In a small jungle clearing on the Caribbean coast of north western Panama, a group of indigenous Ngäbe Indians in their finest traditional dress and an equally proud group of foreigners, with stethoscopes dangling around their necks, gathered to celebrate a landmark event: the opening of Floating Doctors first remote outpost clinic. It began as a dream, as an inspired idea, and following months of discussion, planning, coordination and manpower, it has emerged as a physical manifestation of the commitment to healthcare and strengthening relationships between Floating Doctors and the community members of Playa Verde.
Floating Doctors has been providing free, high quality, remote healthcare to Playa Verde and other communities throughout the Bocas del Toro archipelago and Chiriqi Province for several years now. Every 3 to 4 months we would arrive at each community laden with bags of equipment, paperwork, medications and volunteers, eager to see old friends and sad to hear of others departed. Each time we left we would go with heavy hearts, knowing that there would be no medical care available except for that which we organize, or until we returned. This time however we arrived knowing that we were here to celebrate the opening of a clinic. A place that will be a cornerstone of healthcare, health education, cultural exchange and a base for reaching even more remote communities around the coast.
The day started with a flock of volunteers sandpapering and painting the building, finishing off wooden examination tables and mounting cupboard hinges. At around 11am Ito, the village mayor, blew his conch shell to summon the village to the inauguration ceremony. Local men, women and children gathered alongside the Floating Doctors team and there was a flutter of excited anticipation rippling through the group. The ceremony opened with a short blessing from the community religious leader, and was followed by a heartfelt and highly emotive speech by Ito, welcoming Floating Doctors as part of the community, sharing his aspirations for healthcare and cultural growth, looking forward to a long and healthy relationship with Dr Ben and all the team. Eta, the much loved Peace Corps worker, who was instrumental in coordinating this project from the Playa Verde end, said a few words in both Ngäbere and Spanish and handed the baton over to Ben where huge thanks and important acknowledgements were given, wrapped within an eloquent expression of gratitude, hope and future ambition. Following a series of photos to mark the occasion, a huge feast ensued. Piles of yuca, rice, beans and beef emerged and were shared out amongst all, and the afternoon clinic took place amongst a sea of smiles and well sated bellies.
Five of us stayed that night in the new clinic, in preparation for a full day of work there the following day. After sundown, just as we were settling in for the night, a young boy came to the door and asked if we could help him – his grandmother had just been bitten by a scorpion. The clinic was proving it’s worth on it’s very first day! We picked up our emergency kit and our head torches and followed the boy home to find his grandmother on the floor in serious pain. We sat down with her and inspected the culprit: a small brown scorpion, now chopped in two by machete. No mistaking what had bitten her then! Whilst monitoring her we took the opportunity to learn a little more about common biting creatures and the local remedies they use. Fortunately, for an adult, this was not a particularly perilous scorpion and following an hour of observation, administration of medications and educating the family regarding signs of worsening, we retired home. An early morning visit the following day reassured us, and revealed to us just how appreciative the family had been for the care and reassurance they had received.
With rain pouring down in thick sheets, the clinic got off to a slow start that morning, but as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, so too did faces peek around the doors of the clinic and soon enough we were in full swing. Big family groups attended together, some with serious illnesses, others just for a health check. It made such a difference to provide care in a custom made facility, with space and privacy that is so often lacking in the makeshift clinic environments. Ultrasounds could be performed on specially made beds in private rooms, medications displayed on shelves in an ordered manner, diagnostic equipment laid out in a spacious, easily accessible way. It was bliss!
Needless to say, here at Floating Doctors we are both excited and proud to have reached this milestone. None of it would have been possible without our volunteers and the many, many people who have shown their support through donations of money, time, advice, equipment and an endless stream of encouragement. So, I’ll take a few moments to add my thanks to the huge list of thanks already given; to everyone involved, past and present. Together we are making a real difference.– Dr. Lizzie Parker Floating Doctors Medical Director