Last week we managed to get a weather window permitting us to visit Isla Guanaja, about 30 miles east of Roatan. This island, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Mitch, has only one small Centro de Salud public clinic, and only one doctor for the 10,000+ people living on the island. We plan to visit again on our way south towards Panama and drop off a shipment of medical supplies, so this was our chance to visit and see what the particular needs of the community are and what the clinic could really use.
We left from Oakridge at dawn, around the corner from our little clinic there. We were fortunate to hitch a ride with Captain Larry from East End Divers; when we come back here in our ship we will have already been over the ground once with Captain Larry. Now we know where the safe approaches are, where the anchorages are, and how the winds and currents normally run. As it happens, Captain Ed talked to the mayor of Bonacca Cay (the largest settlement on Guanaja) while we were there and managed to get us secure dockage when we return, so it was a very helpful trip!
There is no better way to understand the needs and capabilities of a clinic than to roll up your sleeves and get to work in it, and since we had contacted the
Centro de Salud in Guanaja to let them know we were coming, we had a long list of patients waiting when we got there. On islands, sometimes particular genetic conditions become very prevalent in the population, and we saw a lot of diabetes and high blood pressure–perhaps not surprisingly, we also saw way more obesity on Guanaja than on Roatan.
Whenever I have patients with high blood pressure, I treat with advice on how to lower blood pressure combined with medication to control their blood pressure. Sometimes I see patients on expensive brands of blood pressure pills that they can only get on the mainland (if at all) or can’t afford, so they end up with their blood pressure intermittently controlled and rebounding. The Centros de Salud nearly always have some basic blood pressure medication, so I always try and change people onto medication that they have access to or can afford rather than some of the things private doctors put people on when they can afford to go to one.
Our volunteer acupuncturist Megan did 24 acupuncture treatments, mostly for chronic pain, insomnia, neck pain, and anxiety. The patients really took to it; several came for a second treatment on our second day on Guanaja. Noah saw a lot of adults and kids with poorly healed fractures and soft tissue injuries, and spent time with them teaching exercises to improve their flexibility, support weakened joints and regain strength and flexibility. With our ultrasound, we drew a lot of pregnant women and we ended up distributing over 6,000 vitamins.
As well as diseases, bumps and scrapes that are common to both the developing world and developing nations, we did a house call on a 24 year-old man who weighed 450 lbs and had a huge, painless swelling of his lower right leg developing over the last couple of years. After examining it and talking to him, I am pretty sure he has filarial elephantiasis, sometimes mistakenly called ‘Elephantitis.’
Elephantiasis refers to huge amounts of lymphatic fluid (the clear stuff that makes your organs all wet and shiny looking and that seeps out of your skin
when you get a bad graze) getting trapped in some part of the body, very often the legs or genitalia. If the lymph glands in your body (little balls of immune tissue that your lymphatic fluid seeps through to be filtered) get clogged, the drainage of lymphatic fluid from that part of the body can be blocked and enormous swellings can occur.
Over 120 million people in 80 countries suffer from elephantiasis, primarily in the tropics and with a very high incidence in parts of Africa. There appear to be two kinds of elephantiasis;
one caused by persistent barefoot contact with irritant volcanic soils (particularly in east Africa), and another caused by the parasitic filarial worms like Wucheria bancrofti. Transmitted as larvae in the saliva of mosquitoes, Wucheria nestles in lymphatic glands and blockage of lymphatic flow occurs.
The swelling is painless (though physically and socially debilitating), but crusting and thickening of the skin (probably in part to the victim’s own immune response to the parasite) can result in secondary infections, and the stretching of the skin can cause itching. Rigorous moisturizing, cleaning, washing and drying of affected area is helpful for avoiding secondary infections and other complications, and the worms can be treated with Diethylcarbamazine, Ivermectin, Metrifonate, Suramin, Mebendazole and Levamisole, but most of these are most effective against larval worms and do not get all the adult worms.
Doxycycline over 8 weeks has shown great success at eliminating both larval and adult forms of the worm (possibly by killing the symbiotic bacteria in the worms), but that creates its own special problems. When the worms have been killed, their dead bodies nestled in the lymphatic glands can cause a massive anaphylactic reaction–you could break out in a rash, your blood pressure could collapse, and your throat and airways could swell shut. These symptoms can be treated with antihistamines and steroids, but if the reaction is severe, a patient might have to be intubated.
With the patient we saw on Guanaja, this could be a real problem. Because of his weight, his neck already has a lot of compression on it (and a tracheotomy would sure be hard, as would
IV access) so intubating if his throat started to swell to that level of danger could be a real nightmare. I am going to inquire about whether the initial dose can be done in the hospital on the mainland with an anesthesiologist present–maybe not necessary (prophylactic steroids, antihistamines, and IV access and nebulizer beforehand might be enough) but I don’t think the risk is worth it. I’d rather he was inconvenienced by a long trip to the mainland to have his first doses in hospital only to have nothing bad happen, than to have him risk it at home and be inconvenienced by his own funeral.
If any doctors reading this have more experience treating elephantiasis with doxycycline, please contact me if you have any advice or suggestions. I plan on seeking many expert opinions in my search to find a solution for this young man. Even if the worms are safely eliminated, the swelling may be difficult to get rid of (though massage and compression bandaging can help), but I really want to find a way to get this guy treated.
This is the problem with remote paradises, especially very, very poor ones. The sunrises are beautiful, like this one on our way to Guanaja…but sometimes care for a problem that can be taken care of with some basic treatment is an impossibly long way off. By the time we come back to Guanaja on our way south I want to have a solution for this guy.
Please click on one of the thumbnails below to view a slideshow of pics from our trip to Guanaja
All pictures of patients used with patients’ consent
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.
The Million-Year Day
I love the end of the day—not because our work is done, but because that’s when I finally catch up with most of my crew, who are often scattered in several locations across the island for most of the day. We return to our home on Southern Wind with stories, smiles and sometimes tears from what we have seen and accomplished during the day, and every night when I learn what everyone did that day I am astonished at the sheer number of things that happen. Each evening, the morning feels like a million years ago.
A couple of days ago is a good example. I started my day at 6:00 AM when I got up to say farewell to Ashleigh, Nick, Rachel, and Annee. Our friend Sherman, who runs the Iguana Sanctuary on Roatan, arrived at Barefoot Cay to bring everyone to the airport. These moments–when people that I have closely bonded with, lived and worked with for many weeks, shared so many experiences with and laughed with, have to leave and go home–are always tough for me. That morning was especially hard when I said goodbye to Rachel and Nick; Nick has been with us since St. Augustine when we were frantically rebuilding the boat in the marine yard, and Rachel has been with Floating Doctors since the days in Palm Coast with 13 people crammed into a house stuffed with medical supplies, working on the boat parked in the canal behind the house through record heat and record cold. It was hard to watch everyone drive away, getting a last glimpse of their faces and thinking of all we shared together, and wondering when our paths will cross again as we trudge the road of happy destiny into our futures.
At 6:45 AM, the helicopter called—two victims of a house fire in Coxen Hole (a 24 year-old woman and her 7 year-old sister) with 2nd and 3rd degree burns over their extremities, faces and torsos, probably right on the edge of what a person could potentially survive. Sirin, Zach (the helicopter co-pilot who has been staying on the boat and helping us) and I suited up and deployed to the local powerplant, where the helicopter is now parked in a field surrounded by high-tension wires (I’m glad our pilot has over 18,000 hours). Our friends the Bomberos delivered the two patients, we loaded them into the helicopter with two family members and took off with all speed, climbing high over the ocean to weave a path through the weather and over the high mountains of central Honduras.
We flew the patients to Tegulcigalpa, where the only burn unit in Honduras can be found, and coincidentally is one of the most notoriously difficult approaches in the world. Ringed with high steep mountains, at altitude, aircraft have little room to maneuver in Tegus. Also the minimum safe altitude approach is 9,000 feet from every direction—which meant a whole set of problems for me and Sirin manageing our patients in the back of the helicopter. Years ago, before I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, I bought a book of high altitude medicine to learn about the particular problems of human physiology at altitude, and that reading came in handy in the helicopter as we climbed quickly from sea level to ten thousand feet. Hypothermia, increasing pulmonary edema and tissue edema, swelling of the 2nd degree burn blisters, and low oxygen in the thin air all come into play when you manage patients at altitude, and burn patients are extremely fragile to begin with.
When you are working with a capable team, your focus can become quite intense—scrutinizing every drop of the fluid falling through the IV, monitoring heart rate and breathing and oxygen, knowing your team has the other patient or other responsibilities under control. Back to back, Sirin and I focused on our patients and willed the helicopter to greater speed as we passed sheer mountain peaks and fought through the cloud layers. The young woman was barely conscious, but the little girl was alternately sleeping and wide awake, and she was the bravest little girl I have ever seen. Third degree burns over her arms and legs, her hair scorched and face blistered, she was aware of us watching her and every few minutes would give us that little smile that means ‘I’m OK’ as she lay in the vibrating helicopter swathed in bandages. I have seen bravery many times, but I don’t know if I have ever seen courage like this little girl had.
We landed and transferred our patients to the airport ambulance, and after a cup of coffee we turned back towards Roatan. I passed out on the stretcher—the fatigue factor flying in the helicopter is very, very high, and after all the endorphins of the patient transport are spent, sometimes the tiredness takes over. Two and a half hours later, we made the approach to our tiny LZ on Roatan, landed safely, and riding high from a tough job well done, we returned to our home on the boat in time to take Giles for a walk before his dinner. It is so surreal, but just another day in the life of the Floating Doctors.
I love the helicopter flights—not only because each one is an adventure, but because there is currently no other medical crew to transport patients, and as far as I know the Aeromed helicopter is the only rescue helicopter in Honduras; certainly the only one that is available to fly impoverished members of the community. The resorts here all have memberships, which helps the helicopter service stay operating, but memberships are also available to the community. 40 families get together and each contribute $10 a month, and are entitled to unlimited emergency medical transport in the helicopter. And when people who are impoverished and are not members of the helicopter service need to be flown? The helicopter usually flies anyway, sometiems with money for fuel from Richard Warren, the manager of RECO (the electric company here). Since there is currently no other medical flight crew (Yolanda, the paramedic has gone home for a few months), we are in the right place and right time to temporarily fill a great need, and we are working to train replacements from among the firemen and local doctors to ensure that the service can continue after we leave. Sometimes people ask me if I miss the ‘Real World’ (not the show, the ACTUAL ‘real world’) and it always makes me a little sad. Every day here feels like a million years because it is packed with reality…look into the brave eyes and smile of a horribly burned 7 year old girl that you are working to keep alive in a situation where there is either you, or no other option for help. This is as real as it gets…real life is all around us, all the time and sometimes in modern developed society it seems like we somehow get blind to the richness and deaf to the heartbeat of the surge of lives and stories happening on all sides.
My dream was to create the means to stop where there was need and help in whatever way we could, and every day I watch my dream unfolding all around me. The people who have made that leap of faith to travel to this far shore and work with us, bringing my dream to life in ways I never imagined, have a spirit of goodness in them that I love to be around, and when they go I miss them very much. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have had the chance to meet and spend time with remarkable men and women who have worked side by side with me to bring help where it is needed. Tweek and Giles miss everyone too, they are moping and needy and looking around for people who aren’t here.
The boat would be very quiet with just Sirin and myself onboard, but thankfully last week we were joined by a new member of our crew, Captain Ed Smith. A McGuyver-level technowizard as well as a Marinero and all around great guy, Ed passed through the boat in one week like a storm, systematically knocking items off our to-do list and getting the boat set for sea when Noah and Sky and Bryan return in three weeks. I’m looking forward to having his skills and his company (he’s got awesome stories and a great laugh) as we navigate further south when we depart Honduras.
And so ends another typical day on Southern Wind, current position, Isla Roatan, Honduras. Every day is an adventure in life. A thought that drifts through my consciousness nearly every night as I fall asleep is always ‘I wonder what will have happened by eveningtime tommorow…a million years from now?’
July 22, 2010. Isla Roatan, Honduras.
Our passage from Jamaica to Roatan was without incident. We had a following wind and sea, so we made pretty good time, although the last few hours were literally a race against the sun. As we approached Roatan, we made contact with Barefoot Cay, and they said, if we got there in daylight, they would send a panga out to guide us through the narrow channel to their dock. If we couldn’t get there in daylight, they suggested we stand offshore, and they would bring us in the next morning. Needless to say, we pushed hard to arrive in daylight. We goosed the engines, and I tried to squeeze another knot or two out of the steering wheel. We arrived at twilight, picked up the panga ahead of us and followed it in to the dock, parking the boat as the full dark of the new moon began to descend. What a relief! Coming into an unknown dock in the dark in a 144,000-pound vessel is always a little tense. We tied off the lines and shut down the engines and unclenched after another successful crossing of just over 800 miles. It is beautiful here—we are incredibly fortunate that Barefoot Cay is hosting us at their dock. It is the perfect place for us to use as our base here in Roatan. Besides being a gorgeous facility, it is located about a third of the way from the island’s west end, so it is central to everywhere we are working. I had originally planned to give everyone a week or two off to rest and recover from everything we saw and did in Haiti and to get some maintenance done on the boat, but our destiny had other ideas.
On arrival, we rendezvoused with four incoming volunteers—two nurses, Annee and Sirin, who have just finished their Masters degrees in nursing, an EMT named Martin, who is in the middle of applying to medical school, and Ash Leigh, an Occupational Therapist. A few days later my old classmate Maddie, an educator in one of the toughest school districts in south central Los Angeles, also joined us. Our initial plan was to work with the Clinica Esperanza, but in the two weeks we have been here we have expanded our mandate. Within 5 days our new volunteers and Haiti team were working in Clinica Esperanza, the Centro de Salud in Los Fuertes and the V.O.M Clinic, a PT/OT clinic for children with cerebral palsey, movement and behavioral disorders, and people with injuries or post-stroke deficits.
We are also the new flight crew for the Aeromedical helicopter, the only civilian emergency medical helicopter service in Honduras, available not just for tourists, but also for members of the community here. Sirin—who is also a CPR/BLS/EMS educator—is working with Maddie and the local Fire Department to do life support training for the fire and ambulance crew, some of who started working as firemen when they were 14 years old and have little formal training.
We have arrived in the middle of a nationwide Dengue Fever outbreak, so we have plenty of work to do. I did learn a couple of great clinical diagnostic tricks for Dengue. It is a hemorrhagic fever that causes bleeding. Like many terrible diseases, it has very non-specific initial signs-fever, malaise, aching, tiredness, etc. You can put a blood pressure cuff on someone’s arm, pump it up and leave it for two minutes. If they develop petechiae (little bleeds) on their arm, it is probable for Dengue. Also, intraocular pressure seems to increase, so gentle pressure on the eyes, with eyelids closed, produces a lot of tenderness in Dengue patients. I’ve had a few confirmed cases already, so we give supportive care and help people try and ride it out safely, but Dengue is not called ‘Breakbone Fever’ for nothing—it HURTS!
What has struck me most poignantly here is that, although Honduras is a poor Central American country, EVERYONE we have met here and every business we have connected with seems to be involved in some way with ensuring there is some access to health care for themselves and their fellow islanders. Barefoot Cay supports Clinica Esperanza. The local gym (which we are allowed to use as guests of Barefoot Cay) is organizing an American Gladiators-style competition to raise money for Esperanza. There is an island marathon being planned for the V.O.M Clinic. The Rotary Club here supports the Los Fuertes Clinic. Many of the islanders pay about $10 a month to support the helicopter service. It is amazing. Honduras is a place which has little. It has been very hard-hit by the economy in the US. It received terrible press when their military arrested the previous president and essentially evicted him to avoid him seizing power. But the people here are an surprising example of what we are trying to promote—taking personal responsibility for health and access to health.
It just goes to illustrate what I have always observed—people who know true need also understand the value of helping each other in a way that people living in more prosperous countries can never know. And especially here, on a 30 mile long island, it is like being on a boat with 60,000 people—everyone is in the same boat, and only by pulling together, can they survive the storms and squalls of fortune.
It is inspiring to see, and I am proud and humbled that we get to be a part of it.[flickr-gallery mode=”photoset” photoset=”72157624523709627″]
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