Dr. George’s Observations 4

Medical Volunteer Opportunities Abroad

Reflections on being with Floating Doctors in Haiti

The efficiency with which the Floating Doctors delivers care is astonishing. They arrived in a small town which had no significant docking facilities and no airport for relief flights. On board the 76 foot Southern Wind they carried several thousand pounds of construction material, several thousand pounds of medical supplies, water filters, and hundreds pounds of clothing. 11 tons of relief supplies. They are a high tech outfit bringing medical care to remote coastal areas of the world on an ancient platform…the sailboat.

By the time I left on June 1, they had nearly completed construction of two classrooms (the shells were already being used for classes). They had passed out hundreds of pounds of clothing. They had seen several hundred dental patients and well over 1800 medical patients.  They had staffed, stocked and re-organized the Des Granges Medical Clinic. They had treated and instructed hundreds of people in the principles of good dental hygiene and had passed out hundreds of tooth brushes and tubes of tooth paste. They had played with and hugged innumerable children who were in need of physical affection, not because it was the right thing to do, but because they loved the children.

Because there were no hotel or restaurant charges, and because they hired no cars or drivers, the cost of maintaining the crew of about eight–varying slightly in number from time to time like when I was there–was $230/week. They sleep and eat on the boat, consuming food bought in the local markets at local prices and supplemented with what they had frozen or dehydrated prior to setting sail from Florida. They walk to and from the clinic, establishing rapport on the street with the locals. When traveling across town for any reason they either ride in the back of a pickup truck with Haitian friends who pick them up, or they ride as passengers on the back of motor cycle “taxis” which cost about fifteen cents to get from one side of town to the other.

The good will which the Floating Doctors exhibits around the clock is returned by the Haitians. Many times the Floating Doctors would treat a patient and then ferry them home to their beach village. They follow up with “house calls” and set up beach clinics for the entire village while they are visiting. They give their all to the people they have grown to love. They hold nothing back.

When one of us became ill during the morning walk from the beach to the clinic, he turned around and headed back toward the beach. A local man on a motor cycle picked him up and took him to the beach for no fare. When our crew member started vomiting violently, a Haitian woman held his head and washed him up. She waited with him for the arrival of the skiff to take him back to the Southern Wind.

I have never had the pleasure of serving with a happier bunch. I find it almost impossible to do what they do without experiencing happiness as the reward. I have taken some very fun vacations in my life, and believe me, I have nothing against fun. In fact, I believe that the only thing one should never do in the pursuit of fun is to sacrifice happiness for it. But on the scale of values, a vacation like the one I have just had in Haiti is off the charts. It restores my soul. I love the “people, not paperwork” practice of medicine. I really understand what Mother Theresa meant when asked by a reporter, “How can you hug lepers and dirty people with open sores?” She said something to the effect that, “Well some people say it is because I am a saint. But it’s not. It’s because I’m a cranky old lady and it makes me feel good.”

When the Southern Wind sets sail for its next port of call in Honduras, they will leave behind many people whose quality of life has been considerably enhanced. Just being relieved of one’s load of intestinal worms for a few months by the single dose of the albendazole that each patient receives is such a blessing. The vitamins distributed and prenatal care given to pregnant women result in stronger healthier babies. All the other services provided, both large and small, give one the sense of living a life which is truly of value. The experience can be as truly life-changing to the provider as it is to the recipient.

This is difficult to talk about or try to explain without sounding, at least to myself, insufferably pious. But it is not a “pious” experience. One leaves spiritually refreshed from an experience with Floating Doctors not in any remotely way pious. One treasures the moments laughing, tumbling off the boat into the warm Caribbean waters or roaring around the potholes of Petit Goave on the back of a motor cycle taxi driven by a young man who would be a motocross champion if he ever got sponsored to the USA.

Under the mosquito netting at night on the deck of the Southern Wind, lying quietly at anchor 3/4 mile off shore, feeling the cooling breeze, watching the constellations and first magnitude stars I have known by name since childhood play hide and seek with me among the clouds while the sea gently rocks me to sleep is not a pious experience. It is all part of the spiritual experience of finding one’s true place in this universe. I am so grateful.