As we were closing up shop after a busy clinic day in Oakridge, we got a call from the Roatan Zoo—one of the new keepers had been badly mauled by one of the monkeys while cleaning the enclosure. Oh man…after a late night working on the computer and a CRAZY day in clinic I was looking forward to lying down for a while, but when the call comes for help, you have to help–so we grabbed our minor surgery bag and some antibiotics and headed over.
Apparently, the victim had been employed there about two months, and was working (as usual) with the main keeper, who had been with the zoo
for 5 years. They had been in the cages together many times before, and had no problems, but this time the head keeper stepped out to grab some additional cleaning supplies and one of the monkeys decided to challenge the new guy.
While with the head keeper, he had been safe—the head keeper’s place in the monkey society was well established (as boss), so the new keeper got a free pass. But when he was left on his own, one of the males just went for him. He was knocked to the ground and savaged, bitten and clawed all over his legs and his arms and hands; the monkey actually went for his face—all the wounds on his arms and hands are classic defensive wounds. Fortunately the head keeper heard the commotion, ran back and pulled the monkey off (the monkey immediately submitted to the head keeper).
The male in question had been horribly abused in its previous home; it had come to the zoo nearly dead…now it is in fine form; I guess it feels strong enough to challenge newcomers in its little kingdom. Everyone always looks at monkeys and goes ‘Awwww….how cute.” And it is true, with their little human faces and adorable antics, they are pretty fun—but they are also wild animals with motivations all their own, and with lots of strength, agility, speed and teeth and claws!
When we got there, the poor guy was a little shocky, covered in blood, dried monkey saliva, and dirt and debris from the bottom of the monkey enclosure. He was so filthy and crusted that we couldn’t even see where the wounds were. Pretty bad scenario from an infection point of view; monkeys have fangs that can bite pretty deep and inoculate your tissues with their raw sewage-like saliva (pretty similar to human saliva, probably).
I immediately gave him an injection of ceftriaxone and an injection for pain. We used a garden hose (the water at this resort/zoo is filtered and potable) to soak off the filth and dried blood as it would have taken more gauze than we had with us, and been more painful. The hose helped gently soak open the dirty scabs over the wounds, and let them bleed out a little to help clean them. Finally we could see the wounds—lots of them, probably around 40 bites and claw marks. If he hadn’t been wearing jeans, I think he would have lost half the skin on his legs, and if he hadn’t had his arms up in front of his face things would have been a whole lot worse.
After disinfecting and irrigating all the wounds, we salved them with antibiotic ointment, dressed them, and gave him oral antibiotics and painkillers, and fresh bandages for his family to change for him if he got wet. We also started him on acyclovir, an antiviral given as prophylaxis for monkey bites. The next day, all his wounds were clean and dry except for his right hand and left forearm, which were very swollen (and pus was expressed from the hand). We added a second, stronger antibiotic and got him to start bathing his wounds in hot soapy water a few times a day.
It worked—his swelling went down and his wounds are healing nicely. Never a dull moment practicing medicine in the tropics, but most of all I liked that we were able to bring care to his home. The house call is still my favorite consult.
When I was a kid I watched my dad do house calls in Los Angeles…practicing Alaskan small-town doctor medicine in a big city. In my folks’ house, as long as I can remember, there is an old print of a painting of a doctor, circa 1830ish, on horseback with a lantern and black medical bag in the dead of night, riding slowly through a driving rainstorm. There’s no adrenaline rush about the figure; the doctor is not flying down the road, coat trailing behind and sparks flashing from the horse’s shoes on the cobbles.
Instead, the doctor looks cold and wet—can barely see his face behind his upturned collar, peering head through the dimly lit night. He has the air of one doing a job that he is doing because he has no choice, because it is who he is. It would never occur to him that someone else should be the one to go out in the night and go help a sick patient. He goes, and gets cold and wet and more tired (he must be a critical care doctor), because to him, that is what a doctor does. It isn’t even a sacrifice, just a part of his core being. I always felt like that picture captured some of the essence of what being a doctor means to me.
All photos of patients are depicted with consent of the patients.
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!
Cayos Cochinos, Honduras
Today we voyaged to the Cayos Cochinos island group to do a mobile medical clinic among the Garifuna people living on theses scattered, isolated cays. About 150 people, mostly children, live on the Cayos with little or no access to health care except on the mainland–and for most of the inhabitants, making a bare subsistence living fishing and on the few adventure tourists who visit the Cayos, the 14-mile journey to the mainland might as well be a thousand miles away.
We were joined by volunteers from Clinica Esperanza and the Roatan Rotary Club. A dawn departure with beautiful weather for a crossing saw us
reaching the Cayos Cochinos around mid morning. Because the normally east trade winds were reversed, blowing from the Northwest, there was no place we could anchor in shelter, and Southern Wind had to stand off the island while our team went ashore for the clinic.
The local officials were kind enough to use their panga to run us to shore, and we set up on the beach and began to see patients. We saw adults and children, men and women, all suffering the diseases of poverty that we see everywhere there are people living at the subsistence level such as worms, skin diseases and fungus, poorly healed wounds, poor nutrition, anemia, malaria…and we also saw a lot of ear infections since the islanders spend a lot of time diving for food.
It is heartbreaking to see people living their lives with so little support from anywhere, and yet they laugh and smile, and the children play, and when they get sick, they either get better or they don’t, so it was a wonderful experience to bring care directly to their homes. We distributed over 6,000 vitamins, and treated almost all the residents of one of the cays for parasites, and managed to get some health education to the moms on the island. They have little or no access to health knowledge, and we always look for any opportunity to provide health knowledge that can help our patients get better and stay healthier.
Bad weather and a broken mooring line in the middle of the night forced our early return to Roatan, but we will be going back to the Cayos soon to do follow-up on the patients we saw, and to visit the families living on the other cays as well. Our goal is to provide care for every man, woman and child living on the Cayos!
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.
July 8, 2010. Port Antonio, Jamaica.
I have time to think about some of the patients we saw in Haiti. I told my mom about a burn victim—a guy who had, 32 days before he saw me, fallen and been knocked unconscious for 7 hours, left lying on the metal deck of the boat he was working on alone in a Santo Domingo boatyard.
The HOT metal deck…cooked him. In Ireland, I used to see cases of elder neglect. Elderly people, especially over-medicated or with dementia, would fall asleep with their leg or body against a radiator. Overnight, they’d get terrible burns. This guy had burns on his right buttock, on both calves, his ankle and on the back of his head. Continue reading The Last Patient of the Day is Always the Hardest
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.
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