For me the sea has always been where I turn for inspiration, solace, and wonder. The night I was born I breathed thick salt air and first heard the sound of long Pacific swells rolling onto whispering sand, and from that day my life was held forever in the sea’s net of wonders. My mom and dad were living in a beach motel in Southern California while my dad did his medical residency, and my first steps were on the sand and behind my dad as he made hospital rounds and home visits to patients. I can never remember any time in my life when I wanted to be anything except a doctor and a marine naturalist, and thanks to my parents, extraordinary mentors and opportunities I became a marine biologist and a doctor and have had experiences in both fields that make me grateful to be alive just for one of those moments.
My favorite thing about the sea is that it is not lonely; in the sea I feel connected by the water to millions of people around the world. I imagine millions of people of a thousand colors and languages and religions and nations all floating together in the sea’s embrace and connected across thousands of miles by one continuous, unbroken sea. When we float in the vast sea, only a little of it is holding us up, but that small part is connected to an unimaginably vast and powerful body of water. In the same way, this is how a people are strong. When we say ‘a sea of humanity’ we acknowledge that humanity–all of us together–are as powerful as the sea, which is always waiting to show what it can do.
Like every wave, every life is unique and beautiful, something I have experienced time and again through this voyage. In 2011 we saw our
10,000th patient, and although I am very proud of how many people have received care through Floating Doctors, what I am most proud of in 2011 was that as we expanded our project, we always stayed committed to the individual patient. Time and again, this has ultimately led to our being able to do more for more people than we originally anticipated and I have faith that we will remain committed to the single, individual patient as continue our voyage.
Long before I was old enough to venture over the horizon the last lands and seas had long since been charted, but fortunately the frontiers of health and the sea of humanity offer an endless horizon. Looking out over the Pacific horizon so many years ago I never envisioned that my greatest loves would one day combine in a mobile medical relief team exploring frontiers of health across the living ocean that washes all shores equally. I had no idea HOW I would pursue these two passions, I only knew with certainty that if I did not have them both in my life, I would never be happy, and so I would look out over the water or read Jacques Cousteau or trail after my dad on rounds, and dream of adventures on distant seas and future patients I would see and help.
But all the time a voice was urging me to move forward, always there was another voice…darker, more ancient; a more primitive vocabulary but it didn’t need sophisticated words…it has raw fear, self-loathing, shame, narcissism, and petty angst and selfishness. This voice, all my life, has whispered under my dreams, telling me I will never become a doctor, and never see the seas I spent my childhood dreaming of. Sometimes it spoke with other people’s voices, like during the year we struggled to rebuild Southern Wind after she had been donated to us and some people scoffed and said we would never make it, and it would never work, and we would all be killed and waste all the support we gathered…but here we are. Sky and I lived with fear as a constant companion for the whole tenuous first year of our project, when so often it hung by a thread, but (especially with my sister beside me and many hands outstretched to help us keep going) we were able to move forward, one foot in front of the other, and now here we are…going on a mobile clinic in the morning, more than 600 mobile clinics into our voyage.
I know now that this pessimistic voice I’ve always had spoke from feeling not good enough somehow to deserve attaining my dreams, and although as I got older (and continue to get older) the voice got fainter and fainter (I pretty much ignore it on autopilot now…most of the time), it took many years before I could–as my wise sister says–”Allow myself to succeed” without it being a struggle. We are always our own harshest critics and unforgiving judges, but as they saying goes: ‘You never know if you can climb the mountain until you try (REALLY try).’ And as a wise man said, is it really that frightening to succeed, and is it really, in the grand scheme of things, so terrible to fail? And there is always the third option (my favorite): sometimes when you fall, you find out you can fly (or learn how really, really quickly)–especially if hands are outstretched to help you stay in the air, and your ego (and the dark voice inside us) allows you accept the help that is offered.
The kindness and generosity I have seen people show towards us and to others fills me with hope that the daunting
challenges of our time can be survived. I am immensely proud of what my crew, friends and family, and all our volunteers and supporters have made possible, and incredibly grateful to be able to be a part of this voyage and to have shared it with such extraordinary people.
Even with all its faults, earth is a beautiful planet, and humanity, despite its many, many faults, is heroic. There are heroes all around us; it has been a great honor to work alongside so many of them.
“The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.”
Check out these pictures; some of my favorite moments captured in 2011.
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Part 3 of Our Transit: Cayman to Jamaica
We departed Grand Cayman on a beautiful sunny morning, anxiously clearing past
the eastern end of the island and waiting to see if an unexpected northeast swell would devastate us, but all seemed tranquil with gentle 1-2 foot seas and clear skies. With the calm water, our fuel (having already been filtered through 10 of our filter cartridges) wasn’t sloshing badly, and our port engine was running smoothly. When it did require a filter change it was comfortable to drift forward for ten minutes while we changed filters.
The next day, as we bore further south, we started to take the wind just forward of
the beam. We shook out the sails, gaining another 2.5 knots to the port engine, but as we came within sight of the western tip of Jamaica, waves wrapping around the north AND south of Jamaica were building and converging on our position at 45-90 degrees to each other, and building fast. As night fell, we were well east along Jamaica but still 50 miles offshore, having worn south to use the wind longer. We turned east and pulled the sails down, securing the ship in anticipation of yet another nasty sea coming…and we were not disappointed.
The seas came round close to the starboard beam, and the period shortened as we drove dead into the wind. Fuel started sloshing, and we soon found ourselves dead in the water as the port engine sucked up the sludge that was our fuel. Frantic filter changes continued, with increased urgency each time as we bore closer to the lee shore. We downloaded a weather report through our satphone (tough to hold the antennae southwest in that sea state) and realized that, once again, unexpected bad weather (11-12 foot seas and 35 mph winds) were coming to the windward passage, and we knew that we would be very, very lucky to make it around Jamaica’a eastern tip and pull into Port Antonio on the north side.
As day broke, Sky and I made the decision to divert to Kingston, which we might be able to reach before dark.
As we approached, we were not able to raise any of the Jamaican officials. It was a public holiday. We raised a local boater on VHF who connected us with a retired Evinrude dealer, who lived up the mountains and monitored all marine radio traffic. We rendezvoused with the first boater at a small cay off Kingston. He lent me a chart and pointed out the unmarked location of the
customs area, a small unmarked anchorage, and the Royal Jamaican Yacht Club anchorage, also unmarked and uncharted. Then, our new friend Tony Tame up on the mountain contacted the customs, immigration, health, and port officials, and we made our final, hair raising approach past Wreck Reef’s dangerous lee shore into Kingston’s main channel and the protection of its harbor…what a relief.
Within 2 hours we were cleared in and allowed to proceed to the yacht club, where we dropped anchor and collapsed asleep. We then spent 24 hours on reconnaissance; getting a Jamaican sim card and number for the blackberry, finding and calling stores that might carry the parts we needed, finding and arranging transport into town to search for what we need at stores we had already
contacted. The kind master mechanic and master engineer from the neighboring Carribbean Maritime Training Institute drove us all over town and helped us figure out where to find what we needed. Within 72 hours, we had obtained and installed all the parts that we needed to repair our engine systems (and incidentally, our alternator) and had polished the 400 gallons of diesel in our tanks…opening each of the three tanks’ access hatches, pumping out and filtering all the fuel, scrubbing and vacuuming the sludge from the bottom and then re-sealing the tanks. We finished at midnight, took on fuel the next day and then were invited by the yacht club to wait for weather at their dock.
What a relief! Tied to the dock, everything is easier, and anchor watches don’t need to be set. It will be hard enough in Haiti; it is great that everyone might get a chance to rest now. The weather is driving us crazy…there is a huge high pressure system over the east, sending howling winds down the Windward Passage, and a SE swell meeting it…it is nasty there, and we are heavily loaded with IV fluids.
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Note: This is Part 2 of the story of our voyage from Honduras to Haiti
First, I will say that the first 48 hours of this crossing from Guanaja to Jamaica will remain with me forever as two of the greatest days I have ever spent on the water…so good that even at the end of the second day, we said to each other that we would surely pay dearly for the day we had. And pay we did…I wish we had pictures of the madness that ensued when things turned from paradise to misery, but by then we were working too hard to remedy our situation, and too sick, to pick up a camera.
Those first 2 days, however, we cruised at 7 knots over a glassy Caribbean sea, with clouds reflected in it, catching fish after fish—dorado, tuna, wahoo, longbill spearfish, blue marlin at sunset, barracuda, grouper (when we passed over the reefs of Swan Island on the morning of the second day) and Jacks. One of the most epic and beautiful days on the water ever—but it meant that when I was off-watch (I had the con from 12-4 AM/PM), dawn was just coming so two full days of catching fish almost hourly kept me awake all day, catching only an hour or two in the evening after dinner.
On the morning of the 3rd day, I went to bed around 4:30 AM after my watch, but since my bunk is in the forepeak I feel the seas pretty badly when we are pitching, and I woke to hell…a wild sea, and a cross sea with the wind out of the northeast and the swell from the southeast. We strapped everything down and bore down dead ahead, climbing up the faces of the swells and coming down hard; Southern Wind handles seas on the bow pretty well, but this Caribbean sea is like a bathtub! Every sailor I’ve talked to says it is choppy, unpredictable, subject to sudden changes in weather, and watching the 3rd day of this supposed 7-day weather window dawn to whitecaps and a short cross-swell makes me long for the long rolling groundswell of the Pacific.
Our journey probably would have been merely miserable but uneventful, but 60 miles south of Grand Cayman
and only a day and a half from Jamaica, bad fuel we took on in Honduras (the worst I have ever seen…might as well have put gutter water in our tanks) started sloshing in our tanks and our fuel filters soon became clogged…Ed and Larson spent hour after hour in the engine room shutting down one engine at a time, changing filter cartridges (good thing we stocked up in Roatan with enough to last—we thought—6 months), until one of the canister cartridges grew so hot the metal fatigued and broke, disabling the starboard engine (to run it unfiltered, as we then rigged it in case of emergency, would have seized all our injectors and the engine would have been much more damaged).
When the port engine fuel filter clogged again, as we struggled to change it in the heaving engine room and reprime the fuel system, we turned beam onto the seas and started to roll. I threw lawn chairs tied to heavy lines off our bow to act as a sea anchor and hold our bow to the weather, and Noah, Dr. Holly and Randy worked to bring the sails up as we turned north to try and make it to Cayman. Sky raised a nearby freighter on the VHF, whose radio operator relayed our position and situation to Cayman port authorities and USCG Miami, and the Jamaican Coast Guard. The freighter stood ready to divert and take us off if necessary, and Sky contacted USCG directly on Satphone to update them with our position and situation in case a major rescue should become necessary. It meant a great deal to us that the freighter was willing to divert and rescue us if our ship had been lost; when we were in Roatan we saw a captain on another ship be told by the owner NOT to divert to help a sailboat that had gone up on the rocks on a channel entrance; the captain was very shaken up by this as he felt it was very, very bad karma. The law of the sea is the ethos of Floating Doctors…always stop and help, since you never know when it might be you on the receiving end of assistance
However, because I have a ship that refuses to give up fighting and a crew that can tackle any challenge and
function even under horrible conditions (even if afterwards we all have a series of quiet heart attacks and have lost weight from vomiting), we refused to give up the battle and with the wind sustained at 25 knots on the beam, the sails stabilized us (I immediately felt it in the engine room) and for a while we made 4.5 knots under sail alone (so much for the skeptics! We may not have all the sail Southern Wind had before her mast was shortened, and she’ll never be a racer, but she was a champion that day).
One the sails were up and I saw that we were making headway safely (if slowly) toward Cayman, I don’t remember much more for the next few hours as I think someone made me go lie down. One of the last things I remember is that the port engine had just been restarted (had to be re-primed with fuel every time the filter clogged) I think, and I put my head down on it in the engine room to fall asleep. It was awesome to make the transit with other captains onboard…otherwise I would have had no choice but to remain awake and functional (the most dangerous scenario faced by solo long-distance sailors). I was pretty dehydrated (had had no water for almost 24 hours, had been vomiting, had not eaten for 2 days, and had been awake for almost 4 days…Ed and Larson (and all of us, really) had a similar experience, and we were crazed when we finally pulled in sight of Cayman.
Holly and I brought the boat the last leg to Cayman and Holly (what a trooper) took the helm and let me sleep a little as we stood offshore, waiting for daylight to make our final approach to dock and clear in at Grand Cayman. We knew a mooring was available free, but first we had to visit the customs dock to clear in before we could move to the mooring and finally relax and sleep. I must have looked wild-eyed in the Port Captain’s office but they must be used to it as we cleared in with no difficulty and got onto the mooring asap.
We spent two days in Cayman waiting for the weather to open (or so we and various government and commercial weather prediction services believed it was going to), made a few repairs and tried to recover from the mess and shock of our previous crossing. We didn’t see much of Cayman (saw a lot of the inside of our engine room!) but the water there was beautiful, and it was a shock to be somewhere with good services available. Our next departure, we thought, would see us arriving in Port Antonio, Jamaica to take on some fuel and fix our broken fuel filter and tie up to a dock one last time for a night before crossing the Windward Passage and beginning our mission in Haiti (where we will likely be anchored in poor holding ground of uncertain depth, and it is impossible to completely relax).
The starboard engine could be used in an emergency (though it would surely soon seize if it had to be run), and
the port engine was functioning adequately to make it to Jamaica in good weather. Repairs were more practical in Jamaica, so at the next weather window we sailed for Jamaica on a calm, flat day…that was not destined to remain so for long.
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Note: A month ago we departed from Roatan for a ten-day transit to Haiti, with a stop in Isla Guanaja to clear out of Honduras and a stop in Port Antonio, Jamaica, for fuel and a night’s sleep before the final 36 hours to Petit-Goave, our first destination In Haiti.
That was the plan, anyway.
The next couple of updates, written here in Kingston, will tell the saga of what happened and catch us up from Roatan to here in Jamaica…I have written them all in one go, and will post one a day till we are caught up.
March 1, 2010–Isla Roatan to Isla Guanaja, Honduras
We knew it would be an up-wind, up-current battle the whole way to Haiti, so we made the 40-mile run from Roatan to Isla Guanaja to clear out, and wait for a weather window long enough to reach the protection of Jamaica. When we got to Guanaja through 6 foot, choppy seas coming from the east, there was no room in the only protected anchorage and we anchored outside in the channel, where it
proceeded to blow hard from the E and SE for 9 days. We dragged anchor several times before finally putting out a second bow anchor, which seemed to hold, but we spent many hours at night watching our chartplotter and peering out at Dunbar Rock to see if it loomed any closer in the darkness than it had 5 minutes before as we bucked and swung on our anchors.
Our generator was not putting out full power; its regulator control board had finally failed (it had done well to survive the lightning strike at all) but Ed managed to coax it to produce some power by using an old cell phone charger, wired directly to the circuit board, plugged into a small dashboard inverter which he wired directly to our battery bank. Thus, we were able to excite the part of the generator circuitry that allowed the generator to produce power, but it would frequently get hot and fail and need to be reset.
It turned out that I had to fly back to Roatan on a puddlejumper with all of our passports to clear out of Honduras, and we also had several cases of vitamins, IV fluids, gauze, syringes, antibiotics, heart monitors, and other supplies to deliver to the health center on Guanaja. I went back to Roatan and got everybody cleared out of Honduras, and when I got back we connected with the director there and we arranged for me and Dr. Holly to help out in the clinic. Holly saw patients for general consults, and I did ultrasounds on some pregnant women and women with abdominal masses.
We also managed to revisit a patient we saw when we were there in October—the patient that we suspected had
elephantaiasis. With a tropical medicine specialist onboard, and armed with the opinions and advice of many clinicians (form as far away as Fiji!) who wrote to offer suggestions, we re-examined him and decided on a course of treatment that might at least stop forward progression of the symptoms by killing any active filarial worms, and Noah taught him a series of exercises and techniques to try and increase lymphatic drainage. The next time we visit Guanaja, I hope he will show improvement…at least no progression!
We endured the wind and anxiety of anchor dragging for 8 days, finally moving to the backside of the island and negotiating a narrow, twisting reef passage to an anchorage with some protection. We still dragged, but only a little, so we managed to have a semi-restful last night and in the morning the sea and wind died down to nothing and we nosed out through the reef passage and headed NE towards Jamaica. Little did we know that the calm glassy waters of our departure would not last for long…
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This week saw the first heavy, 3 day long pouring rain for several weeks (of course, while we are trying to load the boat and finish our preparations for departure) and the tying off of many threads we have been following for months…we closed up our clinic in Oakridge, packing everything up and saying hasta luego a mi pacientes. Un momento muy difficile. Thank goodness we plan to return to open the clinic permanently as a satellite clinic, open every day with a doctor and staff on site even when Southern Wind is working elsewhere. Knowing we are coming back after this voyage, and knowing that with what we learned and the relationships we forged on Roatan, we can and will open that clinic, makes it much easier to say farewell. Instead, we say (we are going to Haiti, after all) aur revoir.
We finished off a lot of rainy day projects inside the boat (there are always, always more
projects), and got down to the business of prepping to load—that means taking every item out of its storage onboard, condensing everything, repacking all our medical go-bags (thank you Dr. Holly!), and most important: we took delivery of our 5 pallets of material left over in Miami from our last mission to Haiti (thank you Gary, Donna, and everyone at Roatan Rotary!), and our 40-foot container from Direct Relief International, packed with medicine and equipment for the clinics in the island and distributed the material to 5 clinics and the public hospital on the island.
This is a crowning moment for Sky. To get this container in, it required over 1,000 emails between Sky, the shipping company, Direct Relief International, Joseph Natale from Fundacion Heart Ventures, the customs office, the customs broker, Roatan Rotary, a cross-country trucking company and a local trucking company in Miami and another in Roatan, the warehouse in Miami with our 5 leftover pallets, the Ministry of Health in Honduras, 6 different clinics on Roatan, and Cepudo (a Honduran NGO on the mainland).
The difficulty is not in sending down material—anyone can order a container and have it
shipped down here…but not without enormous import fees. It is sending down material and getting it cleared through customs as donated material without $30,000 worth of customs duties applied that is difficult, not to mention that we wanted to create a conduit so that we could send containers on a regular basis. One time is easy…to set it up to be sustainable is way, way more difficult. It took more than anyone else will ever know to get it set up by Sky, but I will always know and always be impressed how much the people you already love and admire can still amaze you.
In a few months I will begin contacting the clinics again, finding out their needs and getting another request for DRI and container number 2…
In the midst of all this, we still see patients, provided the medical service for the Bay Islands Triathalon (including the kayaks monitoring the swimmers during the first leg), and Dr. Holly—whose training
includes major scene accident management—provided 2 days of training for the Fire Department, following up the training provided by our volunteer Sirin last year.
Dr. Holly showed the firemen a particular extrication trick—when you have a patient with suspected spinal injury from a car accident, you can extract the patient through the back window by lowering the front seat, sliding the board in through the back window and taking the patient straight out. Since we have the use of Gary and Donna’s open jeep, we could simulate the extraction without having to smash a car’s back window. We are nothing if not adaptable.
The weather is looking good for this weekend (pouring rain now)…high pressure pushing down, maybe keeping the low centers at bay over our projected route. Loading the IV fluids tomorrow and the next day…Finish securing the boat for sea…provisioning….and a last good night’s sleep.
Then give me that horizon.
Photos of patients used with patients’ express permission.
Photos of unloading and interior boat construction (pretty much most of the nice-looking photos) courtesy of Dan Chomistek
Last week we had an awesome experience—in the midst of our last weeks of preparation for our mission to Haiti, we are continuing to open our Oakridge clinic. Pretty hectic—clinic by day, boat work by afternoon and evening, and computer work late into the night…but totally worth opening the clinic not only because we had a full patient list right away, but also because we had some very welcome visitors to the Oakridge clinic on Wednesday.
Optometrists from Manteca Rotary Club in California’s Central Valley came to our clinic
and provided prescriptions and eyeglasses to 40 or more people in one morning’s work. They were cool—came in, knew exactly what to do, had obviously done it before and saw as many people as humanly possible in the time allowed. Exactly the kind of group I love to work with; the maximum effect with the minimum fuss.
One thing that made their work really efficient was the little device they had with them—it was a Welch-Allyn device for scanning and identifying patients’ eye prescriptions. When I heard optometrists were coming, we pulled out and dusted off the traditional optometrist machine sitting in the clinic building we use, but the device they had with them made it
look like a piece of obsolete medieval torture equipment. Fred, the optometrist scanned patients, gave them their prescriptions, and Renee (the former club president) gave them their glasses—both reading and distance.
If one of those were on station somewhere for a month, I think it could do about 2,000-3,000 patients. That is an INSTANT, huge increase in someone’s quality of life. Apparently the units are affordable, easy to learn to use, and of course small and portable. We have GOT to try and get one of those.
It was great being back in clinic—plus, we have Dr. Holly with us as well. We picked her
up at the airport in San Pedro Sula on our way back from Copan. She is an Accident and Emergency Room doctor and Tropical Medicine specialist from the UK, and will be working with us for 3 months before joining the Flying Doctors in Africa. It was wonderful to have so much help in clinic; Donna from Roatan Rotary was with us, Sky was running the front desk, Noah was doing his Thursday physio sessions. I love it when the clinic is humming; ultrasounds and minor ops, consults…love it.
Our container from Direct Relief comes soon…can’t wait to distribute it among the clinics (and pack the 350 cases of IV fluids onboard to take to Haiti for the cholera relief). So much to do in these last
weeks…just like the first time, we went, except this time we have already done it and have substantially continued to rebuild our ship ever since we set sail. We are better equipped and more experienced than our first trip, and that was a success.
I am confident, a little scared (if you aren’t scared of the ocean then you have no business going out on it), and excited to return to Haiti. It’ll be an 800-mile, uphill (upwind and up current) trip but with the right weather window we can do it. Still have a lot to do first, but it is getting done every day…and probably will be right up to the day we leave!
Yesterday we returned from our first vacation in almost two years…the first time we have been truly out of contact (although we did have Sky’s blackberry) and doing something that was just for us.
Sky, Noah, me, and Dan from ‘Satisfaction Plus’ (our neighbor and erstwhile Floating Doctors cameraman), took the ferry from Roatan to La Ceiba on the mainland. We planned to go to Copan, about 400km inland up in the mountains and site of the famous Mayan ruins.
Oh, man…I don’t even know what to say. If you grew up watching Indiana Jones, and ever fantasized about
exotic ruins from ancient civilizations hidden in the dense jungle, then Copan is exactly as advertised. Skulls, grinning jaws, imposing birds and leering faces carved everywhere…tunnels dug by archeologists showing the temples buried beneath the pyramids…dead kings looking down onto the stone altar where human sacrifice was carried out, and the court where slaves played deadly ball games in which the losers were sacrificed at the end. We sat in the king’s seat at the top of the pyramid and strolled through the ‘Mayan Discotheque’ where the royal family and nobles of the court celebrated.
It was everything you ever imagined…totally and completely AWESOME.
The town of Copan was a beautiful little mountain town set in the geologically tortured hills along the Honduran/Guatemalan border…cobbled streets, red tile roofs. It was cool, without mosquitoes, and REALLY inexpensive. We were only there for two full days, but I could’ve stayed for a couple of weeks. Everywhere you walk in the jungle, mounds of collapsed jungle-covered rubble betray the site of yet another Mayan ruin not yet investigated (they have only found 5 of the tombs of the 16 Mayan kings of Copan).
On our second day, we drove 30 km down a really bad road (torn to pieces after the rainy season, took us an
hour and a half in a big pickup truck) through the narrow valleys of the mountains. We stopped at the Luna Jaguar thermal hot springs…I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go in another hot spring without sneering in contempt…the most amazing hot springs ever.
A dozen or so rock pools on a steep, jungle covered hillside along a narrow fault through the mountains…boiling, sulfurous water at 176 degrees pouring from the rocks and into the rock pools and sending clouds of steam up through the jungle canopy. We lingered among the pools for hours, until after nightfall when candles were set out, then finally we tore ourselves away and drove back through the jungle night to Copan; leaving in the morning for San Pedro Sula to pick up Holly at the airport.
Holly is our new volunteer and is a Tropical Medicine and Emergency Room Medicine specialist from Liverpool. Holly will be onboard three months, and her timing could not be better since we are headed to Haiti. We got back last night and worked on the boat all day today; Ed is coming back tomorrow, Captain Randy is just back, and we have TONS of preparations to make before leaving.
The cholera epidemic in Haiti continues to kill…we have several other doctors and nurses meeting us in Haiti, and others continue to contact us
to see about coming. This is turning into a big collaboration between us, Partners in Health, the Cap Haitian Health Network, SIFAT (water purification systems), Direct Relief International—I’m excited to go back.
When we left for Haiti the first time, the essential systems on the boat were done but we have continued to modify and rebuild ‘Southern Wind’ a little at a time ever since we first left the dock, and this time we will be even more well-equipped than our first trip. We will be working along an area of over thirty miles of coastline, so we will have to be mobile and adaptable…and that’s what we designed our project to do. This time we may well have our team split up and working in several locations at once, so this is going to be a real challenge.
Plus, we also have a lot of patients still to see here on Roatan while we prepare for Haiti…going to be a CRAZY couple of weeks, but the countdown to Haiti starts today!
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All Pics For This Blog 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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On Friday we painted a school in Jonesville, one of the original pirate settlements on Roatan. Last week we visited the school to drop off worming medications for the 54 students there, and while we were there we noticed that the school was in dire need of painting. We spoke to Norma, the lady who runs the school, and offered to come back and paint it. We rounded up some help, got 10 gallons of paint from our friend Joseph’s foundation Intensive Heart Ventures, bought some primer and some brushes and rollers and headed back to paint the school the following week. It was perfect–Norma got the students to clear out the building, their session ended for the season, and we arrived at an empty building ready to prep and paint.
We had Pat and Randy with us (two cruising sailors from SV Homeward Bound who have been
helping us with our clinic), Larry (a longtime expat living in the neighborhood of the school), and four kids from French Harbor that have begun having around the boat. I love having them around; they remind me of Bichal and Yvenson and Jonas and our other young Haitian friends. Noah is always the one the kids gravitate to the most–as he is the most ferocious-looking, the young kids naturally hero-worship him wherever we go, so it is usually Noah that takes charge of the kids when they are working with us. Noah has a knack for connecting with the most at-risk kids, getting enormous influence with them right away and creating opportunities to provide them with tools and new ideas.
Meanwhile, I can’t help trying to fill their heads with all kinds of random knowledge (being a teacher dies hard, and when I have them fishing out in the skiff I have a captive audience for the concepts of biology and ecology I’m constantly spouting to them). Sometimes stuff makes it through their burgeoning hormones and days later I overhear one of them telling another to throw a small fish back so it can grow bigger and have babies so when they catch it later it will be bigger, and there will be more of them. For me, those are great moments.
Friday, when we painted the school, was a great moment for me for another reason. As the chipped and faded
colors were covered by smooth new paint, I looked at the group that had assembled on a small peninsula on an island off the north coast of Honduras…a cruising couple, kids from a neighboring community, an expat, the local teacher, and us. So many people that might never have all been drawn together, all working together to do something for some kids they will probably never meet.
That is one of my favorite aspects of our project…the connections created between people, and so many people doing what they can. The school got emptied and cleaned out by the students, and we repainted the whole school, inside and out in less than 5 hours with some touching up a few days later (ran out of paint and a few folks went back with new paint to finish up the last spots).
I love that the same way our whole project was accomplished was the way the school got painted; the school was like a microcosm for our whole project: a lot of people from all walks of life all did a little (some did a LOT more than a little) and got it done.
And continue to do so…thanks to everyone who helped us from day one to painting the school last Friday!
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Man, sometimes a week brings a flood of minor upper respiratory tract infections, fungus, and the usual small town clinic maladies…and some weeks, the dam opens and all kinds of situations arrive on the doorstep. We did a lot of small surgeries, mostly taking off cysts and dealing with minor wounds, and did loads of ultrasounds (lots of ovarian cysts, some gallstones and bladder stones); but we also had a few more unusual cases come in.
First, there was Missty (yes, that is how it is spelled). She lives on a sailboat with her mom and dad, and climbs all over the place like a wild child. She is the cutest little girl ever—she came in a week after getting her knee stitched up at the hospital; she sliced it about 4 inches across the front on a piece of sharp metal and then tore ALL her stitches jumping down onto her boat/home and landing in a deep knee bend. Then it started to get infected, so it was a green mess when I took off the bandage.
Tough as nails, she let me take out the stitches and debride the wound, then I steri stripped it together and rebandaged it and sent her home with some antibiotics and dressing changes… “No more running around like crazy on the boat for one more week!”
Then a guy came in unable to swallow or drink, and unable to lower his chin because his tonsils were so badly inflamed they were like tennis balls, with another tennis ball sized abscess in his
cheek. He was really dehydrated, so we gave him IV fluids and pumped him full of antibiotics. The next day he was marginally better, so we kept him on the antibiotics and after a few days he could swallow and take liquids. Only his cheek abscess remains, and it is shrinking rapidly.
We had a baby come in with a mysterious rash (see the photos below for the case details)…we did two surgical house calls for minor procedures at a shop run by two ladies in French Harbor. One of the ladies, from whom I removed a ganglion cyst, was in a hurry to get home so she could make dinner for her husband. I told her he should do it for her while her wrist has just had surgery, and she and her friend agreed…and both laughed at what a delightful fantasy it was, and how impossible. Still tough to have two X chromosomes around these parts.
Still, our clinic is seeing lots of patients. It was great to have Megan with us. She set up two of the clinic rooms for acupuncture and treated patients two at a time every day our clinic was open, and was always running all over the island after hours giving treatments in the community. Being able to combine acupuncture with western medicine was great—in the community we serve, there is a lot of stress and post-traumatic stress from abuse or violence, and mental health issues are somewhat of a taboo. These issues are often compounded with some form of chronic pain, usually in the knees or back or feet after years of hard living.
When patients I had treated medically and then referred to Megan came back for follow up, they raved about how much they felt the treatments helped, and I have seen acupuncture be effective way too many times for me to doubt that is has efficacy in a number of situations. I’m not sure I understand why it actually works, but although I would really like to know for my own interest, ultimately I don’t care—I really only care that it works! My dad always says that despite their frequent disagreements, there is one way doctors and lawyers are always in agreement: ‘Ultimately, both are only interested in results!’ Especially doing this kind of remote medicine, a doctor has to be ready to use any tool in the toolbox that can help, and I felt that of lot of patients got a good result from their treatments. A lot of them burst out crying after or during their treatments and shared all kinds of horrific personal tragedies with Megan…it turned out that often they were crying about it for the first time, even horrible experiences years ago.
I also think the patients were really, really receptive to the concept, too. Certainly, against the blend of bush medicine, Obia, and traditional home remedies in common use,
acupuncture probably didn’t seem too out of place, and there was also an element of the ‘well, the doctor has suggested this, it must be a good idea’ kind of thinking I often saw among older patients in Ireland and most patients in the developing world. Although in this case that attitude it made it easier to get patients to accept acupuncture treatment, that same outlook can sometimes put patients at risk of medical error. One way to bring people into more active participation in their health knowledge (i.e., questioning the doctor), is by empowering them with knowledge about their own health, and we spend a lot of time in consults drawing diagrams and explaining people’s physiology to them.
Sometimes, however, one of us becomes a patient…last night, walking barefoot on the deck, the side of my foot kicked the slivered edge of a cut pine board, and a giant splinter wedged itself into the bottom of my foot. It was wedged in deep and barbed like an arrow, but after I anesthetized it Noah and Sky got a scalpal and some forceps and pulled it out. Man, it sure is sore today…going to go soak it in salt water before showering tonight.
That’s when you know you have an awesome sister…an awesome sister is one who will hold the light for you when you have to inject yourself on the bottom of your foot, which is pretty much exactly like you imagine. So much is happening all at once—we just found out there is a possibility we will be going back to Haiti to help with the cholera outbreak, we are investigating ways to keep the Oakridge clinic operating on a permanent basis, we are coordinating containers of medical supplies and gear from California and Florida to Honduras, and in our spare time continuing to improve and strengthen Southern Wind.
With this much on our plates, I sleep a lot better knowing Sky and our crew are facing this with me.
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