I distinctly remember the morning of my first mobile clinic with the Floating Doctors. Only knowing the small group of UCLA nursing and nurse practitioner students in my group, we were anxious and excited to get started on our first full day of volunteering. We quickly began shaking hands and making introductions unaware of the incredible experiences we would all share together over the following ten days.
Within minutes I had met an orthopedic surgeon from Germany, a medical student from England, a nurse practitioner from Boston, and an emergency medicine physician from Australia (among many others). While from all over the world with widely different levels of experience and training, here we found ourselves together on an island in
Panama sharing the same goal to provide healthcare to those who would otherwise be without it.
We all got to know each other quite quickly to say the least. Within minutes of meeting my fellow volunteers, we were pushing off, sitting shoulder to shoulder in a hollowed out tree trunk (literally) destined for Bocatorito, a small island about an hour away from FD’s headquarters. En route we shared stories of our past medical volunteering experiences and all agreed that even already we had never been a part of something like this.
Within a half hour of reaching our destination, I was immediately put into situations even five years of working in a busy trauma ICU in Los Angeles couldn’t have prepared me for. For example, after learning one of the women on a nearby island had just given birth, I experienced firsthand just how challenging it can be to count the pulse of a newborn infant with a wild parrot squawking away on your shoulder. Later on that same day we performed another house call, this time to a frail diabetic woman. We were able to deliver her much-needed medications, provide her with important education, and also leave her ten other family members with soap, toothbrushes, vitamins, and some toys for the kids. The smiles and waves we received from the children as we motored away from their dock is a mental image that I hope to never lose.
Over the next ten days, each experience proved to be something more unique than the day before. All throughout the trip our team of doctors, nurses, translators, and administrators worked, sometimes into the night, allowing us to see up to 140 children and adults in one day. Thanks to the diversity of the group of medical volunteers we were able to see patients of all ages and requiring all levels of care. The presence of our ultrasound technologist allowed us to perform pivotal pregnancy check ups, while our surgeon performed much needed wound closures. I was even able to use my intensive care background to assist when a decompensating patient arrived at our clinic hypotensive, tachycardic and in respiratory distress. After stabilizing her with IV fluids and performing a diagnostic ultrasound our team was able to safely transport her to the nearest hospital and receive further treatment.
After days of traveling up and down the Panamanian coast, our trip began to come to a close. On one of our final nights in Panama the volunteers threw a “family dinner” at the Floating Doctor’s headquarters. After enjoying the food and conversation, I took a step back and looked over all of us who were complete strangers a week ago, now sharing laughs and stories like old friends. Looking back now, it’s easy to see how a group of dedicated volunteers, sharing a common goal to help others, could result in such a meaningful experience as the one I shared working with the Floating Doctors.
When you open your eyes and look around you I believe that you can find heroes everywhere. Those every day champions whom decide to take the road less traveled, those that put others before themselves, and understand that service to others is the most rewarding path to happiness. I am always stuck by the stories that have driven these ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Champions of the underdog, fearless activists, animal lovers, stay at home moms…. I have met so many heroes over these past 3.5 years.
Most recently, I met Sergeant Rolando Diaz Brenes, a gentle spirited police officer with a contagious smile, here in Bocas del Toro. We had started to do first-response training at the local fire department and naturally it had transitioned to an interest to lend a hand to the police as well. One of my volunteers had met a Sergeant and had scheduled a meeting for us to meet and talk about what services we could offer. We met in the lobby at the station and he politely listened as I botched my Spanish explanation of our work here and was excited at the possibility of working together. Near the end of our conversation he slipped in a question about us getting involved with his new youth boxing club… wanting nothing more than for us to check his boys and make sure they were fit to fight. Being a group that has befriended youth on the fringe in every country that we have visited we were immediately taken with the prospect. He invited us to come back that afternoon to meet the trainer and see what the program consisted of.
We arrived back at the police station a little after 5pm and walked into the large room that serves as the stations storage area—it was filled with sweaty kids from 8-23 years old. They were stretching, doing sit-ups, push ups, jumping rope, and sparing with each other and their trainer—5pm and off the streets, doing something productive, something that will make their bodies strong and minds tired. I think we were all so in awe that we barely spoke a word to one another. We just sat against the wall and watched Diaz work the room. Rolando Diaz, an ordinary man taking the time to transform the lives of these forgotten kids.
Recently we sat with Sergeant Diaz to ask him the simple questions: Why? What is it that makes you do this? And what does boxing mean to you?
Again, this unassuming man humbled all of us with his answers.
I would explain it to you myself but my words would pail in comparison to his.
Floating Doctors: Why do you do this?
Diaz: I don’t believe that bad boys exist, just poorly trained or poorly taught. It could be by their parents, or because their dad doesn’t live with their mom, or he only lives with his mom, or his grandmother. In general what happens here, kids live alone with their mothers; their fathers are not present. So they receive a lot of influence from the outside. They search in the street, in drugs, in alcohol, for that important part of their lives- a father who helps them, teaches them. A father figure is very important in the home so they look in their friendships for what they don’t find at home: affection, education, respect, you know, these are important things for them. And like I said, I don’t believe that there are bad boys, just poorly trained, poorly assessed, poorly taught But programs like this boxing program are good; they provide us a way to help them and they help themselves… they learn that they can change, that they can stop doing drugs, that they need to practice, that they need to respect their mothers, their fathers, their elders, and they start to change. Because here we teach them discipline and we talk about different issues, you, the doctors, have come to talk to them about different issues. And they see, in the coaches, not exactly a father figure, but something similar to a father, someone who helps them, and someone who talks to them. There are times when we have to speak very seriously with them, and sometimes we have to laugh with them. And that’s why I think these programs are good. The more that comes, the better. Sometimes people think that it is not worth it, but no, if a hundred show up and even just one is able to change, it is big. It is beneficial – for society, for the police, for the youth themselves.
Floating Doctors: What does boxing mean to you?
Diaz: Boxing for me, for me in particular, boxing is happiness. It is my happiness, my motivation. Every time I see these boys training, every time I’m in a boxing ring, every time I’m talking with them, practicing, my heart is full of pleasure, it feels happy, it feels big, like it wants to explode out of my chest because it is so happy. It is beautiful. Every time I see a boy boxing it makes me happy because I know it will be good for him, for his future. And a lot of them have told me they would like to be police in the future, when they are of age. This is very good for them.
For me boxing is something that it changed my life. Up to this point in my life, it has helped me so much. I still remember the first time I went to practice. I was really shy, because there were other boys there, you know, but little by little I started boxing, sparring, fighting, and it has helped me so much – so much. I feel so happy. It really helps you, because it keeps you from being out late at night, you change your friendships. The ones who invite you out to go steal, to drink, to smoke drugs, peer pressure you.
You have a lot of free time when you’re a child, and if you don’t know how to spend it, or no one tells you, or no one helps you find a good way to use your time, you go places you shouldn’t, with friends who aren’t really your friends. But this gets you out, and it keeps you out of that environment, it helps you a lot. I’m speaking from personal experience – it helped me a lot. That is also how I came to join the police force when I was 18. 16 years later and I haven’t stopped boxing. Last year was my last fight, and I don’t think I’ll fight more this year. My fingers are injured, my nose, on the inside, it has already been operated on once, so for me, now that I’m 35, that’s enough. So it is time for the youth to train. And we have good kids here, all of them are good.
written by: sky labrot
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.
The Floating Doctors have been in Panama now for nearly nine months and during that time period we have been asked to help in a lot of different situations: sick babies, communities in need of medical attention, patient transports, even the removal of bot flies on a remote finca or two but last week left us in the middle of a situation that none of us ever anticipated or imagined.
It was late in the afternoon and I was wrapping my day up with a cold soda in the Cantina at the Bocas Marina when several water taxis pulled up. I paid little attention as the taxis come and go from the marina at all hours of the day and I assumed that this was nothing different—but I did watch as one of the drivers made their way towards the cantina while the other two waited in the Panga. Odd but nothing very note worthy. The driver made his way into the Cantina and started speaking to several of the cruisers that had taken up their usual spots around the communal table but was having trouble breaking the English/Spanish barrier with them. Being that, at the time, I was the best Spanish speaker in the group I was asked to come in and help interpret for the driver but quickly found myself confused at what he was saying.
He looked at me square in the eyes and said “my friend has precious tigers for sale in my boat”. Excuse me? I asked him to repeat himself several times as, although I was interpreting what he was saying in my head, it made no sense to me. I asked if we could walk over to the panga so I could see what he was selling—I honestly thought that he was going to show me a launcha filled with Lion Fish and that I was just not getting the local slang for the fish—but as I neared the boat I could hear a very strange but oddly familiar kitten like cry. To my utter horror and shock as we got to the end of the dock, there they were, two less than one month old Mountain Lion kittens shoved into a small card board box covered in their own filth and obviously scared.
Now I recognize that these animals are very cute when young and obviously bring with them a large pay day for those that get their hands on them but at that moment I was sickened. Here below me were two wild animals- young, scared, and fighting for their lives. I asked first where they had gotten them and why they had them and was told that they were “found” in the mountains outside of Changuinola. Right….
I started to explain to the 3 men that not only was it very bad that they had taken them but that if they were sold to someone for the house that they will die as they need a very different kind of care than a normal house cat. They then told me that for $500 a piece I could have them. We started a back and forth – them speaking only of the cash they wanted and me making a futile attempt to explain to them the ramifications of what they had done- that wild animals should never be taken and caged. Finally I looked at the water taxi drivers, both of whom I recognized, and said—“Hey, you know this is wrong and I know you, and I see you and I would proceed with caution if I were you”. They all immediately became nervous and started their engines. Off they went with the crying kittens.
We jumped into our own Panga and followed them into town and as the man with the cats exited the boat and the taxi took off I followed suit. I ran after him and after a few seconds was face to face with him again explaining that he wasn’t going to go anywhere with those cats. He called for a few of the taxi to help him with this crazy woman, but thank god, the months of work that we have been doing here in Bocas came to my aid when the men gave a simple reply, “ nope, she’s good”. He again began to walk away with me not leaving his side and again he tried to get assistance from some locals on the street and once again got the same reply from them… “she’s good man”. He finally stopped and faced me. At that point I told him that this could be a problem for him or it couldn’t- all he had to do was hand over the cats and come with me to the Smithsonian or he could make it a problem. He simply handed the box over turned around and was gone.
I have seen a lot of sick babies in my last three years working throughout Central America and although not a doctor could tell that these two cats were not in good shape. We rushed them to the Smithsonian Institute in Bocas who gave us pointers on how to care for them—we were hoping that we would have been able to hand them over at that point but the group needed time to assemble their resources and identify the best place for these wild animals to go. They told us how to bottle feed them with goats milk and that them staying warm was very important and set us on our way.
The next three days were spent feeding them every two hours, day and night, helping them go to the bathroom, and making sure that they were never cold. They cried incessantly when not sleeping and we tried to offer them whatever comfort that we could but there was nothing that we could do to stop the pain that happens when a baby losses its mother. To stop the fear of a surrounding that is not and should not be theirs.
We nurtured them back to health over the days and finally got connected with Elena Castejon from APPC who immediately sprung into action to get these two innocent little souls to her in Panama City. We packed up their bottles and goats milk, put them on a flight to Panama City to be met by Elena and the crew from ANAM, and they were gone. Out of our lives as quickly as they came but leaving an impression bigger than they will grow when they are large.
For me personally, although it was an amazing experience to be able to care for such animals, it was agonizing. These were not two kitties bred for human affection and love but rather two wild animals who will now be relinquished to a cage, ripped from their natural habitat, and made to become something that they are not—cared for by humans. These two will never know the joy of running unimpeded through the wild, to feel a jungle bark beneath their paws, or what flowers bloom deep in the forest after a drenching rain. They will never know what sounds howler monkeys make at night and what should alarm them in the wild. Instead they will be caged in a sanctuary that is a poor surrogate for their land.
I believe that all of us here in Bocas are in our hearts wild things that have refused to be caged by the normalcy of life. We have sacrificed the comfort of stability for the beauty of freedom. We have chosen winding jungle trails over the constrained isles of Walmart and the untamable ocean over freeways. I saw the same hopeless sense of amazement in each one of the Bocateranians that came to see these little wonders that I felt so deeply- as if seeing these caged and scared cubs was like witnessing the part of our lives that we have all railed against so vehemently.
Once again I am honored to have been a part of something that helped to stopped pain and suffering but in this instance I did not walk away feeling a complete sense of calm. D. H. Lawrence said, “ I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.” But for me, here, I felt sorry. These two will never feel sorry for themselves- they are young and they will grow up believing their caged existence is how life should have been. Three years, 6000 nautical miles, and countless wonders ago I may have said the same about my own life. It was how I thought it should be- the job, car, credit card- all a part of the foolish game I believed was so necessary for happiness. Unlike those caged cats I think we all now see otherwise….
“Life is not about seeing what you want and how to get it but rather is about seeing what you have and how to give it.” Frank Baxter
Written by: Sky LaBrot
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