“Say that he loved old ships…”

Medical Volunteer Opportunities Abroad

maggots in a tunneling ulcer

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,

They seemed so catatonic when we first were working there

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.’

one of 3 trucks of trash we removed

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

emaciated, rigid, and covered in 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.

ulcers spreading in a deteriorating body

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.

Our friend Bolivar snapped some pics in the asilo while we were working there one day

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.

Matt and I changing a suprapubic catheter blocked after 11 months of neglect

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.

Eve and Sarah doing wound care on tunneling ulcers

“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)?’

walking the patients

“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.

giving 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!