The balcony of the warehouse where I reside faces a swamp. As I drink my coffee in the morning, the roar of incoming airplanes at the airport on my left funnels hundreds of tourists to Bocas del Toro. On the right lies a mangrove swamp where the indigenous community of La Solucion teeters atop houses and shops built on stilts over a few feet of brackish seawater, precariously clinging to access to clean water, if not electricity.
Tourist maps of Bocas del Toro leave this area unlabeled as a swampy region; yet 250 families of the island’s local population reside within this community. The paved main road that leads to the airport narrows into rocks and gravel as it turnsinto the main road of La Solucion, which branches into rickety wooden walkways and eventually dead-ends into the swamp.
Over the past week, I had the pleasure of meeting Carla1, a type II diabetic who lives in La Solucion and taught me how to fry and eat green bananas, consequently improving my culinary capabilities during residence on the Southern Wind. After visiting her house twice daily with insulin and wound care for her diabetic ulcers (as a result of poorly managed diabetes and lack of resources, Carla is missing five toes and half of two fingers) and watching our doctors instruct her daughter in managing Carla’s diabetes, I became confident in her ability to change her lifestyle. Perhaps earlier healthcare intervention could have saved a few of her toes, or lowered her high blood sugars, but Carla’s lack of seguro, or health insurance, along with the expensive price of the insulin she needs, mean that health has been denied to her based on her inability to pay.
Carla cannot even store the insulin with which Floating Doctors regularly provide her because she has no electricity or refrigerator, nor can she afford to replace her leaky roof because she is too sick to work. She lives with her husband, children, and grandchildren, in a shack around the same size, or smaller, than an average hotel room in Bocas del Toro. I will dare argue that most visitors to Bocas del Toro do not even know that places like La Solucion exist, much less that the province of Bocas is the poorest in the region with the largest indigenous population of all Panama, nor that the majority of the local population lives in communities like La Solucion. The region’s prosperity remains within a two-mile strip surrounding the beach, excluding much of the local population, which has been forced into the swamp by the construction of the airport.
Few, if any, visitors choose to see this side of Bocas del Toro. It is all too easy to ignore uncomfortable realities. After all, wherein lies the difference between Carla and my aunt, who is exactly the same age, also has Type II diabetes, and was also born and raised in a developing country, yet she has never lost toes or fingers to diabetes and has always been able to control her blood sugar. The two were born into different income levels with different levels of access to opportunity. How does one bridge this gap between Carla and my aunt, between La Solucion and Bocas del Toro, or in the United States, between the inner-city and the upper-class suburbs? Lines of division run along race, class, and religion, determining opportunities and consequently health, education, and quality of life.
Personal relationships with others allow us to break the boundaries of our world and step into the world of another, experiencing life from their point of view and accompanying them in their struggles and joys. It is too easy to create barriers—based on race, religion, country of origin, or income level—which cut us off from relationships, causing one to forget that there really is little difference between Carla and myself, or between the family vacationing on Bocas, and the family living in La Solucion. Here at Floating Doctors, we form relationships with communities based upon a sincere nearness to each other that breaks down these so-called boundaries and teaches one to share themselves. These relationships tell me that there is absolutely no reason why Carla should not have the same access to medical care and consequently the same freedom to choose her way of life as does my aunt. Our work here enables the voices of those who are often forgotten, overlooked, or trampled by those in power by ensuring their access to appropriate and effective healthcare.
1 Name and identifying details changed to protect privacy.
July 29, 2012
Blog by Las Tablas Peace Corps Volunteer Doug Martin
Sometimes, early in the morning, the mist from overnight rain storms envelopes the town and hides her from outsiders. Sometimes the murky brown waters of the Sixaola River creep higher and higher until they stumble up and over the only road into and out of town. Its a place to get lost, a place to start over.
La empresa showed up one day, years back. They brought complex irrigation systems, John Deere tractors, and an airplane. The menacing drone of diesel fuel combusting hundreds of feet high shakes the town from her slumber. The cool evening breeze carried the seductive whisper of modernity; the people from the mountain came down.
For three days in July, sister Sky and brother Dr. Ben LaBrot and the volunteer group they head
offered free medical care to the communities of Las Tablas and Barranco Adentro. One can see in the hour long queues that the service their group Floating Doctors provides is desperately needed.
Their volunteer medical professionals work hard. Long days start when the rooster crows and often don’t end until after the sun has long settled behind the mountains. They sleep in hammocks strung up over cement walls, on sleeping pads strewn out over the floor, under mosquito nets. On Saturday the baseball game doesn’t end until two in the morning. Neither does the blaring reggaeton coming from the trunks of several baseball fanatics cars. But they never complain.
Many people here do not have access to medical care. There exist several barriers – cost, culture, language – that have kept the people from the mountain out of a doctors office. The Floating Doctors work to remove these barriers, and not just by providing medical care free of cost. Dr. Ben is a leader by example, and his volunteers all show a genuine sensitivity and interest in the diverse culture of the indigenous groups that they attend. He also converses in Spanish after spending time in Honduras and Panama, and might accidentally greet you in the Creole French that he picked up in Haiti.
The end to each of their three multi day mobile health clinics has been bittersweet. Imagine being the captain of a sinking cruise ship with only one life boat. Mothers weeping to include their sons and daughters. Adult children pleading for their elderly parents. An uncomfortable undertone, asking “what more could we have done?” often lingers after the last patient has gone.
Somewhere beyond the mountains to the north there are children grown fat from too much and too many. Here the children’s bulging bellies speak not to a fast food diet and cable television but to malnutrition and constant parasites. What response quells the crying eyes of a six month old child, forgotten by the world and unable to access the most basic and fundamental care that he so desperately needs?
Fortunately, the Floating Doctors are continuing to grow. The most recent clinic expanded its offerings to both the thirty five hundred people living in Las Tablas and for the first time to another one thousand living in Barranco Adentro. The life raft is getting bigger, better stocked, and more efficient.
I believe everything that we do in this life has a cost and a benefit associated with it—at times the cost that you pay for the decision you have made far out weighs any benefit you may gain while the profit that you get from another totally justifies the negatives. A cynic would say I view everything through a ‘cost analysis’ in my life and in many ways I believe that is a true statement. On this stormy day in Panama with inches of drenching rain replenishing the jungle around me I find myself thinking of what prices I have paid, both good and bad, for the decisions that I must call my own. April 27, 2012 marked my 1095th day out of Los Angeles and away from ‘my’ life, or rather, the life that was once mine. Anniversaries to me are not a time to celebrate but rather a time to reflect upon what has transpired, the roads you have traveled and where they have taken you, how you have acted, and if those actions sit well with you after time and perspective.
Last week’s multi-day mobile clinic led us once again to the shores of a rushing jungle river to bathe and wash away the stress, sweat, and sadness of the clinic. There is nothing like plunging into the cold hastening current of a
river that has cut itself through miles of remote mountains before touching your skin. Its pace caresses the beautiful pain of the day out of your body in ways that are indescribable and leave me refreshed like no other body of water does. I have done this countless times before, but this time, as I sat with my volunteers between the smooth river rocks and watched the Ngobe Indians of the village make their chest deep evening river crossing home with kids and animals in tow I was struck at how far, in every sense of the word, my life has come in these last three years.
In the past I have done my best and most profound thinking in the shower. With hands propped high on the wall in front of me, head slung, eyes closed, and hot water pouring down my back I come to my greatest conclusions, my most honest thoughts, and in all truth, it’s the time that I also allow myself to feel the emotions of my life. As a result the shower has been a deeply personal place for me—private, unavailable, closed, and bare. My perfect place for reflection, tears, laughter, and thought. I have not had many of these moments since I left the United States—conservation of water on the boat, public showers, no showers at all, no hot water, bucket showers, etc have all been barriers between me and my time in the comforting steam and solitude of my once were showers. I have often missed them – one of those daily luxuries that I never even contemplated as a luxury before I left home. The ability to walk barefooted out of my bedroom into a clean (well most of the time) bug free space, turn a faucet, slip my towel off, and bury my head under the seemingly never ending warm clean water is something that now seems so foreign and long ago to me. A price that I have paid for leaving home- it doesn’t seem like much, but on those cold and windy nights on Haiti’s northern coast when showering with a cold 5 gallon bucket of water that we lugged from 2 miles away, it really did.
It’s funny, to me, the things that I have ended up longing for… none of them are what I would have guessed. My mom’s hands, driving on cold nights with the heat on and the windows down, my best-friends green place holders- all small and ordinary but when I conjure them up in my mind I never fail to get a lump in my throat. The life that I have chosen is full of people but can be desperately lonely at times and I crave the company and comfort of those that I left behind. I have wished that I could have carried so many of them with me over these years and shared with them the beauty that I have witnessed and humanity that I have gained. The person that I was when the plane lifted me away from Los Angeles in April of 2009 is not the same woman that sits in front of this computer today and I have come to realize that the biggest price I have paid for my experiences here has been the loss of my old ‘me’. But, as fire is to forest, this death has brought forth a budding growth of spirit, heart, and perspective that makes the pain of this change worth it.
The three years after leaving has blessed me with bonds of love like no other- ones that can only be forged, both metaphorically and physically, through black stormed filled nights far from land with only each other to look to. The love of stranger children across 5 different countries whose affection comes with no strings attached and no expectations to fulfill- simply love for love and affection for the simplest of gestures. In Haiti when you would give a child a juice or a soda they never fail to share it with the kids around them… sometimes 10 of them passing around a bottle of juice, each of them taking a small sip and then passing it on, even though you never tell them to share, they do. And they do it out of goodness of heart and the common understanding that this gain should be shared with those around them. To me that is witnessing the goodness of humanity at its most basic element and I am grateful beyond all measure to have been that witness.
As I sink my head below the river of my experiences now I have come to deeply realize that life truly is change and the flow forward never allows for anything to stay the same. The life that I left behind was changing while I was there even if I couldn’t or wouldn’t at the time see it. Often people that knew me back at home say that I gave up my Manolo’s and Jimmy Choos’ for Wellingtons and flip flops- this always makes me smile. For me, what I gave up, was my quiet warm lonely showers surrounded by beige tiles for smooth rocks cut out of mountains, rushing jungle currents, and the sounds of life penetrating every pour that I have.
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.
Please click on any of the photos to activate the slide viewer.
For the Floating Doctors, 2011 was a year that was marked by thousands of patients seen, turbulent ocean crossings, and hundreds of boxes of medication and medical supplies distributed. It was our most successful year to date in terms of patients treated, countries visited, and partnerships formed. The 12 months cemented our belief that the next and most important phase of our project will be the procurement of funding, support, and supplies for Floating Doctors’ permanent clinics in the countries that we have visited thus far. We clearly defined our role as the primary care givers to the remote communities that we serve and the importance of the follow up care we provide to them. We worked hard to secure lasting partnerships in Haiti, Honduras, and Panama which have enabled us entrance into and support from communities that otherwise would have been nearly impossible to gain.
As an organization, I am proud of what we have accomplished in the past twelve months but, for me personally, it goes much farther than miles traveled, pounds of supplies delivered, and numbers of patients seen. It is about the individual. It is about who patient #127 was and what it meant to her for us to be there, or how we were able to give patient #3679 relief from the pain he had been suffering from for years. It is the joy on a woman’s face somewhere in a forgotten jungle when she sees her baby’s heart beat on an ultrasound that fuels my pride in Floating Doctors. Rather than numbers on a spread sheet, for us, our patients are people with lives, children, and family who cherish them.
As the Director of Operations, I am both honored and humbled that I get to witness these individuals first-hand and to be a part of the care that they receive from us. Daily, I am able to work closely with our doctors and patients while running clinics, breathe in the culture of distance lands, and know what it is like to be one with a vast ocean. I get to live our work and see the results of it on levels that are deeply personal and important to me. I believe that my hands-on involvement makes me a better leader for the Floating Doctors and our crew.
One person can be just a number, but to those that love them, they are the entire universe, and we feel they should always be treated as such. Our belief that, “nothing is more important than the individual” has become a core ideology for the Floating Doctors, and it has woven itself in the fabric of our every action. I am endlessly blessed and inspired by our work, and I am honored to be there and be available as a resource to people who have no other option. I feel an immense sense of gratitude to those who have contributed to our work and who make it possible for us to be of service to so many. When a lot of people do just a little, it is amazing what can be accomplished. An innumerable amount of people have helped us in many ways, big and small, and the ripple effect of that collective work has reached thousands of patients across five countries and hundreds of isolated communities.
On the precipice of 2012, I am excited for what the year will bring through our clinic doors and under the keel of Southern Wind. The past three years have been a wonderful learning and growing experience for us – on both professional and personal levels, and we are eager to continue that growth in the coming years. With thousands of miles of coastline and countless communities in need, the future holds no bounds for us as an organization.
Fair Winds and Calm Seas,
Director of Operations, Floating Doctors
When I last posted in June, a couple of months in, we had just started to really connect with the various subcultures in the Bocas Province, and some situations we quickly identified for interventional projects were as yet beyond our reach. Now we have many more friends and contacts in the community, and we can tackle much more ambitious projects for far less cost.
• Partnered with local group Operation Safe Water to help transport and install raincatcher systems at local schools when we run clinics
• Arranged CPR certification for the fire department
• Worked with the Ministry of Education to train local high school students as trainers for health education in the community and give them medical work experience by participating in our mobile clinics
• Created pictorial and written information sheets on health issues we have identified and that we make available at our clinics
• Gathered and data-entered over 600 patient health data sets and begun doing surveillance of our own interventions and identifying health issues from the data to help guide our mission activities
• Microfinanced patient transports to care on the mainland and chaperoned them in the hospital system (many Ngobe don’t speak Spanish, and are VERY shy, so they easily fall through cracks in systems)
• Connected with an indigenous Curandero to identify and investigate the plants he uses medicinally and are helping him develop his small botanical laboratory always keeping a lookout for.
• Arranged and executed a CPR and First Aid Seminar for the cruising community in Bocas
• Partnered with the Mayor’s Office to run mobile clinics in conjunction with the government visits to the community
• Partnered with the local Lion’s Club to work in a community they support and help supply the neonatal support unit they built with Direct Relief International supplies
And, as always, sometimes we find situations that are just not right. Por ejemplo…
While I was in California, Dr. Barney found out about a 14-year-old girl with what turned out to be undiagnosed cerebral palsy in a small squatter’s community called La Solucion. I have been told it used to be where the airport is now (right next to a mangrove swamp), and when they built the airport the community moved out onto shacks built on stilts over the mangrove mud.
She comes to land at most twice a year…land is about 100 feet away over the sewage-contaminated swamp (all the homes
have outhouses and sink drains that drain directly into the water below). She has never gone to school…she has a wheelchair, but rarely uses it because she has nowhere to go; she has to be carried over the dangerous footbridge by her grandfather, and she is too big now for him to carry (Noah noticed he has drop-foot also…potentially a serious falling hazard, especially if you are carrying your 14-y.o granddaughter over a wet slippery footbridge). She is COVERED in bug bites…she can’t really swat bugs away or keep moving to keep them off her, and she lives in an open unscreened house on stilts over mangroves.
Her grandparents have always thought they were at fault for her CP because she fell out of bed at 6 months (though she had never crawled, which makes me think it probably was CP at birth)…they have carried that burden and they always worried they would get in trouble if the hospital found out, so they have indicated that she has never seen a doctor.
If I were a Hollywood writer writing for some medical drama, my editor would probably throw me out of the building for it being so unbelievably challenging emotionally and physically…but this is real life…this is somebody’s actual life. Sometimes people ask if I miss ‘the real world’…let me tell you, it looks pretty real from where I’m standing.
We said we would build her a walkway, and now—6 months into our time in the community—we called on the community to help and EVERY level of Bocas society came together to make it happen. Mangrove posts from an indigenous community, lumber and funds and food from local Panamanians and expats, help from boat owners, crew on other boats, locals from La Solucion, local taxi drivers, local restaraunts…at the last minute we even had no trouble rounding up 2 sledgehammers (one from the fire department and one from the fish market, which I sometimes haunt in the afternoons when the fishing canoes come in).
Everyone gave a little (some more than a little), and in 5 hours we sank thirty 10-foot mangrove tree trunks 7 feet into the mud, from the shore all the way to her grandparents’ house. The walkway went on in the next few days, and then this little girl went to shore (we still have some work to do to finish the walkway and make it safer for a wheelchair). I asked if there was anything in particular she wanted to do on shore (which she can see, 100 feet away) and she said ‘Quiero pasier’—‘I just want to go.’
This is my favorite, favorite kind of project…one where the whole community comes together when it learns about a situation like this. When the walkway is done, it will have been done right, with the right material (always seek expert advice) to make it last for many years. No matter what, this girl’s life is going to be changed forever—and here’s the best part: total cost for all the lumber, food for the volunteers actually building the walkway, gas to go pick up the posts from another island, hardware, etc: less than $1000.
There’s opportunities for helping, constantly around us…when we are alone we can help in small ways…but mira aqui, look what we can do when we all come together! Poco a poco para cambiar el mundo.
Please click on any of the images to activate the slide show viewer.
It has been two months since I have been able to put words to page although this is not for lack of content or consideration but rather the inability to put thoughts into meaning. In that time period we have left Haiti, seen old friends in Jamaica, and crossed the remainder of the Caribbean Sea to Panama. All amazing accomplishments that should be noted, written about, and reflected upon- yet every time I open the computer to a blank white WORD page I sit paralyzed. It’s as if all of the experiences and work bottle neck themselves in my head and leave a connection with my hands useless.
I thought this time that leaving Haiti would be easy, knowing that we would return again, to have seen the faces that I love and know that they are well, and yet in reality it was much harder than the last. To see a little boy that I love with all of my heart playing by the tree where I last left him was a joy but leaving him once again at the same tree eats at me… having him not there the next time we return will break me, and yet when I sit back and think about, having him still there may be just as bad. The never ending tail chasing ‘whats worse’ game that plays in my mind. It seems at times to me that my heart will never win when it comes to my time in Haiti—I will always be pulled back and tormented away. The sights, sounds, and deaths get no easier the second time around- they still work their way in, nuzzle themselves into my soul, and trouble my moonlit nights on the water. As we left Haiti I sat on our back deck for as long as the light would allow my eyes sight with my heart being crushed and simultaneously elated that we were pulling away from the shores not knowing if the tears I was shedding were for her, for me, or for those I was once again leaving behind.
The transit that lay ahead of me turned into 5 of the most memorable days of my life- flat calm and beautiful the seas opened themselves and the life that dwells deep within its blue waters to us. We spent the days spotting whales, dolphins, endless fish, whale sharks, and sharks with an elation that only wildlife can bring. I felt my heart being drawn into the dark blue that lay beneath our keel, the salt water starting to become part of my blood, her vastness a part of my soul, and perhaps on this transit I truly became a sailor. As I walk down the docks now I feel her calling to me- beckoning me into her wildness and away from the safety of solid land. To trade stability for freedom and schedule for adventure- to stand on our bow with salt laced air in my face and dolphins underneath my feet. To undo our lines and sail into the never ending splendor that is the open ocean.
I had dreamed of Panama from the start of my involvement in this project – it always seemed so wild and distant to me. It has not failed to disappoint either- the people, the jungles, and the islands have opened themselves and embraced our project like no place we have been before. The unending kindness of the people here leaves me speechless as it seems that there is nothing that they won’t do to make ‘us’ happen. Free Dockage from the Bocas Marina and Yacht Club, amazing Fashion Show/Fundraisers from the Calypso Cantina, Wednesday night girls night with some amazing women. The community has thrown its heart open to us and is literally making our project here possible. So much of what I have constantly had to worry about has been lifted from my shoulders allowing me to immerse myself in our clinics. I am humbled, once again, by the generosity of others.
I find myself loving my life – on the precipice of my 30th year I am thankful beyond all reason for the life I get to lead. I wake up every morning, usually no one is up yet, and I drink my coffee overlooking one of the most stunning bays in the Caribbean. I awake my crew and head off to a distant shore, often feeling like I have stepped back hundreds of years in time, and spend my days making peoples’ lives better, making their pain stop, quieting the worried minds of mothers and the crying of babies. And all too often people tell me that it’s so amazing what we do—my only reply is, nope, it’s amazing what I get to do. I am surrounded by suffering and pain and beauty and wonder. My heart is broken and lifted twisted and torn and I would change none of it. My cup runeth over. I am haunted and changed and the luckiest girl I know.
Bocas del Toro, Panama
As always, leaving Haiti was difficult. There is always a sense of leaving things unfinished, no matter how many patients you see or projects you complete. I always tell people, we are not going to go help Haiti. That is beyond our power…but we went to help HAITIANS, and helped many. Leaving is hard…but I comfort myself when I remember that our anchor will drop in Haiti again.
We had an amazingly calm and uneventful passage from Haiti to Jamaica (our 4th time crossing the Windward Passage…it was tolerable this time, I’ll give it that). We ghosted through mirror glass seas 200 miles off the coast on our way south to Panama, a full moon reflected among the stars on a sea so smooth that the horizon was not visible. We caught some fish, slept well, had a whale shark partially breach in our wake, saw pilot whales and dolphins…Jamaica to Bocas del Toro has been by far our easiest and most pleasant transit.
Our arrival in Bocas was marked by the immediate generosity of the expat and local community here. Dylan and Darien on S/V Jackaroo, the owners of the Calypso Cantina at Bocas Marina, helped arrange Bocas Marina hosting us while we are here, welcomed us with a fire dance at the cantina, and have just organized a big fashion show fundraiser to support our time here (blog with THAT story coming soon!). Chuck, Courtney and Rosemary and Dana from Bocas Marina have gone way out of their way to support our mission here, and everyone in the local community has reached out to help us here.
This place is almost purpose-designed for a team like ours: a large population spread out over a large area, mostly accessible only by boat, with little or no access to health care…nearest surgery is an hour and half by fast boat ride…a mammogram is 2 hours away…a very, very, very underserved population (lots of indigenous people who have had a long history of poor interactions with foreigners).
We immediately became involved in several initial activities:
By car (thank you Rosemary!) and by panga (thank you Alcaldia!) we have so far been running mobile clinics for the communities in San Cristobal, Drago, and Shark Hole and have returns for follow up and visits to other communities on the calendar for the next few weeks, with help from expats in the area, peace corps volunteers in the communities, and with the help of the local mayor (the Alcaldia).
Dr. Joe, previously the town’s only doctor before entering politics, visits the outlying communities once a week with a government team (health inspector, education directors, building inspector, etc) and we go with to do a mobile clinic. We have some bigger multi-day mobile clinics coming up; on one we will be carrying five 750 gallon water tanks to a remote series of coastal communities for Operation Safe Water.
Nursing Home (The Asilo):
3 staff (cook, cleaner, nurse) on each day shift to cook for, feed, clean, wash, change, dress, and otherwise care for 25 long-term care residents who are wards of the state, most with few (usually none) family members and no means of support. The fact that the floors are clean and the patients are fed is a huge achievement, but otherwise it is heart-wrenching. There is a 3-inch concrete sill in each door…to go outside, I watched an old man with no legs roll himself up to the sill, climb down out of his wheelchair, lift the chair over the sill, lift himself over the sill, and then climb back into his chair.
Piles of rusting metal and trash and junk fill the backyard, and vultures walk amongst the patients in the fall-hazard garden. There are no handrails anywhere, including the bathrooms. A doctor has not come from the hospital to look at the patients for months, and they have no meds at all. And the patients have no charts at all. SO…we created charts, did full histories and physicals on everyone. Now we can write and document progress notes and exams and studies.
The mayor sent a municipal truck and we filled it three times with garbage and junk, CJ has gathered many cuttings and plants given by other members of the community and begun systematically landscaping the demilitarized zone that was the backyard, we’ve been doing wound care, skin care, walking and exercising the patients, repairing leaking water pipes, changing inappropriate shower heads, providing eyeglasses, and generally trying to improve conditions everywhere we turn. If you are in Bocas and reading this, come by and give us a hand!
Bocas Emergency Network:
We arrived here to find that the BEN (Bocas Emergency Network) was already in existence here—a network of about 50 expats scattered across the area who remain in radio contact to alert and assist each other in emergencies. The name seemed a fit made by fate, so our call sign in the BEN is ‘BEN911’. We have taken a couple of calls through the network, but fortunately none which were serious enough to necessitate an emergency callout. We are working on getting our own panga and programming known safe routes through this maze of mangroves to all the different BEN member homes (which are all located near local villages) into our GPS so with a searchlight we can make high-speed response to emergencies or do fast transit to Changinola (closest place with surgical facilities)
So far here we have had medical students from Israel and Saskatchewan, Canada, an RN and her cameraman fiancé from Australia, pre-medical and nursing students from Duke and Berkeley, an Optometrist living locally who is going to come do monthly prescription clinics (we have glasses), a nurse from Florida who just moved here with her husband, and we have a tropical medicine specialist coming from the UK, a nurse from California, and other volunteers coming throughout the summer, and some of our old volunteers returning too (awesome). It is amazing watching them go through the experience. It changes us daily, and it is fascinating and rewarding to watch people rise to challenges, encounter people and situations which push them past their boundaries, and seek out and develop opportunities to help.
I read about a playwright/director, terrified after an awful dress rehearsal before the debut of his one chance at success, who fell asleep and dreamed that he was scaling a immense mountain peak…vertical walls…no ropes…he, who had always been scared of heights, in the dream is climbing like a man born to the rock and the sky, and as he nears the summit, he loses his grip and slips, hanging just below the summit by his fingertips.
A man on the summit looks down and asks him if he is afraid of failing…and says ‘it is sometimes a mistake to climb; it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt. Sometimes, when you climb, you succeed, and sometimes, yes, you fall…but there is a third option…’ And then the playwright falls. And as he is falling, he realizes what the third option is: sometimes, when you fall, you find out you can fly.
This I believe.
And in this community there are already many hands under us. What do we have in the works? Of course we want to bring in a container from Direct Relief International with equipment and material for the hospital and dispensarias here; we will soon be doing training with the firemen (who do water rescue here also) in Bocas, working with Operation Safe Water to deliver more tanks and equipment for water projects, doing consults using the mayor’s old consulting room, putting a raised vegetable garden in at the asilo, getting some specialists down here, doing more multiday mobile clinics and continuing to return for follow-up…who knows what else? I feel like this is a community in which we can accomplish a lot…it’s an exciting feeling after 1 month; wondering what we will have done here in another few months…
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Nec Aspera Terrent: “Difficulties be Damned”–the Family Motto of Perry Fawcett, Amazonian Explorer
Labadie, Camp Louise, Caracol; Haiti
It has been a very, very busy few weeks…a lot accomplished; we recently treated our 750th patient for this month. That’s an average of 30 patients a day, including minor surgeries, ultrasounds and acting as 24/7 floating urgent care center. In that time, we have also done mobile clinics in Shadda, Coco, Camp Louise and pre-natal vitamin distribution in Caracol and have visited Milot Hospital, Justinian Hospital, and the HHH physiotherapy center and have helped many patients connect with needed specialist care (I got the schedule of all the visiting American specialist teams for the next few months at Milot so I know when and to whom to refer patients).
Pietre, Dave and everyone at Royal Caribbean have been awesome—we are wrapping up
our time here and getting ready to make our way to Panama to work south of the hurricane zone as the season advances, but I am very grateful to RCCL for making us welcome in Labadie and we will miss everyone when we go.
There’s a saying in medicine: “Common things are common,” and at a certain level of poverty some things become VERY common. Scabies, parasites, respiratory infections and fungal infections are common among my patients, but I hate when several such conditions are found simultaneously in all the members of only one family. A mother, daughter and young son came in with terrible scabies, secondary skin infections from scratching, bad worm infestations, anemia, and chest infections…we medically treated all the ailments, but I spent most of the consult working to make the mom understand the importance of washing, cutting the dirty fingernails of itchy children, washing, not drinking coffee at age 5, washing…and washing. Properly used, a single bar of soap can prevent an awful lot of disease, but poor home conditions and poor health awareness are two regular factors in the illnesses of my patients.
We did a mobile clinic by small boat in Camp Louise, a diffuse farming community of a few thousand people living a few miles west of Labadie. We visited the health center there but did our clinic in one of the local schools, treating the school kids and a lot of other children in the neighborhood. We were joined by a nurse from the Camp Louise Clinic, a Doctor, Physio and two teachers and Hannah from the Cap Haitian Health Network. This clinic was a tough one…a crowd of several hundred gathered within minutes; people were trying to literally pull themselves into the room we were working in (we all worked in one room, hot and crowded but impossible to maintain security otherwise). Hannah and the teachers had their hands full trying to keep us from being overrun, but we got through it—as usual in schools, lots and lots of scabies and parasites, and this location had lot of urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis in the young kids. Camp Louise is somewhere I would like to spend some time doing health education in the charitable schools there, as the high prevalence and poorer hygiene of the kids with UTIs suggests there might be a special need there.
Aside from the common stuff, the last couple of weeks have also brought us some very
unusual cases, and some unfortunate ones. The one that caught me the most off-guard was when I was consulting with a 96-year old woman (she’s in awesome shape, totally ambulatory) presenting with shoulder pain radiating to the arm. As I was writing “?mild strain?arthritis” on her notes, she told me that she had accidentally picked up some cursed money (people don’t like picking up money on the ground in Haiti, because JuJu men will curse the coins and scatter them around) and essentially been voodoo’d, so I gave her an anti-inflammatory and Noah showed her gentle stretches and exercises for improving shoulder stability. A few days later she came in and thanked us because she hadn’t had to go to a voodoo man to pay to remove the curse; our medicine had beaten the voodoo.
Let’s see…my shark bite victim is all healed up…the kid who came in with his stitched knee all torn open and infected is all healed up, but he’ll have a big scar on that knee for the rest of his life (but gets to keep his leg; it was pretty horrible looking when he came in and we first unwrapped the dirty bandage covering the torn-open, homemade stitches). The other night, just before dinner, we heard a familiar sound…a small wooden boat making its way towards Southern Wind, with a man, a woman, and a young kid with a dark-stained rag wrapped around his leg. He had been cut with broken glass, and a deep, 5-inch laceration on the back of his calf. It was pretty deep, with a lot of fat and connective tissue exposed and swollen with fluid; at first I wasn’t sure if the edges could actually be
closed, but skin is always a lot stretchier than you might think—I washed the wound and sutured it back up, and a few days later the edges had pretty well opposed. Incredibly, the sutures were ready to come out after about 4 days (really—they were already starting to be grown over); I love healthy kids—they heal so fast and bounce back.
While walking on the beach, we met a guy whose upper arm bone was completely fractured 2 years ago—I mean completely fractured, and it was never treated at all. It hurt badly for a year…and then the next year, without healing, it somehow stopped hurting and he retained use of the arm. It’s some kind of one in a million medical anomaly; absolutely incredible. His arm essentially has another hinge in it…if you bend the arm, the broken bone tents up under the skin and the arm bends right at the middle of the upper arm—Noah and I were absolutely shocked; this guy needs surgery to screw the 2 broken bones back together, so we are going to see if we can get the surgery arranged with someone before we leave.
And lastly…some bad news…a small baby came in about 5 days ago, age 1 month. It looked premature; it had been born weighing 6 pounds but had lost half its body weight, tipping the scales at a skeletal 3.3 pounds. It had no fever, no diarrhea, no vomiting, no cough, but hadn’t eaten much at all since birth.
The baby was listless and weak; it looked pretty thin at first glance but when Donna unwrapped it, we were shocked and dismayed at its emaciated body. I will always remember the apathy of the mother, the frustration of her sister…but especially the moment when we were examining the baby for its sucking reflex—young babies, if you stroke their cheeks with the tip of your finger, will reflexively turn toward the stimuli (as when the nipple brushes their face when they are being put to breast). This baby repeatedly turned its head away, almost as if it were deliberately giving up…unsettling to watch.
We contacted the Cap Haitian Health Network and got the mom and baby transported over the mountains to a hospital in Cap Haitian where they tried to feed the baby through a nasogastric tube, but last night, after 5 days of deteriorating steadily, the baby died (and it was only fed for 1 or 2 days through the NG because the mom couldn’t afford more…I found out too late or I would have found the funds somewhere!).
Things like this almost always penetrate my Zen, I’m afraid…it takes a lot of determination to let it go when things
that shouldn’t happen just keep happening, like that poor guy’s untreated broken arm, or the 10 kids with urinary tract infections I saw in Camp Louise, or that woman’s baby, or the hundreds of other things like that that drop in my lap every month. If you have a 1 month old premature baby that has lost half its body weight you damn well get it care right away, not after it has been deteriorating for a month…but that is easy to say, since to get checked or get prompt neonatal care, care has to actually be available and affordable, and this baby and mother didn’t have that luxury.
So when I sent that baby to the hospital, I knew that it was so fragile it could slip away at any moment, but I knew that its life or death was not mine to decide, only to do everything in my power right then to give it a chance, and the universe would decide. The universe chose to take it back. I’d be lying if I said this time I really, really, really am working hard to not be upset that the result I wanted wasn’t what happened. I wanted the baby to have a future, not just a chance, but I can’t give futures…only chances.
I need more doctors and clinicians out here. Come where your training is REALLY needed!
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Cap Haitian, Labadee, Shadda, Milot, Coco (east of Bayeux)
Today is the 1 year anniversary of when we first set sail from Florida to Petit-Goave. Returning to Petit-Goave after a year and seeing our old friends and patients (and meeting new ones) was an incredible experience, but after a week working in Petit-Goave we weighed anchor and headed north to Cap Haitian. After the Windward Passage, it was great to ride across the smooth glass of the Bay of Haiti, but as we approached Cap-du-Mol on the western tip of Haiti’s northern peninsula we entered the edge of the Windward Passage and had a few rough miles before turning east along Haiti’s north coast, arriving shortly after daylight and pulling onto the commercial docks in the port of Cap Haitian.
We were met by Hannah from the Cap Haitian Health Network, and after several days of
paperwork and meetings we unloaded our medical cargo onto the docks, onto a truck and got it into the CHHN warehouse, where it will be available for distribution to the clinics that are members of the network. While we were waiting to unload at the dock so we could move to our mobile locations, we took the opportunity to visit a couple of other health centers, meet the minister of health for the north, do a mobile clinic in Shadda—Cap Haitian’s worst slum—and see a steady stream of patients at the dock the entire time we were there.
It took us almost 4 days to get our material cleared in, which gave us time to visit Milot hospital, the primary center for major or specialist surgery (staffed year round by local and visiting teams) and get a schedule for the next few months of that doctors and specialist teams will be visiting there; that way when I am further afield I can write referral letters and give the dates and doctor’s names to patients I encounter who need specialist care. Above Milot is the Citadel…the largest and most impressive castle I have ever seen, perched on a mountaintop above Cap Haitian. Built after independence, it was made to hold 12,000 troops and be able to fight a devastating guerrilla war from the mountains should Cap Haitian have been re-taken by the French. I liked the raincatchers built into all the roofs, but mostly I was shocked by the size and scale of it. “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings…Look On My Works, Ye Mighty, And Despair…” The castle was never really used or completed but it has been well preserved as a UNESCO site and SHOULD be a huge tourist draw for anyone visiting Haiti…just plan to bring $10 for a horse if you don’t want to walk all the way up (3,000 feet in 3 miles…I made it but I wanted to have a coronary at the top).
Cap Haitian was not too badly damaged in the earthquake and is quite prosperous in
comparison to other places I’ve been in Haiti, but Shadda, its central slum, was awful. We saw a ton of scabies, which always tells me an area is really poor, and some half-done operations (like a colostomy that has not been reversed though it was supposed to be). A toxic river draining sewage, agricultural and industrial runoff and storm drains from all of Cap Haitian flows between two dykes made of garbage, medical waste and sewage…Donna was saddened to see three children: one standing in a huge pile of garbage, another simultaneously defecating on the pile, and another simultaneously picking a can out of the pile and checking it for scraps of food. The general health of the population in Shadda reflects the surroundings.
By contrast Labaddee, where we moved and dropped anchor to work from this protected fjord, is one of the more prosperous-looking little villes I’ve seen in Haiti—pretty much 100% because of the jobs and income that come with Royal Carribbean Cruise Line’s destination here. RCCL run a school, help support the small clinic in Labaddee, and have extended themselves to us by providing fuel at cost and allowing us to get water from their dock (thank you Peter and Dave!! Lifesavers!!) and do laundry (16 continuous hours of laundry when we first went over there). I
It is important to remember that Labaddee’s prosperity is relative to places likes Shadda,
so we still saw loads of bad injuries, poorly healed wounds, a LOT of major operations with little or no follow up (we asked Hannah from CHHN to come do a day of physiotherapy and she is planning to try and come regularly), and some unusual cases also—I treated a little boy with a knee wound all septic with ripped apart stitches (almost all healed now), we ultrasounded nearly every pregnant woman in the village of 6,000, and after only two days people started coming out to the boat, night or day, for emergency care.
You never know what will arrive paddling up in a canoe at 10:00 at night—a guy came by
the other night and I saw the blood-soaked rag wrapped around his left hand. We pulled him aboard and unwrapped the hand to find he had been bitten by an 8 foot hammerhead shark (HE says 8 feet…but I’m a fisherman too, so I say read ‘5-6 foot;’plus 5-6 feet is about right for the bite radius). We patched it up and he has come every day for dressing changes. I understand he was offshore, tried to pull the hammerhead into his small boat, and it got the best of him before it escaped. Two worlds collide…Shark one, fisherman zero (for a change).
Speaking of worlds colliding, I am fortunate here to have met one of my childhood heroes, Jean-Claude (one of Jacques Cousteau’s original divers), who has built and run the Cormier Plage hotel near Labadie for the last 23 years. He is 79 years old, dives every single day, swims a couple of miles in the ocean every couple of days, and showed me the artifacts he has collected off wrecks he has discovered over 23 years of diving this dangerous lee shore (I nearly keeled over in shock at the collection of priceless artifacts he has recovered for a museum display when it is complete).
I think that so far one of my favorite days here in the North so far has been setting off
from our ship on an 11 mile trip in a leaky handmade wooden boat with no floor or seats, run by one of our new friends here, through a treacherous series of shallow reefs (on a lee shore, too…bet there’s lots of ships’ bones down there), landing not far from columbus’s landing in the new world. I’ll always have a memory of Sky sitting on the bow trying to keep her back from being destroyed, scanning the mile-long, desolate beach for our contact and a safe passage through the surf. We located our contact and another boat rowed out through the surf, we transferred our gear and under oars we backed through the surf.
Donna’s shorts were soaked in the landing and she abandoned them, so partially clothed
we put our gear on our backs and heads and followed our guide off the beach into the trees, stopping at a small school in a village supported by Dr. Anne, an HIV specialist who helped make this mission possible. We did health checks on all the kids in the school, treating a LOT of scabies and skin fungus, respiratory tract infections, some severe malnutrition from parasite infestation, anemia, and a pre-teen patient who told us they ‘had dirty blood’ from birth. This patient travels 2 days once a month to visit a doctor providing their meds. And, as per our SOP, we gave vitamins and albendazole (for worms) to every kid (and quite a few adults, too).
I love the mobile clinics…each one is its own adventure, at the end of it I have a wealth of valuable firsthand information about the location, and I’ve never done one that did not have at least one patient that I was very, very glad to have come to see.
And to be honest, it also felt good to ply the same waters as Columbus for a short time. I
hope the legacy we leave behind has a kinder footprint than his, but I loved rowing through the surf to land in a new place, with mystery and unknown patients waiting somewhere beyond the tree line in the Haiti’s own heart of darkness. Humans aren’t meant to look at cubicle walls…we are hardwired with the desire to stand on new worlds and look to the next. All of us have the explorer soul written into our DNA, and the expression of this most uniquely human characteristic is always a beautiful thing—I think it is when we are being the most true to who we are as human beings.
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