Before coming here—my first trip to Haiti—we had done so much reconnaissance (and I have already been to many places in the developing world) that I had a pretty good idea what to expect, but I also knew that there would be many things that would come out of left field and surprise me. From experience, I knew that for the first couple of weeks everything would be new and exciting, and that after a few weeks there would be things about Haiti that were chronically frustrating and upsetting. In this case, corruption in the government, the behavior of many other non-profits that are here, and human greed top the list for things that upset me in Haiti. But this doesn’t discourage me at all—EVERYWHERE I have EVER been, including places I love and would live in or revisit in a second, has things that I don’t like: the traffic in L.A., the lack of mountains in Florida, the cold in Ireland, the rampant HIV in South Africa, government corruption in Mexico, the mosquitos in Botswana. After a few weeks here, yes, of course there are things about Haiti that I don’t like, but I don’t care. No place is perfect, but as much as the challenges to rebuild Haiti seem overwhelming, there are still people here who have not given up, and neither will we.
If I am miserable and unfulfilled in one place, I’ll be miserable and unfulfilled when I go somewhere else, but I am doing what I dreamed of doing, after having (as Sky puts it) “frankensteined together this project that came out of your own head and watched it accomplishing everything you hoped it would and more.” At age 34, I am watching my dream come to life despite naysayers and constant challenges, with many hands reaching out to us to help us along our way. From childhood my dream was to practice this kind of medicine—the kind of medicine I watched my dad practice when he took me on rounds at the hospital as a child, and saw him provide in the homes of his patients and on the side of the road at terrible car accidents in Topanga Canyon where we grew up.
When your life’s dream is being fulfilled before your eyes is very hard to be unhappy and negative. The most common comment we have gotten, hands down, from older people who have met us, is “It is so great that you are doing this now, while you are young. You will never have to look back and have regrets about things you wish you had done and the places you have seen.” And when I look back down the years, hopefully many years from now, I want my halls of time to be lined with the faces of people whose lives I have connected with, however briefly, and in whose lives I left some kind of positive impact.
June 4, 2010. Petit-Goave, Haiti.
At long last, my dad and I got to practice medicine together! Dr. George La Brot, was just with us for ten days working in the clinic alongside me. This was a big deal for me; ever since I was a child and I knew that I wanted to be a doctor, I dreamed of working with my dad. Over 25 years have passed and here, a continent and an ocean away from where we started, we saw patients side by side in the clinic and in our mobile clinics. It was a wonderful experience to consult with my dad, and to be consulted by him when we had troublesome cases to figure out. I really wanted to show him what all his and my mom’s support and encouragement on the path to medicine and then to Floating Doctors had wrought.
I talked to my dad on Hughes’ phone as they were driving from the airport; my dad said that PAP looked like a lot of places he had been, but with more rubble—the wholesale destruction is much more striking in PAP because that’s where the biggest buildings were. He is right—anywhere I have been in the developing world, many things are exactly the same. As different and unique as each place is, there is always a strange sense of déjà vu that accompanies walking down a dirt road through an impoverished neighborhood watching children bathe in the gutter or a woman cooking something over a small wood fire. When he arrived at the clinic, we worked that first day, and in the afternoon all of us headed into town to run errands. We had to go to the bank, get bread from the bakery, get some produce from the market, get laundry detergent, get gas for the skiff, get some phone credit for our Haitian cell phone (indispensable for anyone planning to work in Haiti), exchange some glass soda bottles and collect our deposit, etc. For the afternoon, the clinic had arranged for us to have a driver with a beat-up old pickup truck. Continue reading Wherever You Go, There You Are
Well, at the end of our week here in Petit-Goave, it’s time to check how well we are meeting the goals for our project that I first envisioned over two years ago while working long nights in Irish hospitals.
I dreamed of a multi-skilled, highly adaptable relief team aboard a self-sufficient support platform that could use 21st Century medical technology, classical medical diagnostics and adaptability to different needs and resources to create long-term health benefits in developing world communities, making a difference one person at a time. Here we are, many months and many days of hard work later, and with many people who helped make this possible now a part of our story, anchored safely in Petit-Goave, Haiti.
For our first mission destination, I chose a tough location—Haiti: more than 800 miles from where we started, with huge challenges facing its people from every possible direction, a couple months after a huge disaster when people are still living in tents but many aid groups have pulled up stakes and moved on. If we could successfully conduct a mission here, I felt confident we could do it anywhere.
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?
Two years after I decided to hang up my stethoscope in Ireland, leave the hospital in Dublin behind and move back to the US to organize the Floating Doctors, here we are in Lake Worth Inlet on the Southeast Coast of Florida waiting for a weather window to make the crossing the Haiti.
So many generous hands and hearts have made FD a reality. I am thinking of our friend Don Capo, who helped us save thousands and thousands of dollars, guiding our work on the hydraulics and running gear, and hull repairs, and the refurbishment of many other systems. He finished the survey of our vessel the very morning we sailed from the dock at St. Augustine Marine Center and headed to the inlet to anchor. He stepped off the boat, and he grew smaller and smaller on the dock we left behind. His kindness and generosity are part of what we will carry with us and pay forward on our mission.
On the 200 mile transit to Lake Worth inlet on Florida’s southeast coast we broke up into three watches of three crew each, 4 hours on duty twice a day, 8 hours apart. My own was the 12-4 AM/PM watch. I am usually up till 3 or 4 AM anyway–when you are working on the boat all day and leading a crew, the quiet night hours are the best time to get paperwork and admin done. I have no difficulty sleeping till 9 or 10 AM after coming off watch at 4 AM, even with the morning noises accompanying the other two watches getting up to begin their day. Some of the crew are inherently early risers–you know, those folks who wake up around 5 or 6 AM every day and have no trouble falling asleep around 10 or 11 at night…lucky devils. Some have sleep patterns more like mine, so we were able to do a pretty good job spreading people around into watches that suited their natural sleep/wake cycles.
March 26, 2010. St. Augustine, Florida.
I am just wrapping up the last watch in the pale yellow pre-dawn before our day begins; we are at anchor in St. Augustine, just inside the inlet leading to the open sea, which I can see just a few hundred yards from where we are now. We were trapped behind the Lion’s Bridge for a few days while it was closed; it is an historic bridge at the entrance to St. Augustine inlet that has just been re-opened after 4 years of restoration–a beautiful bridge but looking at the sea through the closed bridge pylons was like looking through bars in a cage. Yesterday evening, they opened the drawbridge for us, and we dropped anchor safe and sound on the ocean side of it. Very, very frustrating to be stuck for a couple of days, but of such things is life at sea made. The sea is always the same–ever changeable, and always throwing up new challenges and new opportunities. All we can do is adapt as fast as possible, and we have learned to be good at it.
Dr. Cutler, a doctor from Los Angeles, and his family (his wife is a nurse and his 16 year-old son is coming to help out as well) are scheduled to meet us in Petit-Goave, and fortunately I made sure that Dr. Cutler knew that there was always the possibility of unforseen circumstances that could keep us from making our rendevous with incoming docs, and had contingency plans in place for several different scenarios., Dr. Tania Desgrottes–an anesthesiologist in NY and niece of Hughes Desgranges, Ministre du Cabinet for Petit-Goave and director of the health center where we will be working–has arranged for them to be picked up at the airport in PAP, driven to Petit-Goave, accommodated, fed, and started in the health center until we arrive in a few days and bring them onboard.
There was much to do while we waited for the drawbridge to re-open; securing 20,000 pounds of cargo well enough so that, if the boat is upside down, it will not shift (always ‘think inverted’ when stowing gear onboard), poring over the charts, arranging long-range radio contact times and dates for the different cruising nets we will be passing through, cooking, standing watches at night, tinkering with our systems and acclimating our ship’s cat and dog to life onboard. It is mentally and physically exhausting, but also exhilarating. To see the crew working pretty much 7 days a week for 11 months in defiance of heat, high winds, cold, and rain, to see the huge pile of 10,000 lbs of supplies and material collected at our house in Jacksonville (and 8,000 lbs of lumber and 2,000 lbs of tin roofing delivered to us in the marine yard) absorbed into Southern Wind, to be living on the boat and safely at anchor just inside St. Augustine inlet after so much time and hard work rebuilding her, to be stowing gear for departure, and most of all to have all the people in Flagler, Palm Coast and St. Augustine (and across the US) give us so much of their time, encouragement, and support has been an amazing experience.
“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.
Man, what a week…you know, I’ve always admired ants…when a group of them swarm together, they can make short work of tasks far greater than their individual size would suggest. With Southern Wind up on dry land, she looks like the project of some giant ant colony, with people crawling all over grinding, sanding, epoxying, building, wiring, and finally checking off all the thousand projects we have had aboard since we started this rebuild.
Once again, our work is flying ahead because of all the support we have received out here from the community–the Rotary club here is providing funds for the extra fuel we will burn in a powered run to Haiti with a full load, and even up in St. Augustine everyone in the boatyard and the folks in the marine industry here have given us materials and hours of their time and experience to help us solve the various challenges we faced in our dry dock repairs.
For example, Rick, Tom and Cheryl at Polaris Marine continue to host Ryan in their workshop almost daily to let him crimp wires and help him decipher the complex wiring solutions necessary on Southern Wind, Sinclair from the Sailor’s Exchange is looking for red hull paint for us, and Bobby and Steve in the yard helped us get our old diesel generator out–after we removed all the bolt-ons (everything we could take off the generator in place), the core and block still weighed around 2,000 pounds–kind of hard to get out of a small space in the engine room!
After much discussion (thanks Don Capo and everyone who pondered this problem with us), we decided to bite the bullett and cut a hole in the hull, unbolt the generator from its mounting and lift it out with the yard’s crane. So we cut a hole (that now we have to patch, of course) and the next day, in a cold heavy rain, Bobby and Steve hauled the generator out the hole…it sounds so easy when I say it like that, but I guess all in all it was pretty easy (because we had their expert help and a crane). We literally pulled it out; there was not QUITE enough clearance in the hole we cut and the generator slid out of the hole tightly strapped to the crane above. I’ve been waiting 8 months for this moment–and now we can install the much more efficient and lighter generator Polaris Marine are donating and close up the hole. Continue reading Week #2 in St. Augustine
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.
Ok, if you follow us on Facebook, by now you have surely seen our boat dog and boat cat. Their full names are as follows: our cat, a little grey Manx, is properly called Professor Tweek Stubbs, and our dog is a black lab-pit-mastiff mutt called Giles McCoy.
The story of our animal acquisition is gradual, but in hindsight was an inevitability. Originally, Sky and I strongly resisted the crews’ (and our own) pleas to get a boat dog. We had opted not to get any boat animals because although Southern Wind is big enough for animals not to be cramped, we were worried about quarantines and immigration. However, we talked to a lot of other cruising sailors who had little trouble—and at worst, in some places the animals might have to stay onboard—which in a 76-foot vessel with air conditioning (while we slog clinical equipment ashore in tropical heat) might be the nicer option! We had to get travel health certificates for them, like the pet passports I got for my Irish cats when I brought them back to California (thanks mom for looking after them!).
While mulling over that news, we visited the local VFW and met a veteran named Bert. Bert told us about a member of their VFW that he wished we had been able to meet—Dr. Giles McCoy. Dr. McCoy had passed away a few months before we got to Florida, and had recently told his story at the Palm Coast VFW.
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