For me the sea has always been where I turn for inspiration, solace, and wonder. The night I was born I breathed thick salt air and first heard the sound of long Pacific swells rolling onto whispering sand, and from that day my life was held forever in the sea’s net of wonders. My mom and dad were living in a beach motel in Southern California while my dad did his medical residency, and my first steps were on the sand and behind my dad as he made hospital rounds and home visits to patients. I can never remember any time in my life when I wanted to be anything except a doctor and a marine naturalist, and thanks to my parents, extraordinary mentors and opportunities I became a marine biologist and a doctor and have had experiences in both fields that make me grateful to be alive just for one of those moments.
My favorite thing about the sea is that it is not lonely; in the sea I feel connected by the water to millions of people around the world. I imagine millions of people of a thousand colors and languages and religions and nations all floating together in the sea’s embrace and connected across thousands of miles by one continuous, unbroken sea. When we float in the vast sea, only a little of it is holding us up, but that small part is connected to an unimaginably vast and powerful body of water. In the same way, this is how a people are strong. When we say ‘a sea of humanity’ we acknowledge that humanity–all of us together–are as powerful as the sea, which is always waiting to show what it can do.
Like every wave, every life is unique and beautiful, something I have experienced time and again through this voyage. In 2011 we saw our
10,000th patient, and although I am very proud of how many people have received care through Floating Doctors, what I am most proud of in 2011 was that as we expanded our project, we always stayed committed to the individual patient. Time and again, this has ultimately led to our being able to do more for more people than we originally anticipated and I have faith that we will remain committed to the single, individual patient as continue our voyage.
Long before I was old enough to venture over the horizon the last lands and seas had long since been charted, but fortunately the frontiers of health and the sea of humanity offer an endless horizon. Looking out over the Pacific horizon so many years ago I never envisioned that my greatest loves would one day combine in a mobile medical relief team exploring frontiers of health across the living ocean that washes all shores equally. I had no idea HOW I would pursue these two passions, I only knew with certainty that if I did not have them both in my life, I would never be happy, and so I would look out over the water or read Jacques Cousteau or trail after my dad on rounds, and dream of adventures on distant seas and future patients I would see and help.
But all the time a voice was urging me to move forward, always there was another voice…darker, more ancient; a more primitive vocabulary but it didn’t need sophisticated words…it has raw fear, self-loathing, shame, narcissism, and petty angst and selfishness. This voice, all my life, has whispered under my dreams, telling me I will never become a doctor, and never see the seas I spent my childhood dreaming of. Sometimes it spoke with other people’s voices, like during the year we struggled to rebuild Southern Wind after she had been donated to us and some people scoffed and said we would never make it, and it would never work, and we would all be killed and waste all the support we gathered…but here we are. Sky and I lived with fear as a constant companion for the whole tenuous first year of our project, when so often it hung by a thread, but (especially with my sister beside me and many hands outstretched to help us keep going) we were able to move forward, one foot in front of the other, and now here we are…going on a mobile clinic in the morning, more than 600 mobile clinics into our voyage.
I know now that this pessimistic voice I’ve always had spoke from feeling not good enough somehow to deserve attaining my dreams, and although as I got older (and continue to get older) the voice got fainter and fainter (I pretty much ignore it on autopilot now…most of the time), it took many years before I could–as my wise sister says–”Allow myself to succeed” without it being a struggle. We are always our own harshest critics and unforgiving judges, but as they saying goes: ‘You never know if you can climb the mountain until you try (REALLY try).’ And as a wise man said, is it really that frightening to succeed, and is it really, in the grand scheme of things, so terrible to fail? And there is always the third option (my favorite): sometimes when you fall, you find out you can fly (or learn how really, really quickly)–especially if hands are outstretched to help you stay in the air, and your ego (and the dark voice inside us) allows you accept the help that is offered.
The kindness and generosity I have seen people show towards us and to others fills me with hope that the daunting
challenges of our time can be survived. I am immensely proud of what my crew, friends and family, and all our volunteers and supporters have made possible, and incredibly grateful to be able to be a part of this voyage and to have shared it with such extraordinary people.
Even with all its faults, earth is a beautiful planet, and humanity, despite its many, many faults, is heroic. There are heroes all around us; it has been a great honor to work alongside so many of them.
“The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.”
Check out these pictures; some of my favorite moments captured in 2011.
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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.
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Note: A month ago we departed from Roatan for a ten-day transit to Haiti, with a stop in Isla Guanaja to clear out of Honduras and a stop in Port Antonio, Jamaica, for fuel and a night’s sleep before the final 36 hours to Petit-Goave, our first destination In Haiti.
That was the plan, anyway.
The next couple of updates, written here in Kingston, will tell the saga of what happened and catch us up from Roatan to here in Jamaica…I have written them all in one go, and will post one a day till we are caught up.
March 1, 2010–Isla Roatan to Isla Guanaja, Honduras
We knew it would be an up-wind, up-current battle the whole way to Haiti, so we made the 40-mile run from Roatan to Isla Guanaja to clear out, and wait for a weather window long enough to reach the protection of Jamaica. When we got to Guanaja through 6 foot, choppy seas coming from the east, there was no room in the only protected anchorage and we anchored outside in the channel, where it
proceeded to blow hard from the E and SE for 9 days. We dragged anchor several times before finally putting out a second bow anchor, which seemed to hold, but we spent many hours at night watching our chartplotter and peering out at Dunbar Rock to see if it loomed any closer in the darkness than it had 5 minutes before as we bucked and swung on our anchors.
Our generator was not putting out full power; its regulator control board had finally failed (it had done well to survive the lightning strike at all) but Ed managed to coax it to produce some power by using an old cell phone charger, wired directly to the circuit board, plugged into a small dashboard inverter which he wired directly to our battery bank. Thus, we were able to excite the part of the generator circuitry that allowed the generator to produce power, but it would frequently get hot and fail and need to be reset.
It turned out that I had to fly back to Roatan on a puddlejumper with all of our passports to clear out of Honduras, and we also had several cases of vitamins, IV fluids, gauze, syringes, antibiotics, heart monitors, and other supplies to deliver to the health center on Guanaja. I went back to Roatan and got everybody cleared out of Honduras, and when I got back we connected with the director there and we arranged for me and Dr. Holly to help out in the clinic. Holly saw patients for general consults, and I did ultrasounds on some pregnant women and women with abdominal masses.
We also managed to revisit a patient we saw when we were there in October—the patient that we suspected had
elephantaiasis. With a tropical medicine specialist onboard, and armed with the opinions and advice of many clinicians (form as far away as Fiji!) who wrote to offer suggestions, we re-examined him and decided on a course of treatment that might at least stop forward progression of the symptoms by killing any active filarial worms, and Noah taught him a series of exercises and techniques to try and increase lymphatic drainage. The next time we visit Guanaja, I hope he will show improvement…at least no progression!
We endured the wind and anxiety of anchor dragging for 8 days, finally moving to the backside of the island and negotiating a narrow, twisting reef passage to an anchorage with some protection. We still dragged, but only a little, so we managed to have a semi-restful last night and in the morning the sea and wind died down to nothing and we nosed out through the reef passage and headed NE towards Jamaica. Little did we know that the calm glassy waters of our departure would not last for long…
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This week saw the first heavy, 3 day long pouring rain for several weeks (of course, while we are trying to load the boat and finish our preparations for departure) and the tying off of many threads we have been following for months…we closed up our clinic in Oakridge, packing everything up and saying hasta luego a mi pacientes. Un momento muy difficile. Thank goodness we plan to return to open the clinic permanently as a satellite clinic, open every day with a doctor and staff on site even when Southern Wind is working elsewhere. Knowing we are coming back after this voyage, and knowing that with what we learned and the relationships we forged on Roatan, we can and will open that clinic, makes it much easier to say farewell. Instead, we say (we are going to Haiti, after all) aur revoir.
We finished off a lot of rainy day projects inside the boat (there are always, always more
projects), and got down to the business of prepping to load—that means taking every item out of its storage onboard, condensing everything, repacking all our medical go-bags (thank you Dr. Holly!), and most important: we took delivery of our 5 pallets of material left over in Miami from our last mission to Haiti (thank you Gary, Donna, and everyone at Roatan Rotary!), and our 40-foot container from Direct Relief International, packed with medicine and equipment for the clinics in the island and distributed the material to 5 clinics and the public hospital on the island.
This is a crowning moment for Sky. To get this container in, it required over 1,000 emails between Sky, the shipping company, Direct Relief International, Joseph Natale from Fundacion Heart Ventures, the customs office, the customs broker, Roatan Rotary, a cross-country trucking company and a local trucking company in Miami and another in Roatan, the warehouse in Miami with our 5 leftover pallets, the Ministry of Health in Honduras, 6 different clinics on Roatan, and Cepudo (a Honduran NGO on the mainland).
The difficulty is not in sending down material—anyone can order a container and have it
shipped down here…but not without enormous import fees. It is sending down material and getting it cleared through customs as donated material without $30,000 worth of customs duties applied that is difficult, not to mention that we wanted to create a conduit so that we could send containers on a regular basis. One time is easy…to set it up to be sustainable is way, way more difficult. It took more than anyone else will ever know to get it set up by Sky, but I will always know and always be impressed how much the people you already love and admire can still amaze you.
In a few months I will begin contacting the clinics again, finding out their needs and getting another request for DRI and container number 2…
In the midst of all this, we still see patients, provided the medical service for the Bay Islands Triathalon (including the kayaks monitoring the swimmers during the first leg), and Dr. Holly—whose training
includes major scene accident management—provided 2 days of training for the Fire Department, following up the training provided by our volunteer Sirin last year.
Dr. Holly showed the firemen a particular extrication trick—when you have a patient with suspected spinal injury from a car accident, you can extract the patient through the back window by lowering the front seat, sliding the board in through the back window and taking the patient straight out. Since we have the use of Gary and Donna’s open jeep, we could simulate the extraction without having to smash a car’s back window. We are nothing if not adaptable.
The weather is looking good for this weekend (pouring rain now)…high pressure pushing down, maybe keeping the low centers at bay over our projected route. Loading the IV fluids tomorrow and the next day…Finish securing the boat for sea…provisioning….and a last good night’s sleep.
Then give me that horizon.
Photos of patients used with patients’ express permission.
Photos of unloading and interior boat construction (pretty much most of the nice-looking photos) courtesy of Dan Chomistek
Last week we had an awesome experience—in the midst of our last weeks of preparation for our mission to Haiti, we are continuing to open our Oakridge clinic. Pretty hectic—clinic by day, boat work by afternoon and evening, and computer work late into the night…but totally worth opening the clinic not only because we had a full patient list right away, but also because we had some very welcome visitors to the Oakridge clinic on Wednesday.
Optometrists from Manteca Rotary Club in California’s Central Valley came to our clinic
and provided prescriptions and eyeglasses to 40 or more people in one morning’s work. They were cool—came in, knew exactly what to do, had obviously done it before and saw as many people as humanly possible in the time allowed. Exactly the kind of group I love to work with; the maximum effect with the minimum fuss.
One thing that made their work really efficient was the little device they had with them—it was a Welch-Allyn device for scanning and identifying patients’ eye prescriptions. When I heard optometrists were coming, we pulled out and dusted off the traditional optometrist machine sitting in the clinic building we use, but the device they had with them made it
look like a piece of obsolete medieval torture equipment. Fred, the optometrist scanned patients, gave them their prescriptions, and Renee (the former club president) gave them their glasses—both reading and distance.
If one of those were on station somewhere for a month, I think it could do about 2,000-3,000 patients. That is an INSTANT, huge increase in someone’s quality of life. Apparently the units are affordable, easy to learn to use, and of course small and portable. We have GOT to try and get one of those.
It was great being back in clinic—plus, we have Dr. Holly with us as well. We picked her
up at the airport in San Pedro Sula on our way back from Copan. She is an Accident and Emergency Room doctor and Tropical Medicine specialist from the UK, and will be working with us for 3 months before joining the Flying Doctors in Africa. It was wonderful to have so much help in clinic; Donna from Roatan Rotary was with us, Sky was running the front desk, Noah was doing his Thursday physio sessions. I love it when the clinic is humming; ultrasounds and minor ops, consults…love it.
Our container from Direct Relief comes soon…can’t wait to distribute it among the clinics (and pack the 350 cases of IV fluids onboard to take to Haiti for the cholera relief). So much to do in these last
weeks…just like the first time, we went, except this time we have already done it and have substantially continued to rebuild our ship ever since we set sail. We are better equipped and more experienced than our first trip, and that was a success.
I am confident, a little scared (if you aren’t scared of the ocean then you have no business going out on it), and excited to return to Haiti. It’ll be an 800-mile, uphill (upwind and up current) trip but with the right weather window we can do it. Still have a lot to do first, but it is getting done every day…and probably will be right up to the day we leave!
Floating Doctors was announced a Rotary International Cause and will be taken up by the Palm Coast Rotary Club. By becoming and International Cause, any Rotary Club can support Floating Doctors and have them be their club’s focus organization to help.
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