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.
Please click on any of the images to activate the slide show viewer.
The last time I wrote a blog, an unconscionable number of months ago, we had recently arrived here to Bocas del Toro and I ended the blog excited by what might be possible over the coming months…now those coming months have passed, and it is time to catch everyone up and take stock of what we have accomplished here in.
6 months ago feels like a million years ago…with more long-term volunteers, we’ve been able
to really expand some parts of our project, including self-surveillance. I looked at what we had done—how many mobile clinics, how many volunteers, how many projects, how many patients…it is overwhelming to try and describe. I should either write bullet points, or a 3-volume novel to describe everything since my last update.
Over most of our time here, for example, for every 3 days we were here, we ran one day of mobile clinic work—even counting rained-out days (and it rains 150 inches a year here) and days we were involved in any other kind of activity, whether it was working on boat projects, escorting patients to the mainland to get treatment, holding office hours in our consultorio, working in the asilo, eating, sleeping, or doing anything else. We’ve seen over 3,000 patients in more than 17 communities that we visit on a roughly 2-month rotation across the entire province of Bocas (an area of over 4,500 square kilometers), in addition to all our other activities.
No matter what other projects we get involved in, the core of Floating Doctors is our mobility—even the permanent clinics we are now working to establish are to serve as bases from which to continually run mobile clinics by panga, as we have done everywhere we go. I’m incredibly proud of all my volunteers and my crew for maintaining that level of dedication to work one day of mobile clinic for every 3 days we were here.
We’ve seen a lot of different communities, and noticed that there are enormous clusterings of health issues in different small communities that at a glance may seem similar. Why does one community have an incredibly high rate of obesity and diabetes, while the neighboring community has no obesity or diabetes but has lots of parasites? We have gathered detailed demographic and health data on over 550 patients so far, community assessments on a dozen different communities, and are beginning focused projects based on issues we have prioritized based on the data so far. Results of our first survey project coming in the new year…
We’ve started doing overnight and multi-day mobile clinics—getting two or more clinic days for the price of one day’s travel, since our accommodations have almost always been in the homes of local members of the community, or expats who notify the community that we are coming, house and feed our team, and often allow us to use their facilities to hold our clinic and arrange our transport to work in communities near their homes. I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the expat and local community here…I have never worked anywhere—in the developing or the developed world—where the community at every level will actually deliver on its promises of support like here. From the Mayor sending trucks to help us cart garbage out of the nursing home, and letting us use his old consulting room to open for patient consults two days a week to the local marina workers who are giving their Sunday to help drive 36 10-foot posts into stinking mud to build a wheel-chair walkway, this is a wonderful community, with many eccentric people (after all, we are here too) and many people with good hearts who have shown us enormous kindness and support for our work here. Thank you to everyone—this is what makes Floating Doctors possible. A thousand hands holding us afloat…
We’ve also joined forces with the Peace Corps volunteers scattered throughout the province;
Peace corps Volunteers have thus far been 100% reliable—individual peace corps volunteers live (very often alone) in a community and work on a project. We got in contact with one, on the mainland, and ran a mobile clinic at his village…it is so awesome to arrive with everyone notified, a place to work, directions, someone to help interpret and to give us the inside scoop on patients we are meeting for the first time, someone to pre-arrange accommodation in the community, and best of all, the Peace Corps volunteers can and do follow up with patients that we have identified as needing more advanced care. This has been our experience with the Peace Corps every time we have worked with them, and we look forward to our upcoming multiday clinics to some new communities we are visiting through Peace Corps, including a Ngobe community way up in the mountains that I have heard a Peace Corps volunteer visited but that he thinks has NEVER been visited by a medical team. Looking forward to that later this week…
Petit-Goave, Haiti–Almost a Year To The Day We First Arrived Here In 2010
This is the overdue final chapter of our voyage from Honduras to Haiti, bringing supplies for the cholera relief and personnel for a string of clinics and villages along the north coast.
After our repairs in Kingston were complete, all that remained was to chomp on the bit while only 40 miles away on the north side of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains a series of storms swept down the Windward Passage and collided with a SE swell across our path. At the first day when the swells and wind subsided, we left Kingston at first light and made all speed for the Windward Passage. Once we got out of the shadow of Jamaica, we encountered the most disorganized sea I’ve ever seen—in the space of five minutes we would encounter NE, SE, W, and N swell…thank god the wind had died or it would have been a horrible bathtub; as it was it was merely uncomfortable until we ghosted into the protection of the Bay of Haiti and at last dropped anchor in Petit-Goave, the first place we ever went for a mission…almost a year to the day that we first arrived in Haiti.
An hour after we dropped anchor, in the dead of night, our first friend from Petit-Goave,
Aniel, came out in a canoe…the next day, we saw dozens of people we knew; we went back to the DesGranges clinic and saw Meomene and ‘Cheeks’ and the kids who were there when we left. The two schools we built are now surrounded by larger concrete structures in mid construction; a larger future school sponsored by Korea, I think…but when we walked up to our little schools, each one was packed with kids and classes were in session as they have been since we built them. That was a great feeling…the pharmacy we cleaned and reorganized, and the day patient treatment room and the minor ops room were all organized and cleaned as when we left, and more rebuilding and expansion was still going on. We left a box of supplies for Dr. Cutler, an MD from L.A. who we arranged to go out ahead of us last year and who is returning to Petit-Goave to volunteer again this year—I think he actually arrived yesterday, as a matter of fact.
It was so different arriving here this time…amazingly, most of the rubble had been cleared, and most of the tents crowding every street were nowhere in sight. Some houses had been rebuilt (in concrete block without much rebar and suspect cement), but we saw hundreds of wood frame and tin roof one-room structures, on new poured concrete foundations from (apparently) a Swiss-led European consortium. More commerce was happening, some small businesses had reopened, and the central park was clear of tents and refugees.
I admit, when we left Petit-Goave after witnessing both the massive problems the
Haitians wake up to every morning and the effects of much of the relief efforts after the earthquake, I was not expecting the level of improvement that we saw. My journey to Port-Au-Prince to drop a volunteer off at the airport, however, was much more depressing…a city imploding on itself, with little visible progress over the past year of funds and relief being poured into it. Petit-Goave’s determination to pull itself out of its downward spiral it gave me a renewed hope for Haiti, a hope that I could see in the faces of all of our friends and the new people we saw.
The best moments for me came during the mobile clinics we ran, on the beach at Fort Liberte and in the ruins of an old French fort back from the coast a mile or so. I saw babies that I had ultrasounded 8 months ago and were born while we were away, patients showed me their thin scars where large machete wounds used to be…when I pulled onto the beach in the first load (two trips in the skiff from the boat to our clinic), the kids in the village saw us coming and ran down the beach yelling ‘Sky?! Rachel?!’ and we were surrounded by everyone we knew and treated in the mobile clinics last year. We wormed everyone again, handed out thousands of vitamins, and saw the usual litany of problems great and small—but we saw one patient in our first mobile clinic–less than 18 hors after we arrived–that made the whole 38 days of struggle and travel to get to Haiti worthwhile.
In the little enclave of cactus on the shore west of Petit-Goave, sitting in the same spot
that we did our very first ever mobile clinic as Floating Doctors, we saw a 6-day old baby with an eye infection from Chlamydia or gonorrhea (or both) acquired during birth. This is a very serious, time sensitive problem–a few more days untreated and scarring develops, blinding the child forever (and cross infection and blinding in the originally uninfected eye are very common). We treated the mom and dad and used several days of rigorous cleaning and washing, and antibiotic eye ointment, and the greatest moment of our return for me was watching the pus-filled swollen eye lose its swelling and turn clear—just a few more days and the baby would probably have been blind forever.
It’s not about saving the day, or being a hero…it’s about timing. It’s about being there, and being available as a resource to people who have no other options. A single patient treated at just the right place and just the right time to prevent a lifetime’s worth of suffering for a baby already born into a hard existence. If we had not been delayed by bad weather and bad fuel on the way from Honduras to Haiti, we would have arrived and departed Petit-Goave for Cap Haitian weeks before the baby was born…and when we finished working around Cap Haitian and returned to Petit-Goave, we would have found a blind 1 month old baby.
Life tends to unfold on schedule…not always the schedule I want, and most of the time I never get to know why things happen just the way they do. But sometimes we get a glimpse of a purpose…sometimes what we endure in life makes sense after the fact, and every moment of struggle and frustration and discomfort and fear during the voyage here suddenly became a price I would pay a hundred times over if it meant being able to be there at that exact moment with everything necessary so that baby will get the chance to grow up with both its eyes working.
Dr. Holly saw the baby and when I wandered over to investigate and the problem became
clear, I though “Ahhhhh….so THAT was why we had to go through that crossing.” If we saw not a single other patient there are people who would say the journey was wasted…the old numbers game; people always want to know how many patients seen (over 5,000 so far), how many vitamins (over a million given away so far), etc…and those numbers are important in making sure the investment of resources is not ‘wasted’…but when I get a patient like that baby, the numbers become meaningless and that one patient becomes, for a moment, your whole reason for existing at all.
To that baby and her parents and to me, it seemed pretty worthwhile that we were there and equipped to help…and we see hundreds of people like this, whose paths cross ours at crucial moments when only a small intervention is necessary to change a life forever.
And with each such patient, our lives are also changed forever and a memory is created that I know I will playback to myself many years from now when my adventuring days have ended and smile and wonder how that little intervention in time played out on the world’s stage ove the years. I’ll likely never know–the years-later effects of what we do aren’t ultimately up to me, but I’ll always remember that we were able to help give people a chance at better lives and futures, and no one will ever be able to take that away from us.
All patient photos used with patients’ consent. Please click on any image below to activate the slide show viewer.
BE WARNED: THIS BLOG CONTAINS A REAL PATIENT HISTORY OFFERED FOR ADVICE AND SUGGESTIONS, WITH THE EXPRESS CONSENT OF THE PATIENT. THE DETAILS AND PICTURES OF THIS CASE, A PARASITE CASE, MAY BE GRUESOME.
Today during a scorching sunny afternoon, Christmas came the Southern Wind–here’s how:
When we first left Miami for Haiti, we left behind 5 pallets of additional medication and supplies that we could not fit onboard. We planned to return to Miami and pick them up after finishing in Haiti, and then continuing on to Central America.
From Haiti, we connected with Clinica Esperanza and Barefoot Cay Marina in Roatan, so
we came directly here instead of going back to Miami. We saved a lot of fuel and time but it meant we had to ship our pallets here to Roatan. Fortunately, Gary and Donna Evans arranged for Roatan Rotary Club to sponsor the shipping by providing part of Rotary’s yearly donated shipping allotment from Hyde Shipping here on the island. We also had to coordinate someone willing to drive a truck from the warehouse in Miami that was kind enough to hold our supplies to the Hyde Shipping warehouse in Miami…all the while seeing patients, planning our Haiti mission, fueling, securing the boat for sea, coordinating our 40-foot container from Direct Relief International for the island clinics and for Haiti. It has been BUSY.
However, health care is always our primary mandate, and when we are in danger of being overwhelmed by everything we have to do, we ask for help. Especially any clinicians reading this, this patient has suffered significant symptoms for months and has given permission to post his case for review by any of our medical followers.
Please post comments or questions for more details about the case directly on this page where we can all see them and brainstorm together. All posts are visible only after review and approval by Floating Doctors to protect patient dignity and confidentiality.
Patient: 27 year-old Caucasian male; 6’2”, 180lbs
*No prior medical history of note, no medications, no allergies
- Cardio : BP: 125/85, HR 74 (regular)
- Respiratory: Lungs clear, good air entry across both fields, no creps/wheezes
- GIT: Abdo soft and non-tender, non-distended
The patient had spent 7 months in Honduras working as a volunteer co-pilot on a non-profit emergency helicopter service, with frequent trips to the mainland while transporting patients.
3 months ago, a few weeks before his return to the US, he had complained of occasional vague stomach cramps (sometimes acute) and diarrhea. The night before returning to the US, he took a single dose of albendazole and subsequently had what he referred to as an episode of extreme cramping and “explosive worm diarrhea.” The worms he described were 6-8 inches long and very mucous-like. He continued taking a daily dose of 400mg of albendazole for the next few days, but continued to pass similar worms. He went on a strict fruit diet, eliminated fats and although the symptoms seemed to lessen he still passed stringy worm-like strands, some longer than 12” (in the initial days of treatment). After several days, he went to his local doctor and subsequently sent this email:
“I went to the doc yesterday and got a scrip for Flagyl. I never saw the doctor but the nurse
talked to the doc and he prescribed it. I’ve been on it for, now, two days. I’m coughing up some terrible stuff. One time (within the last week), while in the shower I blew my nose in my hands. In the mucus there appeared to be a worm about 1/2 inch long. It was either a worm or the most congealed mucus I’ve ever seen. Figuring I was exhibiting symptoms of hypochondria, I chalked it up as my mind playing tricks on me. Today, about a week later, after taking the Flagyl for two days, I’m coughing up some horrible stuff, which looks similar, but not exactly the same, as the worms in my stool. It’s stringy, if stretched out about 6-8 inches long. From what I’ve ever seen, mucus isn’t generally this stringy with elastic properties. When running the sink full of water, swirling one around rinsing it off, and then picking it out of the water with my finger, it’ll run over my finger like a spaghetti noodle would. It doesn’t look like a spaghetti noodle, (much smaller in diameter) but acts in a similar fashion when running one over your finger.”
He augmented his treatment with Pyrantel Pamoate equine anthelmintic, taking the same dose as for a 250-lb pony (900mg) daily for three days off 4 days, then repeating, and was also prescribed mebendazole 100mg twice daily for three days, then 4 days off, then repeating the regimen for a month along with the flagyl (metronidazole). He also ate enormous amounts of fruit and had a colonic irrigation (though he saw no worms come out during the evacuation, only the next day), and is taking 15,000mg of garlic daily.
He has not had blood work or an ova and parasites study (stool sample). He has been advised to collect one of the worms and bring it to his hospital or GP for parasitology, and to have a full blood count with differential to look for raised eosinophils. Results will be posted as soon as available.
The ‘worms’ pictured do not look at all typical. Could they be some kind of mucous shedding of the intestine post infection or from the treatments he has given himself…even the garlic? If so, what about the episodes of coughing and similar, smaller mucous strings from his nose? He has tried most of the heavy-hitters for parasites…even horse worming medication (not on my advice!).
Does anyone recognize these as worms or other pathology, or have suggestions for further treatment or investigations? The patient has no medical insurance so cost will be a factor in patient ability to comply with investigations. Taking the worm to a doctor so it can be sent to a specialist and analyzed if necessary is definitely the next step, but any advice or ideas would be appreciated.
Our 40-foot container from Direct Relief is supposed to be cleared through customs Thursday!
Then we can distribute everything, load the boat and depart at the first weather window to Jamaica for fuel and back to Haiti!
All Photos (Except The 3 Worm Pics) Courtesy of Dan Chomistek
Medicine in developing nations is, most people would probably agree, substantially different from medicine in developed countries. Still, there are many aspects of the health care experience that seem to be universal, shared by ‘have’s and ‘have-nots’ alike. For example, the prospect of surgery under general anesthesia is daunting whether you are having it at the world’s most advanced hospital or in a temporary medical mission surgical tent.
And of course, men, women and children of all ages all hate getting injections (except for little old ladies, who—in every country I have ever worked in—take injections and other potentially uncomfortable procedures pretty much in stride). This week marks the end of our management of one particular patient whose experience made me think about the parallels in health care experience that are shared by patients worldwide.
One day a few weeks ago we had returned to the boat after a long day in clinic, and a 43 year-old
guy walked up to the boat asking if we were the medical doctors and could he consult with us. We invited him aboard, and I immediately noticed he was taking small, tentative, shuffling steps and was bent forward slightly from the waist, pressing his right hand over his bladder. He told us that 9 months ago, after several months of severe pain, blood in his urine, and repeated urinary tract infections, he had saved up for an ultrasound and they had found a great big 3 cm stone in his bladder.
At this stone’s size, open surgical removal is the indicated treatment, but he could not afford the 60,000 Limpira (about $3,300) charged by the private surgeon he saw, but the surgeon said he would make him a deal—he would do the surgery for 45,000 Lempira if the patient arranged for the surgeon to do it at the public hospital, thereby not using any of his own equipment and resources.
The patient DID arrange permission from the hospital to have the private surgeon operate there, but fortunately the patient came to see us (he had no choice, as 45,000 Lempira might as well have been 450,000; he had not worked for weeks and weeks because of his crippling pain).
I visited the public hospital to speak to the chief of surgery there, Dr. Indira Sanchez. She is a fabulous surgeon; the first night I dropped in to help in the hospital I assisted her doing an open abdominal surgery on a gunshot victim, closing perforations in the colon and removing and directly re-attaching a perforated piece of small intestine (total number of personnel involved in the entire surgery, including me? Only five people; patient did fine). She has great hands for surgery—sure, experienced, and capable. I presented the patient’s case to her, she consulted with him, and booked him for surgery only a few days later.
She gave him the orders for his pre-op blood work and chest x-ray (which he had to get at the private hospital because the public
hospital x-ray was not working), and he went straight out and got the tests all done, which we microfinanced. Then he came back to present his test results to one of Dr. Indira’s team, the doctor sent the patient back to Dr. Indira with his endorsement that he was ready for surgery (which we also financed), and two days later the patient had the stone removed in about 30 minutes under general anesthesia.
He recovered well, and is no longer in agonizing pain all day every day. In a few more days he can go back to work, after over 9 months of debilitating pain.
Pre-op blood tests and x-ray: $80
Open surgery for bladder stone removal: $20
Price for living without pain? Pretty hard to quantify, but it seemed pretty important to the patient!
The whole thing got me thinking about the complexity of health care, and how daunting it can be for a patient to try and navigate
their way through the system—DEFINITELY an experience shared by patients in the developing and developed world. Almost anyone who has ever had to use their health service, especially for something major, can appreciate the confusing nature of going from specialist to specialist, office to office, exam to exam, wondering when the whole process will finally be over.
This case was a classic example of one of the main roles now played by General Practice and Family Practice physicians—that of a guide to navigating the maze of specialists and tests and procedures available in an ever-increasingly complex health care system. As Medicine gets more and more specialized, it will become more bewildering for patients—especially for patients who do not have a wide base of health knowledge—to find their own way through it.
The patient gave us permission to document his whole experience; soon we will put out another short video focusing on his experience with a health care system. I think that people in any nation at any socioeconomic level will resonate some part of his experience with their own history of interactions with health care. Some aspects of being a patient appear to be universal…watch and decide.
In this case, the patient was unaware of how to try and arrange a public hospital surgery and our representation (based on the good working relationships we have developed with many clinicians here on Roatan) was key to the surgery being performed.. Although we assisted the surgery and post-op care, our main role here was simply to take a patient and help guide him through the whole process, making an overwhelming prospect (especially for someone acutely sick!) a smooth series of events resulting in the patient regaining his health.
The other primary role of the GP or Family doctor is to try and help keep their patients well enough that they never have to go to the hospital!
A real highlight of the whole experience for me is that it all happened when my mom and
Grandmother and cousin Ishan and his wife Maria were here visiting us in Roatan. These were the people who have been there from the very, very, very beginning, when Floating Doctors was a wild dream keeping me sane during months of freezing, dreary weather in Ireland, to the year of frantic planning and fund raising, to the year of rebuilding the boat, to Haiti and thence to the shores of Honduras.
Our families have been so supportive…without them this never would have been possible. I was very proud to finally be able to show them what all their encouragement and support made possible; it meant the world to me that they came all the way to Honduras to see us. Love to all of you–fair winds and a fast return.
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Wow, what a ride…a few days ago, Hurricane Richard passed almost directly over our position here on Roatan. For several days, we watched it approach, slowing down and gathering strength as it hesitated out in the Atlantic, almost as if it were undecided about whether to move northwest, as most hurricanes do, or to move directly west and sweep over the Isla de Bahia in Roatan. Naturally, we began to take elaborate pre-hurricane precautions, hoping that they would not be necessary.
We cleared all of our gear off the decks and lashed all the big stuff down tight, covered our bridge windows to protect them from flying debris, charged our batteries and filled our water, stocked up on food, added about a dozen dock lines and more fenders, and prepared to ride it out. These are the moments that are a true exercise in letting go; when you have taken all the precautions you can, and done everything you could–then whatever happens is beyond your control. The sea can be a very scary and intimidating place when you try to maintain the illusion of control on the water.
From the bridge, we waited, and tracked the storm on satellite imagery. As it came nearer to our position on the screen, the air felt heavier and heavier as the pressure dropped, and all of us–including Tweek and Giles, our ship’s dog and cat–started feeling restless and agitated…I guess it is true what they say, the waiting MAY not be the worst part, but it is surely no picnic!
First, the weather turned dead calm and still, the only change being the plummeting barometer…then came the rain, and then more rain, and then a LOT more rain…and then the wind. At first the wind wasn’t too bad, blowing at around 30-45 mph for the evening, but as 3:00 AM rolled around the wind began to pick up sharply, whipping the trees around us and surging the already full-moon high tide up over the concrete dock. Thank goodness we had had a chance to adjust and tune all our dock lines while the wind was still blowing only 30, since by the time the wind hit 79 mph it was difficult to move around safely outside.
The boat rocked and heaved amid the spiderweb of dock lines holding her out in the middle of the basin–one line snapped, but Captain Ed and Noah managed to get a replacement line around another cleat in time to keep us from being
pushed forward onto the seawall 8 feet dead ahead. As dawn brightened, the wind began to die down to gale force, and eventually petered out amidst a series of heavy showers into a preternatural stillness, and the first tiny patches of blue sky we had seen for days finally peeking out in the eastern sky.
Then all hands checked the lines one more time and turned in for some well-earned sleep–back at it in the clinics tomorrow! What did Graham Greene say about the sea.. “The ocean is an animal, passive and ominous in a cage, waiting to show what it can do.” The power of the Hurricane, this ‘little’ category one hurricane, gave us a brief glimpse at the forces that lie in wait under the deceptively calm waters and blue skies of the tropics.
The price of having even a chance of survival on the sea is eternal vigilance…when situations turn bad, they tend to do so quickly. Better to prepare thoroughly every single time than be caught out the ONE TIME you fail to take every possible precaution.
Live to sail another day!
Here in Honduras, as it was in Haiti, on any given day my crew are usually spread out at several locations, and when I find out later the details of what they have been doing, I am always astonished. Today we recognize the awesomeness of the work done by nurse and instructor Sirin Petch. By the time we had been here about a week, we learned that the single fire station on Roatan had not been given much formal training, and Sirin agreed to work with Maddie to provide training in emergency response. Nearly every day for almost two months, Sirin worked with the firecrews to provide training in airway management, scene assessment, lifting and immobilization, choking, and other techniques necessary for EMS response. Some of them had joined the department when they were 14, but few had been able to get formal training. The firemen are paid very little (they have to buy oxygen for the ambulance out of their own money), and they work hard.
Sirin first asked the Firemen what they would be most interested in learning, and looked at the resources that were available and would be the most useful instruction for work here in Roatan, and then provided training. Maddie was instrumental in helping communication, plus she is a naturally gifted teacher, and later they were joined by Zach, one of the pilots on the emergency helicopter, and Yolanda, a paramedic from Montana volunteering for a couple of months on the helicopter.
Sirin and her team trained the fire crews, went on night calls with them, and even after Yolanda and Maddie had gone home, Sirin continued with the firemen. Near the end of Sirin’s time with us (for now?), an incident occurred that says a lot about the relationship Sirin created with the Bomberos. I got a phone call to transport a patient on the helicopter to the mainland, so I made my way to the landing field, prepped the gear in the helicopter and waited for the Fire Department ambulance to bring a patient with suspected barbituate overdose. The ambulance arrived, the doors were kicked open, and out jumps Sirin and the firemen, who hand off the patient to me on the helicopter.
On the way back to the station, Sirin and the firemen got a call for a woman in full arrest. Sirens blazing, they arrived at a house surrounded by wailing family members. A larger woman in her 40s had a full arrest, in a house at the top of a 30-foot embankment. Using the techniques Sirin had taught, they put her on an immobilization board, inserted an airway, maneuvered her down the hill to the ambulance and raced to the hospital. They worked hard to resuscitate the woman, both in the ambulance and the hospital, but eventually had to call time of death. Sirin helped arrange the body and deal with the distraught family thronging the hospital corridor, then she and the Bomberos headed back to the Fire Station, only to be diverted to a brush fire. They gave Sirin a brush jacket and sped off to a banana plantation, arriving as it burned itself out. Scrambling up the smoking, scorched earth, they made sure the fire was completely extinguished, then returned to base.
Beyond the skills and training that she made available to the firemen, I believe that Sirin gave them something much more valuable. They looked at what Sirin knew, and her professionalism, and saw its value. She earned their respect (not always easy for female professionals in Latin America) and their friendship, and helped inspire them and motivate them to want more training and to seek it out. They have asked Sirin to send EMS instruction books and have increased their physical training (Noah has worked with them in the gym and done lifting and transferring instruction with them, and a few days ago I boxed with another).
I am very, very proud of the work at the Fire station, and very proud to have seen Sirin rise to such a challenge. Long after we are gone, I hope the knowledge and professional pride she left behind will continue to grow and help people.
On Wings Of Angels
A few days ago we did a house call from the RBC Center to a lady who was 6 weeks post stroke. The family’s house was at the top of a 35-foot steep slope, and she had pretty complete right sided paralysis. Her speech and cognition were affected badly; she seemed unable to understand questions and had no speech. She had a permanent indwelling catheter, and could eat and drink when fed but her swallow was affected and she seemed to be aspirating a little bit (saliva or fluid entering the lungs). Like most elderly or infirm family members in the developing world, she was being cared for at home.
There was not much I could do to help her improve, although her stroke was so recent that it was impossible to say how much spontaneous improvement she might experience over the coming weeks. We told the family to interact with her as much as possible and Annee demonstrated passive motion exercises the family could do with her to help prevent contractures and blood pooling, and discussed turning and bedsores. We talked about signs of urinary tract infection (always a danger with permanent indwelling catheters). And the folks from the RBC center are going to try and help out. Overall, the prognosis was not good, but there is one thing this lady had going for her that many elderly patients in the US and Europe never enjoy.
In the US and Europe, the general tendency is to stick elderly family members in nursing homes and visit them occasionally, usually out of some kind of guilt or obligation. I worked in Care of the Elderly in Ireland and I saw it everyday. The first time I did a house call on an elderly woman in Africa, who coincidentally had also had a stroke, I was ashamed of how we treat our elders in the developed world. Here in Honduras, as in Africa and Haiti and everywhere I have been, older people live with and are cared for by family members in their homes. They do this for two reasons—first, because they have no choice; there are few nursing homes to deposit and forget elderly family members. The second reason is because the culture in most developing countries has much more respect for the older generation, and elderly people get home care and attention from their families simply because that’s the way it is.
The granddaughter of the elderly stroke victim hovered over her grandmother, stroking her hair and talking to her. The family washed her and cleaned her, emptied her catheter bag, fed her and talked to her and interacted with her. Lying there paralyzed, she received the most tender care and inclusion in the life of the family. There may have been no advanced tech available but this lady was being wonderfully cared for. And a week later, she got some of her comprehension and speech back, and some control over her right side mobility. With love and more care, hopefully she will recover enough to regain some measure of independence, but if not I have confidence in the care I know her family will provide if she remains permanently disabled.
The RBC Center, para los ninos con incapacitados, is staffed and run by people who have extended the kind of care they would provide a family member to the kids and people in the community who have cerebral palsy, have had a stroke. Ashleigh has been there nearly every day she was with us, providing Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy and helping the clinic workers learn new techniques of therapy.
I am amazed, and very proud of what Ashleigh has accomplished at the RBC Center. She and Annee started a Yoga class for the mothers of the handicapped children, many of whom have bad backs and joint pain from carrying their immobile grown children everywhere. The women who come to the center love the class; one 57 year old woman said it was the first time she had ever exercised, and she was so proud of herself. Peggy from Clinica Esperanza gave us a couple of children’s walkers, and a few days ago a 7-year old boy walked for the first time, and a 9 year-old boy wrote his name for the first time.
Ashleigh does movement therapy, sensory therapy, passive massage; pretty much everything—Supertherapist! Fridays are my favorite day…on Fridays I always go to the RBC Center and see patients, young and old. I treat a lot of gastritis and arthritis there; the moms of these kids have lots of stress and physically challenging lives. But on Fridays, when I am there seeing patients, I get to see what Ashleigh and everyone is doing—giving attention to the children, giving the mothers a desperately needed rest from the constant care they have to provide, helping people get their mobility and independence back. Annee, Sky, Noah, Sirin, Rachel, and Nick have spent many days working with the people at the RBC., and I love when we get to all work in the same place.
It is wonderful what can be achieved when you are helping somewhere long enough to learn the lay of the land and what the real needs are, and make the friends and connections necessary to undertake more ambitious projects. Of course, you also need outstanding individuals like the volunteers that have come out to help us. Ashleigh was amazing in action; when she went home it was a sad day for us and also for the clinic staff and patients and families.
The clinic closes for an hour at lunch, and we usually walk down the road to our friend Sherman Arch’s Iguana Park. Sherman is caracol, meaning of white descent but an islander who speaks the patois of the island. He is second generation here, and on his property iguanas are not allowed to be killed, so over the decades they have congregated. He takes in rescue animals, including monkeys and coatimundis, and does turtle rescue. He often feeds us at lunch and sometimes gives us rides back to the boat in his truck or the 37-foot skiff he made himself. He has been enormously kind to us, esta un bueno hombre, another angel we have met.
High in the air during a night flight across the dark ocean a week or two ago, I suddenly remembered a story I read years ago that seemed appropriate for the moment. It happened on the way back from a patient transport in the helicopter to the mainland, and I was sitting in the back thinking about what Floating Doctors became after starting so long ago as a decision made on the plains of East Africa, when I decided to go back to the developing world with more help. I contemplated the path we followed to make Floating Doctors a reality; I thought of all the heartbreaking setbacks and the glorious triumphs that were achieved by the goodwill of people who seemed to come out of nowhere to help pick us up when we fell, and encourage us to keep going, and who worked side by side with us.
The story I remembered is about a man climbing a tall, steep mountain in his dream. After a desperate struggle, he makes it nearly to the top…then falls. The story says that when it comes to the dreams perched high atop the mountains of your mind, it is sometimes a mistake to climb to reach them—but it is ALWAYS a mistake never even to make the attempt. If you climb, you can either succeed or fall. And sitting there in the helicopter, thousands of feet above the dark, luminous, serpent-haunted sea, I understood in a very literal way the third option mentioned in the story: sometimes, when you fall during the climb to reach your dreams, you find out you can fly.
There have been many angels who caught us when we fell and who helped Floating Doctors continue forward. I know I talk about it a lot, but I don’t care. I wanted to thank you all again very much, and to know how much it means to me that you believed in us and helped us and worked with us to make Floating Doctors fly—both in spirit and, riding the clouds over the gulf of Honduras, in literal fact.
The Million-Year Day
I love the end of the day—not because our work is done, but because that’s when I finally catch up with most of my crew, who are often scattered in several locations across the island for most of the day. We return to our home on Southern Wind with stories, smiles and sometimes tears from what we have seen and accomplished during the day, and every night when I learn what everyone did that day I am astonished at the sheer number of things that happen. Each evening, the morning feels like a million years ago.
A couple of days ago is a good example. I started my day at 6:00 AM when I got up to say farewell to Ashleigh, Nick, Rachel, and Annee. Our friend Sherman, who runs the Iguana Sanctuary on Roatan, arrived at Barefoot Cay to bring everyone to the airport. These moments–when people that I have closely bonded with, lived and worked with for many weeks, shared so many experiences with and laughed with, have to leave and go home–are always tough for me. That morning was especially hard when I said goodbye to Rachel and Nick; Nick has been with us since St. Augustine when we were frantically rebuilding the boat in the marine yard, and Rachel has been with Floating Doctors since the days in Palm Coast with 13 people crammed into a house stuffed with medical supplies, working on the boat parked in the canal behind the house through record heat and record cold. It was hard to watch everyone drive away, getting a last glimpse of their faces and thinking of all we shared together, and wondering when our paths will cross again as we trudge the road of happy destiny into our futures.
At 6:45 AM, the helicopter called—two victims of a house fire in Coxen Hole (a 24 year-old woman and her 7 year-old sister) with 2nd and 3rd degree burns over their extremities, faces and torsos, probably right on the edge of what a person could potentially survive. Sirin, Zach (the helicopter co-pilot who has been staying on the boat and helping us) and I suited up and deployed to the local powerplant, where the helicopter is now parked in a field surrounded by high-tension wires (I’m glad our pilot has over 18,000 hours). Our friends the Bomberos delivered the two patients, we loaded them into the helicopter with two family members and took off with all speed, climbing high over the ocean to weave a path through the weather and over the high mountains of central Honduras.
We flew the patients to Tegulcigalpa, where the only burn unit in Honduras can be found, and coincidentally is one of the most notoriously difficult approaches in the world. Ringed with high steep mountains, at altitude, aircraft have little room to maneuver in Tegus. Also the minimum safe altitude approach is 9,000 feet from every direction—which meant a whole set of problems for me and Sirin manageing our patients in the back of the helicopter. Years ago, before I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, I bought a book of high altitude medicine to learn about the particular problems of human physiology at altitude, and that reading came in handy in the helicopter as we climbed quickly from sea level to ten thousand feet. Hypothermia, increasing pulmonary edema and tissue edema, swelling of the 2nd degree burn blisters, and low oxygen in the thin air all come into play when you manage patients at altitude, and burn patients are extremely fragile to begin with.
When you are working with a capable team, your focus can become quite intense—scrutinizing every drop of the fluid falling through the IV, monitoring heart rate and breathing and oxygen, knowing your team has the other patient or other responsibilities under control. Back to back, Sirin and I focused on our patients and willed the helicopter to greater speed as we passed sheer mountain peaks and fought through the cloud layers. The young woman was barely conscious, but the little girl was alternately sleeping and wide awake, and she was the bravest little girl I have ever seen. Third degree burns over her arms and legs, her hair scorched and face blistered, she was aware of us watching her and every few minutes would give us that little smile that means ‘I’m OK’ as she lay in the vibrating helicopter swathed in bandages. I have seen bravery many times, but I don’t know if I have ever seen courage like this little girl had.
We landed and transferred our patients to the airport ambulance, and after a cup of coffee we turned back towards Roatan. I passed out on the stretcher—the fatigue factor flying in the helicopter is very, very high, and after all the endorphins of the patient transport are spent, sometimes the tiredness takes over. Two and a half hours later, we made the approach to our tiny LZ on Roatan, landed safely, and riding high from a tough job well done, we returned to our home on the boat in time to take Giles for a walk before his dinner. It is so surreal, but just another day in the life of the Floating Doctors.
I love the helicopter flights—not only because each one is an adventure, but because there is currently no other medical crew to transport patients, and as far as I know the Aeromed helicopter is the only rescue helicopter in Honduras; certainly the only one that is available to fly impoverished members of the community. The resorts here all have memberships, which helps the helicopter service stay operating, but memberships are also available to the community. 40 families get together and each contribute $10 a month, and are entitled to unlimited emergency medical transport in the helicopter. And when people who are impoverished and are not members of the helicopter service need to be flown? The helicopter usually flies anyway, sometiems with money for fuel from Richard Warren, the manager of RECO (the electric company here). Since there is currently no other medical flight crew (Yolanda, the paramedic has gone home for a few months), we are in the right place and right time to temporarily fill a great need, and we are working to train replacements from among the firemen and local doctors to ensure that the service can continue after we leave. Sometimes people ask me if I miss the ‘Real World’ (not the show, the ACTUAL ‘real world’) and it always makes me a little sad. Every day here feels like a million years because it is packed with reality…look into the brave eyes and smile of a horribly burned 7 year old girl that you are working to keep alive in a situation where there is either you, or no other option for help. This is as real as it gets…real life is all around us, all the time and sometimes in modern developed society it seems like we somehow get blind to the richness and deaf to the heartbeat of the surge of lives and stories happening on all sides.
My dream was to create the means to stop where there was need and help in whatever way we could, and every day I watch my dream unfolding all around me. The people who have made that leap of faith to travel to this far shore and work with us, bringing my dream to life in ways I never imagined, have a spirit of goodness in them that I love to be around, and when they go I miss them very much. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have had the chance to meet and spend time with remarkable men and women who have worked side by side with me to bring help where it is needed. Tweek and Giles miss everyone too, they are moping and needy and looking around for people who aren’t here.
The boat would be very quiet with just Sirin and myself onboard, but thankfully last week we were joined by a new member of our crew, Captain Ed Smith. A McGuyver-level technowizard as well as a Marinero and all around great guy, Ed passed through the boat in one week like a storm, systematically knocking items off our to-do list and getting the boat set for sea when Noah and Sky and Bryan return in three weeks. I’m looking forward to having his skills and his company (he’s got awesome stories and a great laugh) as we navigate further south when we depart Honduras.
And so ends another typical day on Southern Wind, current position, Isla Roatan, Honduras. Every day is an adventure in life. A thought that drifts through my consciousness nearly every night as I fall asleep is always ‘I wonder what will have happened by eveningtime tommorow…a million years from now?’
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