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?’
July 5, 2010. Port Antonio, Jamaica
Well, our passage from Haiti to Honduras was briefly interrupted. Our first day sailing from Haiti brought fine cruising downwind and down current, but as we began to cross the Windward Passage between Haiti and Jamaica we hit heavy weather. A beam sea of 8-10 foot waves made for a miserable roll. After 48 hours of fighting the helm, driving through lightning and winds reaching 55 mph, we found ourselves passing north of Port Antonio on Jamaica’s NE coast.
With our generator overheating and crew exhausted, we turned south and arrived in Port Antonio just after daybreak. Errol Flynn Marina in Port Antonio has been giving free dockage to boats coming to or from work in Haiti. Only a mile from land, the seas subsided, and we got shelter. We cruised into the protected harbor and pulled gently up to the dock. I was at the helm, and I will never forget the enormous feeling of relief that washed over me as I heard ‘All lines secure’ called out from the deck. I shut down both engines and relaxed fully for the first time in over 2 months.
We lived at anchor, enduring squalls and gales and constant maintenance, for well over 8 weeks in Haiti with nowhere to tie up or deep water to try and anchor in. Once or twice in Haiti our anchor dragged on a windy night and we had to pull and reset. An hour after we tied up at Port Antonio, a squall came through with 40 mile an hour winds, and I paid zero attention to it; a luxury we never had the whole time in Haiti.
“The Breaking Of A Wave Cannot Explain The Whole Sea” –Vladimir Nobokov
Looking back over the last 2 years, I really feel for old Vladimir’s sentiment. Two years of planning and hard work have last week been realized when Southern Wind took to the air again. She was lifted off the hard ground on the travel lift a few days ago and gently lowered back into the welcoming embrace of the ocean, her hull all repaired and sound, her bottom paint and hull shining fresh, her clean propellers eager to bite into the water and once again push her out of the safety of the harbor, into the deep blue and over the horizon to far shores under different stars. A ship up on blocks in a marine yard always looks out of place somehow; stranded in a world alien to her needs and abilities like a fish dying on a dock, unable to understand why its swimming motions aren’t propelling it to safety, or like a water turtle turned on its back by some cruel tormentor and struggling futilely in the hot. I especially hate to see ships whose owners get them up into the marine yard and then neglect them or give up on them, letting them molder until they have to be sold for scrap. Ships aren’t made to die slowly on land, their repairs forgotten or given up; their purpose is not to rot away at their moorings. Taking them to sea is a risk—every single time, but every time I see a beautiful ship tied like a forgotten pet, unused year after year, or a once-proud vessel that has seen wonders none of us will ever know shoved into a far corner of a marine yard with long grass growing under its keel, I remember an old quote that I often think of when I am faced with a risk (as most decisions of consequence in our lives always involve): “A ship in port is safe…but that’s not what ships are built for.”
At last, Southern Wind is returning where she belongs, and true to her namesake she will carry us south to new places and new people who do not yet know that soon a white sail and red hull will appear over the horizon and bring a team of people who have demonstrated time and again during this long process their commitment and courage to doing whatever it takes to bring aid and help wherever it is needed.
On Friday January 22nd, we moved Southern Wind from the dock where we have been working for months in Palm Coast, 30 miles north up the Intracoastal Waterway to St. Augustine for a haul-out and two weeks of yard work at St. Augustine Marine Center before we sail for Haiti. Haiti has always been our fist planned destination, and ever since the earthquake we have been frantically trying to finish our work on Southern Wind and set sail. The Rotary Club here has raised money for additional fuel–normally we would travel under sail as much as possible to avoid using too much fuel, but people are more important than diesel and when we depart, we will travel with all sails up and both engines pushing hard all the way to Haiti.
Our project is designed to deliver medical supplies where there are no ports, so the devastation in Haiti’s commercial ports will not deter us from going. Also, we originally planned to sail on from Haiti, but we are leaving some of our field gear here in Florida to make foom for additional supplies and volunteers. Our friend Veronica from Rotary has a bus that we can store our surplus gear in and collect when we return to Florida to drop off Volunteers and take on new arrivals before departing for Central America.
First, though, we had to get Southern Wind safely out of the canal where she has lain for ten years, over the 6-foot bar between our canal and the intracoastal, and safely up the intracoastal to the marine yard in St. Augustine for a haul out the next m0rning. Southern Wind is a BIG boat–70 tons, and this would be our first time feeling how she moves in the water. Captain Ryan Emberley, our friend from West Marine in Jacksonville, was aboard to pilot the ship safely on the maiden voyage of her rebirth after years of exposure to weather and slowly dying in her quiet canal.
We were to dock at St. Augustine Marine’s long dock on arrival, stay there the weekend, and haul Monday morning. We calculated that at 10 knots and no problems, the 30 mile run to St. Augustine could TECHNICALLY be made in 3 hours, but even though I think all of us figured there was no way things would go that smoothly, none of us anticipated the Three Hour Tour we would all experience over the next 72 hours.
Besides working so hard for so long, besides our desire to put our project into action, despite the earthquake in Haiti that has us chomping at the bit to set sail, we had one additional reason to want to move Southern Wind out of her canal–lots and lots of dead fish. A record cold snap (of course, right? While we were here in Palm Coast, we have had record floods, record cold…what’s next?) kept the temperature around or below freezing for days on end, and the canals got so cold that THOUSANDS of fish–mostly catfish, but also snook, jacks, mullet, needlefish–froze to death, and in the two slightly warmer days of preparation to move Southern Wind, all their rotting bodies floated onthe surface and the tides and wind brought ALL the canals’ dead fish down into our blind end canal.
As we near our departure, we wanted to show everyone who has supported us the faces behind Floating Doctors. This is us, interviewed and edited by NotThisBody, and posted to answer (in our own voices) a lot of the questions that we have been asked over the past many months. Thank you to everyone who made it possible for us to get to this point, and wishing you a prosperous and healthy holidays from all of us at Floating Doctors.
June 30, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida
A day that began with a storm and ended with a beautiful sunset that turned the evening sky into flames!
Lightning and thunder crashed all around the house at 6 AM, rattling the windows and making the power flicker. Afterward, we managed to continue work as usual on the boat. It is so exciting that we are doing finishing work now—carpeting, paneling, running water lines and plumbing, painting, etc; we can really see the boat coming together!
We finished putting up the carpeting in the Scorpion Cabin—that’s what we call the twin cabin on the port side of the aft cabins; when we were hustling medical supplies onboard during the floods here, we stored many of them temporarily in this cabin, and a day or so later we came upon a scorpion that must have taken refuge from the floods in one of the boxes and got carried aboard. For the next few weeks, that dark, warm cabin piled floor to ceiling with boxes looked like the ultimate scorpion apartment complex and made us a bit cagey about going in there and rummaging around. We never saw another one, but forever after we refer to that cabin as The Scorpion Cabin. Hopefully it will never live up to its name again!
The heat and humidity combine into what is called a ‘Killing Heat.’ A couple of years ago, when I was in Ireland, a rare heat wave drove temperatures in London above 100 degrees, and hundreds of people died—mostly elderly people without air conditioning (not a common household appliance then in England), as they (and infants) are much more vulnerable to overheating. The heat here is even stronger—high humidity, and when we are working on deck, and especially down below decks without the fans turned on, sweat pours from every pore on our bodies. Clothes are soaked in moments, paint trays have a rain of salty water into them…it is BRUTAL. We drink 5-10 liters per day and it flows right out of us.
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