Sailing Through the COVID Storm

Medical Volunteer Opportunities Abroad

How is it the middle of August?  With the way the past few months has played out for the world, it feels like time has stood still for months but at the same time a million years have passed. So little seems to be happening and yet SO MUCH is happening.  It’s like botany–all the plants look like they are just sitting there but speed up the camera and you can see them growing, competing, striving furiously all the time, as though the world were frozen but with all the moving parts pushing against each other under incredible strain. 

Kwaneya sits on a mountain of rice your support enabled us to purchase!

Hunger and even poorer access to health care, as well as Covid19, have come to the Ngäbe-Buglé communities we serve.  Our volunteer program is on hold, but a small core staff team have managed to ensure that our chronic patients (Diabetes, epilepsy, HIV, family planning etc) have managed to have continuity of their medication and we have shared a lot of PPE with our community and Ministry of Health partners.  And as hunger becomes the priority issue, although most people in the world are experiencing financial consequences from Covid19, your INCREDIBLE generosity helped us raise nearly $38,000 for emergency food support. Originally, we calculated a food support pack to cost around $25 to keep a family of 5 fed for a week. Thanks to community and government partnerships, we’ve been able to locally source supplies for a fraction of this cost, and your support is going MUCH farther.  We are partnering with local organizations like Rotary Club of Bocas, for food and PPE for the hospital, and with U.S. NGOs, like MATTER and International Aid, to bring in massive amounts of nutrient-fortified rice nutrient-dense vegetables from farmers in the US who freeze-dry their surplus vegetable produce and send it in 55 gallon drums.    

Dropping off soap and medications for chronic patients.

Panama, unfortunately, continues to see an increase in COVID cases.  It has made its way into the Ngäbe communities and despite rigorous infection control protocols, some of our staff contracted the virus (and recovered, thankfully.)   Our uninfected staff are still under quarantine and we have put a temporary hold on medication and supply delivery until we are sure it is safe to resume operations in a week or so.  In the meantime, we are taking the time to adjust our protocols to put even stricter infection controls in place during medication and food distribution.

Especially since Panama’s international borders are still closed to entry in mid-August and with caseloads rising there,  we’ve decided to extend our hold on all incoming volunteers scheduled to join us for the remainder of the year.  While it is possible that Panama may open borders and volunteers and staff could potentially travel to Panama, we feel that there cannot be an overabundance of caution and it is  important to both protect our communities as  well as our volunteers traveling internationally. Still, base feels pretty empty with our few staff rattling around the ol’ place like a few peas in a big bucket…we miss having our volunteers and look very forward to seeing all those faces from all over the world coming together to give their time and energy and vacation to once again climb into our 60’ hollowed out log canoe and drive through rain and rough seas and jungle rivers and continue providing care with our team. 

We miss this view of a full clinic.

Everything will be ok in the end–if it’s not ok, it just means it’s not yet the end. Things are definitely not ok, and we are definitely not at the end yet, but things will be ok and this will end.  A very promising vaccine is starting phase 3 trials.  A couple of revolutionary monoclonal antibody therapies are being rolled out.  ICU death rates from COVID have dropped from above 60%  to below 40%.  The world will keep turning, we all just have to remember that it will and keep holding on.  

Supplying the Asilo with cleaning products, food, and sanitary resources

A bad storm at sea ALWAYS feels like it will never end…and then it does.  The storm takes all your attention in the moment because you are fighting to save your ship and shipmates.  There’s no time to speculate on the next 5 minutes; your concern is the wave in front of you and the fact that after you navigate that wave, another will be along very shortly. And the lightning striking all around you is somewhat distracting.  You lose all track of time and it seems like that’s how it’s always been, just you and your crew and the storm, locked in an eternal struggle together as time stands still.  

And then there’s the moment where you suddenly realize the weather is getting better, not worse, and the wind seems to be dropping and each wave no longer seems like a potential game-ender.  Usually you’re far too tired to even tremble and everyone who can be spared to sleep goes to sleep wherever they are.  I once dozed off in the engine room during a prolonged struggle at sea en route from Honduras to Haiti during the cholera epidemic there, with my head resting on one of our 671 Detroit diesel running at full rpms.  We nearly lost our ship (one of the two closest calls we had) but eventually managed to limp into Jamaica, battered and damaged…we all promptly slept and then the next day got up and began working to repair our ship as fast as we could and continue our mission to Haiti.  

And that will be all of us.  One day, this will end, and we’ll begin to work to rebuild what COVID-19 took away from us all.  We’re a resilient, resourceful species when we need to be, and we need to be now. We are proud and grateful to everyone who during this has been able to look up from their own very real challenges and still reached out and made it possible for us to not abandon our post and continue providing the support we can to the communities we love and serve. 

Thank you to everyone and remember: one hand for yourself, one for the ship and we’ll all get through this together.