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?’
May 6 2010. Petit-Goave, Haiti
The sea has no memory.
It blew hard here last night, on the one week anniversary of our time here in Haiti. We spun twice around the anchor in the shifting gales as lightning split the skies and torrential rain washed all the salt and heat from our boat, and dawn showed the clear blue waters of Petit-Goave turned a deep murky green from the mountain and city runoff. Trash floated everywhere as streets poured their refuse into the sea, and I forbade the crew from swimming over the side until the water cleared. I didn’t know how long it would take, but the water off Petit-Goave drops off to over a thousand feet only a half mile from the port, and within two tides we watched the dirty green water sweep out to sea and be replaced with the normally deep blue open ocean water. On the second incoming tide, the water cleared and before the peak we could clearly see the coral and sponges of the reef below us. The sea showed no sign of the storms and rain of the night before, and it rolled on towards the shore as it has for thousands of years .
Thus the sea has no memory. It does not remember the earthquake, it does not remember Haitian independence, it does not remember the greed and corruption that spiraled Haiti down into depression and darkness, it does not remember all the failures and setbacks that have continually plagued Haiti. The tide rolls out, new water rolls in, and the face of the sea remains impassive to all the things that steal hope from a people.
It is amazing how much incident can be packed into each day. The week we have been here has flown by but also feels like a million years ago. Already we have seen so much, and things are not totally what I expected (in some ways things were EXACTLY what I expected). Devastation is everywhere; there is no work, no economy, everyone is hungry, there is nothing to rebuild with, everyone is living in tents…and yet somehow people still get up in the morning and go out to find work or food for their families. It is shocking to me that there are still people here who can have hope—the belief that things tomorrow might be better than today.I have seen Haitians who have literally lain down in the dirt and given up, and I cannot judge them that decision because from where they are standing there seems to be no hope at all. In the face of all we have seen, people still can have hope. From the rubble people try to build normal lives, and from high in the cracked remnants of buildings plants thrust out and reach towards the sun. Life, as Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, cannot be contained. It is a powerful force, and when barriers and challenges are put in front of it, life finds a way. The human spirit is an extraordinary thing and I feel lucky to glimpse a small snapshot of its power, and to have the opportunity to do everything we can to help foster it and encourage its survival. New challenges get thrown up in front of us at every turn—how do you get 20,000 pounds of lumber, building materials and medical supplies through the complicated customs process, off the boat onto the broken,
half sunken pile of rocks that is the Petit-Goave dock?
We have just finished our first week working on the boat hauled out of the water at St. Augustine Marine Center. We came back at noon today, as the rain started coming on and you can’t sand boat hulls in pouring rain. I know I said I
had about 28 heart attacks during the move from Palm Coast up to St. Augustine, but they didn’t really settle down until the boat was safely lowered onto blocks and supports and the travelift and straps taken away.
We have a lot to do in a short time, but it looks like we will accomplish it. We have two or three repairs to the hull, prepping the bottom and putting anti-fouling paint on, painting the hull above the waterline, removing our old generator and putting in the new one Polaris Marine are giving us, cleaning and serviceing our propellers and shafts, getting our bowthruster operational, installing a through-hull transducer for our Raymarine sonar…ok, I had ANOTHER cardiac event just thinking about that list.
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 5, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida.
It is 2:00 AM in Palm Coast…all my crew that have arrived here in Palm Coast so far are passed out asleep after yet another brutal day getting our sailboat ready to sail south with all our medical supplies. We are so tired at the end of the day we rarely go out except to get something we need at Home Depot, WalMart, Publix supermarket, etc.We cook together in the house we have been sharing for the last few weeks (the boat isn’t ready to live in quite yet!), then nearly every night sit on the screened patio around our little table and talk (often about how to solve challenges we encounter during our daily re-build of our boat, often about what our voyage will be like, and often about nothing at all). Behind our house is nothing but marshland, so the night is filled with frogs, crickets, and other strange sub-tropical marsh sounds. So far we have seen armadillos (a big herd of them came trotting by last night while we were sitting outside), black racers snakes (lots of em’ but our friend Snoop, a fiberglass guy we found here who is helping us glass all the new stuff we built, says they are territorial and keep rattlesnakes away), tortoises, lizards, frogs, alligators (outside WalMart in the run-off pools), dolphins, manatee s, eagles, deer…and we haven’t even set off yet!
Nick’s guitar and acoustic bass arrived in the mail from home today, so we now have two guitars, a bass, and a harmonica! Music… what a fantastic way for us to develop connections with the people we are going to meet; playing music together has been a bonding experience among us as I hope it will be between us and those we encounter along our journey. After dinner, before I went off to go do email, we sat around for a while playing 12-bar blues—so far, we can rebuild a boat together and play music together; I can’t wait till we do our first clinic together! When they pulled me up the mast for the first time the other day when we were working on the rigging, from up there everyone on deck keeping me safe, raising and lowering gear and running lines like a maypole looked like one animal with many parts, moving as a team…adaptable yet adapting together.
Going up the mast was the very first activity that had required ALL of us on that task in different roles at the same time, with serious potential consequences, and watching everyone do everything needed with speed and purpose made me feel a surge of trust in everyone here. I really don’t know how I got so lucky in everyone here, except that many people here have survived at least one occurrence of Life Happening, and the kind of people who gravitate towards service to others when they have experienced pain (instead of turning inward and self pitying) are, I suppose, the kind of people who are kind, thoughtful of others, creative, self-motivated, compassionate, hardworking, and of course funny! My dad got to meet Mother Theresa when he worked in her Home for the Dying in Calcutta and said she has a terrific sense of humor; after all, if you can’t laugh at yourself or at life, you’ll be a very, very unhappy person!
Our house is in the canal system in Palm Coast, only couple of hundred feet down the road from our boat, and some of the houses have their own dock on the canal. Our boat, the Southern Wind, is at a dock behind the home of the previous owners, Dennis and Jeannette. They have allowed us to do major construction every day behind their house, let us use all their tools and extra equipment, told us how to do a lot of the repair (a lot of it was stuff we were doing for the first time! I can’t believe Sky knows how to frame, epoxy, fiberglass, paint acid on metal to prepare it for painting, and generally do boatbuilding!), driven me around for hours showing me where to find the marine yard, chandlery, welding shop, Home Depot and all the other places we need to find to get our boat ready!
All the neighbors have been very kind as well; only once have any of the neighbors asked us to desist—you see, we tend to forget what day it is (time has no meaning when you are working as hard as you can all day, every day) and one Sunday at 7:00 PM we were using (simultaneously) an electric planer, a circular saws and a chopsaw, 2 drills, and a metal grinding wheel. Did I mention that these folks have their backyard and dock directly across the canal entrance from us—about 100 feet away? Serious remorse was felt when he very politely reminded me what day and what time it was. We packed up our tools and took off!
The community itself has received us really well, too—my sister says she can’t get over how good the customer service is; we have also made a lot of friends down at the local Home Depot (since we go THERE about every other day). In fact, the radio interview Sky and I did here on WNZF on June 1st was due to Jon at Home Depot, who (after hearing about our project) put us in touch with David Ayres at WNZF who interviewed us on the air about Floating Doctors.
So I have a sturdy, large sailboat, all the medical supplies Direct Relief International provided, and an absolutely AMAZING crew of remarkable individuals who I not only like, but to whom I have already lite rally trusted my life more than once. I feel absolutely confident; everyone’s attitude is so positive, everyone pitches in to work SO hard all day every day…every hard or dirty job has no shortage of willing hands to tackle it. After almost exactly a year since we even started to organize this mission and gain support, we are making it happen! Everyone who comes to see the boat thinks we have been working on it for 6 months because so much has been accomplished in the 6 weeks we have been here! Every day the boat takes a huge stride forward towards being done!
It is getting pretty late and we have to be up in 6 hours to head down to the boat, so I’ll pick this up tomorrow. I was chatting with my mom earlier this evening (she has been our biggest supporter, she is even helping develop and manage our website at the moment!) I think Sky is making a frittata with all our leftover vegetables and she makes the BEST frittata! I need to find an 8-inch peeler log to make a conical plug to fit the raw seawater intake pipe underneath the boat (I’ll hammer it in with a mallet from underneath, good thing one scuba tank I brought happens to be full); then we can remove the frozen (open) valve on that pipe inside the engine room (without seawater flooding into the engine room) and weld a new valve and a filter in its place. Plus we have a list of about 30 job s we are tackling tomorrow. AND we have GOT to find out what keeps biting Ryan when he is sleeping! He is BATHING in insect repellent, none of us are using it, and he is just getting mauled by something!
Just another day!
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