where private veterinary work is unprofitable or where other types of market failure occur, economic or social concern usually makes some type of public intervention necessary. Providing this intervention to the marginalized indigenous communities of the Bocas del Toro archipelago is where Floating Doctors shines like a beacon in the night.
Floating Doctors has integrated a VPH program into their daily operation for two important reasons. The first being focused on human health in that domestic animals (including cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, poultry, and dogs) of poor people can be important reservoirs of zoonotic diseases that impact on their health, either through direct or vector-borne transmission routes. In addition, history has shown us that zoonoses falls disproportionately on poor people with poverty, and unsanitary living conditions associated with poverty, being considered potential risk factors for zoonotic and food- and water-borne diseases in many areas of the developing world. The low standards of education and veterinary public health services commonly associated with poverty and marginalized communities increases the risk of transmission of zoonoses and food-borne diseases.
More importantly, and the second reason, Floating Doctors understands One Health and perseveres to integrate its implementation into all of their activities. While One Health initiatives have traditionally focused on threats to human and animal health, such as zoonoses and a secure food supply, they have not typically promoted an understanding of the many beneficial physical and psychosocial impacts of human-animal relationships and how these can be leveraged to improve both human and animal health around the world. Additionally, current One Health initiatives are undertaken at international, federal, and provincial levels yet often fail to have an impact at a community and primary care level, especially in poor/marginalized areas.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing.” This definition has included not only physiological, but also emotional and social (behavioral and natural) states as are often described in the definition of good welfare. It is well-recognized that where there are poor states of human welfare there commonly exist poor states of animal welfare. Similarly, animals often act as indicators of human health and welfare, as can be seen in the link between animal abuse and family violence. Considering health and welfare together — because of the interconnections of human-animal-environmental factors — helps to describe context, deepen our understanding of factors involved, and creates a holistic and solutions-oriented approach to health and welfare issues.
The North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium (NAVMEC) has identified knowledge of One Health concepts and principles as a core competency for veterinarians who will graduate in the 21st century. Despite widespread exposure and support of One Health concepts, a recent survey of veterinary students at Colorado State University demonstrated that few opportunities exist within veterinary curricula for students to get involved and gain practical experience in this area. To fully realize One Health concepts and principles and ensure their promotion by future health professionals, veterinary students require tangible, specific applications.
Important goals in teaching are to challenge veterinary student perceptions and facilitate opportunities for not only applying and practicing core learning, but also learning how veterinarians are connected with their communities and with society as a whole. By understanding these concepts, opportunities are provided for long-term personal growth. For many veterinary students, identifying their role in the community as an individual and a professional can be challenging. After all, most of their adult lives have been spent in a focused pursuit of admission into veterinary college. Moving away from this singular goal and exploring their sense of self, their perception of service to others, and recognizing their inner potential to care and empathize with marginalized individuals is desirable both personally and professionally, with significant positive impact for society as a whole.
In a One Health model, factors contributing to each sector — humans, animals, and environment — are studied. Within veterinary medicine and particularly within the veterinary curriculum there is understandably a focus on the animal sector relative to the human and environmental sectors. However, in clinical practice and in community health, equal knowledge of all sectors is required. With Floating Doctors, the outreach experience provides students with the unique opportunity to gain more knowledge, acceptance, and understanding of a marginalized human sector and how the well-being of both animals and owners are intertwined. Through a One Health lens, the increased empathy, compassion, and stewardship of early career veterinary professionals will undoubtedly lead to improved animal and human welfare, and thus improved community health.
Floating Doctors’ One Health engagement initiatives with the marginalized indigenous communities of the Bocas del Toro archipelago include the integration and community-level collaboration of veterinary teams with human healthcare providers. This team approach serves to cooperatively improve the health and welfare of humans and animals, demonstrating that veterinary care can act as a direct avenue to improve health and social service delivery for underserved populations.
Not only do students gain an appreciation for the power of the human-animal bond, but they also witness how it can be leveraged to motivate changes in behavior that benefit both human and animal welfare. By supporting and maintaining the human-animal bond, students also begin to appreciate that their work extends beyond the health and welfare of animals, but also directly benefits the psychosocial and physical health of their clients.
In the early months of 2015, Floating Doctors added another paddle to its ever-expanding Cayuco (wooden canoe) by launching its dental programme in tandem with the flourishing mobile medical clinics. It has always been the dream of Ben LaBrot, the founder of Floating Doctors, to have a long-term dentist join the crew. The need for dental treatment is in high demand but unfortunately very rarely accessible to the Ngäbe communities.
In its inception, the team’s first clinic was set in the mountainous village of Norteno. From dawn till dusk, spanning over two days, 80 patients were seen by our tireless dentists who maintained high spirits despite the failing light and increasingly limited resources. It is this drive and motivation to deliver healthcare in such challenging conditions that epitomises the spirit of our leadership team and volunteers representing our organisation.
Since then, we have visited multiple communities where we are continuously amazed by the extent of dental caries prevalence, especially in young children. On each clinic, we will see an average of thirty patients, many of whom have suffered in pain with toothache or infections for several months or even years! Imagine, or can you remember, the debilitating sensation of dental pain and being without access to dental treatment for that length of time? Our clinic is currently restricted to extractions and minor oral surgery, but with time and correspondence to those with invaluable resources or expertise, we will strive to make Ben’s dream come true.
The development of the Floating Doctors dental programme would not be possible without the support and kind donations from our benefactors and organisations. For this we cannot extend our gratitude enough. We have set a target of $10,000 which, once achieved, would provide all the equipment necessary for a fully functional dental clinic to serve the Ngäbe communities. We have a fantastic opportunity to implement positive changes to the oral health of the communities in Bocas del Toro.
It is a privilege to share this journey with you. Our working environment is such a challenging, exciting, very tiring, but thoroughly rewarding experience. Improving a patient’s quality of life is not based on what procedure or medication I give them, but my ability to show compassion and care to a person where they are expected to expose their problems and fears to a stranger whilst overcoming language, cultural, and social barriers.
Written by: Kevin Lan, Floating Doctors Lead Dental Provider
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.
Ah, the Asilo…one of the places we heard about here in Panama when we were still in Honduras. We found a unit seldom visited by a doctor (in a year), but with a wonderful staff of no more than a cook, cleaner and nurse on each of the two 8 hour day shifts and 2 on the night shift. There are 27 patients there, all elderly, ranging from totally mobile to totally bedridden, some without sight, some without limbs, many with varying degrees of dementia—they all have to be fed, bathed, many changed, floors cleaned, meals prepared and cleaned up after…the fact that the floors are clean and the patients are clean and fed is an extraordinairy achievement, but the patients need more attention.
When we got there I thought they were totally medicated…so many of them looked so catatonic…it turned out almost none of them were medicated,
or where very occaisionally medicated. They were just bored and unstimulated, almost into catatonia. It was months before some of them spoke; I came back from 5 weeks in California to find patients that I thought had no power of speech actually talking with me. It was like awakenings, and it isn’t because of medication, it is because of all the time our volunteers and people in the community have spent with the patients there. Many had not been out of the grounds for years, and now walk in town weekly—our friend Javier, a Colombian physiotherapist in town who also works at the Asilo, brought his four horses and our elderly patients dressed up and rode like kings and queens through the streets, looking down around them as if to say ‘So…this is Bocas, you say.’
The mayor sent three trucks and we removed several tons of rusted metal and trash from the grounds and landscaped a little (more to go), repaired two broken washing machines and plumbed 3 in total (the only working one had been filled by bucket), installed handrails in the common area for walking and physio, changed the showerheads to removable handle versions, put a commode chair in the bathroom, created and update charts for the patients, provide medications, and have done our best to provide the additional more advanced care that the staff are sometimes not able to provide.
When we arrived, there was an elderly stroke victim, immobile and unable to communicate, and terribly emaciated and contracted with bedsores
all over. We worked for weeks, doing wound care and working with the staff to use advanced wound dressings we provided and creating turning regimens—our goal not to extend his life, but to allow him to die with more dignity and in greater comfort. At one point he got a chest infection and we stood by to administer oxygen and midazolam and buscopan to make him comfortable as he passed, but he rallied…and subsequently gained 12 pounds and the ability to focus and speak a little (very, very little) before he died quietly one night in his sleep a few months later.
And he died with not a single bedsore on him…that was a victory to me, at a personal level. I hate it when people die with their bodies disintegrating externally around them as well as internally. It is unnecessary, but totally natural for birth and death to be so awkward and difficult…the first time doing ANYTHING is usually awkward and difficult: the first day of school, first kiss, first great loss, first great love, first great adventure, the first and final sunset cruise, and finally, the end of the voyage.
Any ship, no matter what storms it has weathered and what damage it has sustained in a long life of navigating unknown waters, wants to look its best when it pulls into harbor for the last time. There should be dignity at the end, as much as can be wrenched from an unfeeling universe. Not always possible…but always a betrayal not to even try.
My cousin, a physical trainer, just arrived here for a few months…I have another patient in the Asilo who has not walked for 9 years after his stroke. He stood up the other day after exercising on his own, ferociously, with some basic exercises we showed him after we applied a difene patch to his paralyzed knee for knee pain, and he and we found out the immobility was more pain-related and he could move it a little. He freaked out an dhas been exercising like a fiend.
I came back from California and he collared me from his wheelchair and looked me in the eye and said ‘Yo Puede CAMINAR!’ And stood up, giggling like schoolgirl. Sometimes things are too much for me to process when they happen…later at night, especially when I’m writing a blog or making a facebook album of the day, I start to process…thinking about that patient a lot. I want to go for a walk with him before he dies—and he might live for many more years, so if he does, I’d like him to be able to walk, and he REALLY wants it, more than almost any patient I’ve ever seen. I feel tiny beside the strength of his determination.
I tell all my incoming student volunteers (I have my little speech about this prepared): “You are so lucky we have the Asilo for you to volunteer in. Not only does every second you spend there interacting with some of the loneliest people I have ever seen benefit them beyond what you can know, but care of the elderly—and especially in this setting—is where you find out if health care is for you.
“Yes, it’s challenging, the medical issues are very complicated, the patients may have dementia and can be challenging, and you have few resources to deploy except what you can somehow manifest…but beyond that, its where you learn things like ‘are you the type of person who is thoughtful enough to throw a corner of a sheet at least over the exposed genitalia of some bedridden shell of a human during some procedure that leaves them all exposed?’ Or ‘When you lift a frail contracted foot off the bed, do you automatically support the knee out of awareness (to avoid torqueing the knee)?’
“It’s a good place to learn PATIENT CARE…not something everyone can learn, because some aspects of it I just don’t think you can teach. I feel like I have to practice at it constantly…people are afraid of old people…can you learn to look past the rotting shell of their failing minds and bodies to ressurect in your mind’s eye when you look at them the glory of their individual histories? It is like looking at old ships tied up in the scrapyard and neglected, never to leave again…remember that those ships voyaged 70 or 80 years across 2 or 3 of your lifetimes…can you see who they were and what oceans and storms they have passed, somewhere inside the wrinkled, frail bodies awaiting their final voyage?”
I love the Asilo…my volunteers go more frequently than I (I only have 2 hands) these days, but I love going in and seeing my friends there. We need people in the community to each give 30 minutes once or twice a month…come on…an hour a month, that’s pretty good…want to walk patients with us? It is awesome—email us or (better) contact us on facebook if you want to go for a walk with us and be checked out to walk patients on your own. One hour per month…you saw the walkway we all built in La Solucion; a miracle happened because everyone showed up and made it with their hands and time.
Make a miracle happen at the Asilo…everybody give an hour a month, and every patient will be walked several times a week instead of never. They’ll get stronger and be more fit (less pain), and be more mobile (and they HAVE to be, the ones that are bedridden have the worst time of it). Let’s make it happen Bocas!
When I last posted in June, a couple of months in, we had just started to really connect with the various subcultures in the Bocas Province, and some situations we quickly identified for interventional projects were as yet beyond our reach. Now we have many more friends and contacts in the community, and we can tackle much more ambitious projects for far less cost.
• Partnered with local group Operation Safe Water to help transport and install raincatcher systems at local schools when we run clinics
• Arranged CPR certification for the fire department
• Worked with the Ministry of Education to train local high school students as trainers for health education in the community and give them medical work experience by participating in our mobile clinics
• Created pictorial and written information sheets on health issues we have identified and that we make available at our clinics
• Gathered and data-entered over 600 patient health data sets and begun doing surveillance of our own interventions and identifying health issues from the data to help guide our mission activities
• Microfinanced patient transports to care on the mainland and chaperoned them in the hospital system (many Ngobe don’t speak Spanish, and are VERY shy, so they easily fall through cracks in systems)
• Connected with an indigenous Curandero to identify and investigate the plants he uses medicinally and are helping him develop his small botanical laboratory always keeping a lookout for.
• Arranged and executed a CPR and First Aid Seminar for the cruising community in Bocas
• Partnered with the Mayor’s Office to run mobile clinics in conjunction with the government visits to the community
• Partnered with the local Lion’s Club to work in a community they support and help supply the neonatal support unit they built with Direct Relief International supplies
And, as always, sometimes we find situations that are just not right. Por ejemplo…
While I was in California, Dr. Barney found out about a 14-year-old girl with what turned out to be undiagnosed cerebral palsy in a small squatter’s community called La Solucion. I have been told it used to be where the airport is now (right next to a mangrove swamp), and when they built the airport the community moved out onto shacks built on stilts over the mangrove mud.
She comes to land at most twice a year…land is about 100 feet away over the sewage-contaminated swamp (all the homes
have outhouses and sink drains that drain directly into the water below). She has never gone to school…she has a wheelchair, but rarely uses it because she has nowhere to go; she has to be carried over the dangerous footbridge by her grandfather, and she is too big now for him to carry (Noah noticed he has drop-foot also…potentially a serious falling hazard, especially if you are carrying your 14-y.o granddaughter over a wet slippery footbridge). She is COVERED in bug bites…she can’t really swat bugs away or keep moving to keep them off her, and she lives in an open unscreened house on stilts over mangroves.
Her grandparents have always thought they were at fault for her CP because she fell out of bed at 6 months (though she had never crawled, which makes me think it probably was CP at birth)…they have carried that burden and they always worried they would get in trouble if the hospital found out, so they have indicated that she has never seen a doctor.
If I were a Hollywood writer writing for some medical drama, my editor would probably throw me out of the building for it being so unbelievably challenging emotionally and physically…but this is real life…this is somebody’s actual life. Sometimes people ask if I miss ‘the real world’…let me tell you, it looks pretty real from where I’m standing.
We said we would build her a walkway, and now—6 months into our time in the community—we called on the community to help and EVERY level of Bocas society came together to make it happen. Mangrove posts from an indigenous community, lumber and funds and food from local Panamanians and expats, help from boat owners, crew on other boats, locals from La Solucion, local taxi drivers, local restaraunts…at the last minute we even had no trouble rounding up 2 sledgehammers (one from the fire department and one from the fish market, which I sometimes haunt in the afternoons when the fishing canoes come in).
Everyone gave a little (some more than a little), and in 5 hours we sank thirty 10-foot mangrove tree trunks 7 feet into the mud, from the shore all the way to her grandparents’ house. The walkway went on in the next few days, and then this little girl went to shore (we still have some work to do to finish the walkway and make it safer for a wheelchair). I asked if there was anything in particular she wanted to do on shore (which she can see, 100 feet away) and she said ‘Quiero pasier’—‘I just want to go.’
This is my favorite, favorite kind of project…one where the whole community comes together when it learns about a situation like this. When the walkway is done, it will have been done right, with the right material (always seek expert advice) to make it last for many years. No matter what, this girl’s life is going to be changed forever—and here’s the best part: total cost for all the lumber, food for the volunteers actually building the walkway, gas to go pick up the posts from another island, hardware, etc: less than $1000.
There’s opportunities for helping, constantly around us…when we are alone we can help in small ways…but mira aqui, look what we can do when we all come together! Poco a poco para cambiar el mundo.
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