As if partaking in a 4 day jungle clinic, searching the jungle for a girl with cleft palate, and showering in the river weren’t exciting enough, I had the privilege to partake in canine facial surgery.
We stumbled upon an older black dog with a huge mass around it’s eye on our way back from clinic one day. Instinctively, one of the volunteers brought him back to see Dr. Dan, the resident vet. After several x-rays and physical examinations came up empty, Dr. Dan decided to put the dog under in order to get a better look at the inside of this mass.
Here, Dr. Dan encouraged any willing volunteers to join in on this learning experience. We each took turns intubating the dog as it’s very transferable to humans. After surgically assessing the mass and surrounding bone, Dr. Dan opened the floor for medical discussion on what the diagnosis was. We determined that the dog had a tumor that stemmed through the dogs skull and in through the roof of it’s mouth.
During the restitching process, Dr. Dan used this as an opportunity to teach proper suturing techniques and allowed us to complete the surgery ourselves. I came here to help treat patients, but never expected that my first surgical patient would be a dog! My experience with Floating Doctors has been filled with the unexpected which makes each day a new adventure.– Chris Bitcon Floating Doctors Volunteer
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.
At last, a veterinarian has come to stay! Dr. Dan is a wonderful addition to the Floating Doctors team here in Panama–it is very hard to work in remote rural communities and see animals riddled with parasites or with horrible injuries that go untreated.
Dan and his wife Cindy moved in right next door to us, and have been incredibly supportive since they heard about our program. We invited Dan to join us on one of our mobile clinic visits to the community of Cerro Brujo about 45 minutes away by boat, and it was like the first time we visit a community–all the chronically suffering patients are brought. Dan had his hands full–a cow had been bitten by a snake, so you can imagine how happy I was to have a great vet!
Worms and other parasites that plague the communities often live in the animals, especially worms, so part of creating healthy communities is ridding the animals of their parasites. Dr. Dan has accompanied us to other communities, including making the trek to La Sabana deep in the mountains, and we are thrilled to have him as part of our permanent team here.
Dan shared an email with us that he wrote to his family back in the US after his first mobile clinic with us, and we would like to share it with everyone to introduce you to a wonderful vet and wonderful human being. Looking VERY forward to working with you and being neighbors! –Dr. Ben
Dr. Dan Ever’s letter:
Dear family and friends,
Thought I would update everyone after one of the greatest days I have had in Bocas del Toro Panama. There is a wonderful organization here called the “Floating Doctors.” They treat the indigenous tribes on the islands of Panama through purely a volunteer basis from people and doctors and allsorts of people from around the world, but mostly the United States.
Dr. Ben started this enormous project, which is his dream in life. The FD work through donations to continue their monumental task as the indigenous tribes have no medical care, scant transportation, and no money. They live off the land and sea. Well, today the FD invited me to go with them to a village on an island about one hour away and thank God I didn’t get seasick of which I am quite famous. A scrawny dog that jumped into the boat greeted us and I immediately said, “My first patient!” Everyone laughed.
As we cautiously treaded up the very slippery, muddy, watery paths high up the steep hill slipping and sliding and even getting on all fours, we eventually arrived at the village. Five or six dogs were there to greet us…”more patients,” I exclaim excitedly. While Dr. Ben and his assistants went into various huts to treat people, I was asked to take a look at a cow that had been bitten by a snake in her rear leg. “Sure, no problem! Lead me to her” I said to Juan through an interpreter.
But I hadn’t worked on a cow in about 27 years so…I know nothing about cows! Juan and the interpreter and I went down a steep, muddy path, crossed over a single, narrow log bridge, crawled in the mud under barb wire, then climbed up another steep hill on all fours, more barbed wire, and finally arrived at the family’s home who owned the cow. The cow was laying on her chest when we skidded down another hill to get to her. She promptly jumped up but could not walk well due to a possible hairline fracture in her left ulna/radius area. Although she could still kick the daylights out of a mere human, and of course “gore” a mere human with her horns, Juan grabbed her by the nose and I proceeded to give her an antibiotic injection in her neck with lightening speed due to fear.
Dr. Ben went into their home of which I have included a picture, and he treated a young woman who had scabies. The trip back to the main village was more difficult because of a light rain. I was also called on to look at a pig that was not eating and depressed. Juan grabbed that pig and body slammed him to the muddy ground. Although that pig was sick, he certainly put up a valiant fight and ear piercing “squealing” while I stuck my finger up his butt to retrieve a fecal sample for analysis. Gave him an antibiotic also and it was then another hike to see another pig that had some paralysis in his rear end but could still walk some. Didn’t know what the heck to do to him…yup, another antibiotic injection while the pig was squealing and Juan had him in a headlock.
Lastly, Dr. Ben has arranged a project to lay a water line downhill to a new birthing house for the people. Apparently a large group of students from Yale University are arriving next week and that is one of the things they will be doing…. ha-ha, would love to see the look on their faces when they see the mud, the slipperiness, and the steep, straight-up hills! Get on all fours lest you ski down the Black Diamond of mud! Juan then chopped down some coconuts, sliced them open with his machete and gave them to us to drink to thank us for coming to his village. That was the best drink I have EVER had in my whole life! We were all sweating, exhausted, and sooooo grateful to him for that nectar from heaven.
Before I got into our boat, I told Juan that he was my number one assistant and asked him if he would always help me because I think he is “Superman” (all through the interpreter of course). We loaded our boats again and off we headed to an island even farther away, but the rains poured down and we turned around and headed for home. Dr. Ben asked if I would be willing to accompany him every week to the out islands to help break the parasitic life cycle of which his patients are susceptible. I told him I would be honored just to accompany him and that I have never been “paid” so much in my life. Well, I really can’t believe that I have written such a long email and even send pictures! Hope you are fine and we love you and we will see you next week!
P.S. Anyone have some books on pigs and cows?
Early September mornings found us running through the streets of Bocas, trying to get a workout in before the heat of the day was upon us. Volunteering with Floating Doctors for a month, we got to see a different side of Bocas in those early mornings. We watched the firemen cleaning off their truck and preparing for the day ahead, fishermen setting off in hopes of the day’s big catch, fruit vendors arranging and rearranging their displays, and children walking and chatting on their way to school. We caught a glimpse of real life in Bocas as we ran through the town and we fell in love with this place and the people of Panama.
We had some extraordinary experiences throughout our time with Floating Doctors. We travelled to several different communities providing medical care in the most basic of settings. The fancy equipment and comfortable environment we were used to at home were absent, but what may
have been lacking was filled with people like the young man who brought us fruit he picked to thank us or the elderly gentleman who spent his afternoon showing us his garden and cocoa plants. A highlight was a jungle expedition to find a remote community in need of medical care. We packed backpacks full of medications and set up a two day clinic where many had not seen a doctor in years.
As people and experiences carved out places in our hearts, we couldn’t help but think about their health and care in the future. We were familiar with organizations who would blast through towns with mass clinics, identifying illnesses, but with no intention of returning. We were delighted to find out that Floating Doctors is committed to the communities they serve and would return to bring a wheelchair to the housebound man with Polio, to check up on the young child with pneumonia, and to monitor the progress of pregnancy of a first time mother. We left knowing that those we saw from our early morning runs in Bocas to those we treated in the jungle villages would continue to be cared for in the long run.
It had been roughly 48 months since I first began working with Floating Doctors and 30 months since my last day on the Southern Wind. Strangely enough, after spending a semester and half helping to transform a dilapidated boat into a beaming vessel of hope, the feeling of wanting persisted. You see, amid all the hammering, sanding, fiber-glassing, painting, shellacking, presentations, donation collection, and cold-calling, I had not been able to realize my ultimate dream; that is, I hadn’t helped a single patient directly. Landing in Panama, however, punctuated the final sentence of one chapter and penned that iconic first calligraphic letter in the next!
One of few characteristics I share with Ben our fearless “captain” – a sobriquet stolen from the cinematic classic Dead Poets Society – is that I love people. And arriving in a foreign country, for me, is akin to a kid in a candy store. As I jumped from traveler to traveler, I stumbled into a conversation with an off-duty flight attendant who was hitching a ride on my flight. Ironically, her free trip transitioned into funding my transit from Tocúmen International Airport to the hostel where I was spending the night. My mother was a flight attendant with TWA for over 30 years and Elizabeth (the American Airlines flight attendant), like any good flight attendant, took me under her wing and drove me to Luna’s Castle in Casco Viejo. After sleeping for a whopping 4 hours, I packed up and caught a cab for Albrook Airport. To my dismay, I had not accounted for the 1 hour time change and was relegated to posting up on the steps for an hour until the doors opened. Despite the lack of cushioning provided by the pavement, I was enjoying the comfort of cloud nine. In only a few short hours I would rendezvous with my long lost compadres and be reunited with a project that has never been far from heart.
As I stepped onto Bocas soil, I spotted a familiar face. In his usual b-boy stance – only this time he was leant on a weathered bmx-style bicycle – Noah greeted me with a smile and a heartfelt hug (a rare and cherished gesture from a hardened, NJ tough guy). I introduced him to Nereida, a young Colombian woman I met at the Albrook airport, because she was excited to volunteer her time as a translator at our next clinic. As soon as I stepped into the main house, I proudly published my philanthropic smuggling by spilling all 80 lbs of medical equipment and medicine onto the sofa. Their eyes lit up with excitement at the mound of glucometers, vitamins, analgesics, antifungals, scalpels, hemostats, nitrile cloves, bandages, etc that were graciously donated to me by professors, students, and friends at Touro University Nevada (the osteopathic medical school where I am a first year student). What made me happiest was when Ben looked at me with his characteristic calm and poignantly professed, “we are gonna’ help a lot of people with this.” And if you don’t know Ben, you should understand that he is one of those people, in that weirdly inexplicable way, you want to make proud.
After reconnecting with Ben (The Doc), Noah (Mr. Fix-it), and Sky (Operations Extraordinaire) at the main house, I was escorted to my new home for the next 12 days. The “Warehouse,” as they called it, was a non-descript white, rectangular structure that housed the essentials: volunteers & supplies. I met my new roommates and resident techies, Chris and Ishan. Only moments after setting my luggage on the bed, was Noah jingling the keys to the skiff. As we bounced on the mild coastal water chop, I caught sight of a beautiful bow of accomplishment. The winsome ruggedness of the Southern Wind instantly brought me back in time to Palm Coast, Florida. As the memories bum rushed my brain I took note of the exhilaration yet to come. A Dream Realized.
A day or so after my arrival, a sizeable group of nurses and nursing students from UCLA and SFSU joined the team for a 10-day medical mission. The original crew gathered everyone around for introductions over Sky’s famously amazing cooking. Ben and Sky welcomed everyone with a big thank you for donating their time to the Floating Doctors family. Even before the food could settle in the stomachs of our excited bodies, we were packing medical supplies for the upcoming mobile clinic. Vitaminas, analgésicos, y otra medicinas were neatly packed into small baggies with dosage and instructions. As we eagerly inventoried what we needed to bring with us, we shared our stories: how did we hear about Floating Doctors, our motivation to be in medicine, and why we wanted to help provide care to the people of Bocas. We all agreed, “this is going to be an awesome experience!” After talking, inventorying, overdosing on children’s gummy vitamins (they were decidedly useless due to the unforgiving Panamanian heat) and getting one of the few full night’s sleep we were privy to while in Bocas, we found ourselves on our first mission. Asilo, the local nursing home of sorts, is a regular visit for the Floating Doctors and we were all excited for the privilege of spending time with a bunch of interesting old souls. Every person in there, regardless of lost limbs, elevated blood glucose levels, and wandering lucidity, had a heart of gold. They all had stories to share and were so happy to just have someone new to interact with. Aside from doing standard health screenings, I found myself most enjoying the intensely competitive dominos games. Victor, and 80+ year old Bocas native, did NOT like to lose. However, after a few wins he honored me with a non-verbal gesture indicating that I was a worthy opponent. I’ll always treasure our games; slamming the porcelain pieces on the thick wooden table, boisterously declaring our victories and laughing over our strategic blunders.
Over the course of my time in Panama we helped many in the immediate area, in addition to those more than a few hours into the Bocas Del Toro Province. Small towns like Almirente, Las Tables, Changuinola, Popa, and others spread out on the mainland and among the neighboring islands of the archipelago, were all places that were in dire need of help. The one day clinics were amazing because they finally gave me that patient interaction I craved and still crave. It was the multiday clinic, however, that really opened my eyes to the barrier-breaking work that the Floating Doctors pride themselves in. Just before my we embarked on the multiday clinic, I was able to accompany Ben on a small expedition of sorts. Unlike the medical care in the United States, where bureaucracy, fear of liability, and the incessant fixation on time spent per patient are barriers in and of themselves, the care the Floating Doctors provide in Panama is subject only to one unforgiving notion: every patient is a person, and every person deserves to be sincerely heard. Ben, and all those who personally grow from being part of the Floating Doctors, embrace this notion and understand that doing what it takes to improve someone’s life is more than simply writing a script or audibly enduring a few complaints. Delivering care, regardless of location, is about truly hearing the needs and wants of a person and their situation and then making a concerted effort to provide for them. I knew this to be true when Ben took me on a 4.5 hour trek into the jungle to make a house call to an elderly woman who had severe complications from her untreated diabetes, e.g. neuropathy and ulcerations on her feet, bowel obstruction, colic, headaches, and generalized sluggishness. I was able to take her blood glucose and assist Ben in logging her information. We were invited into their home and we did the consult in her bedroom (where she was most comfortable). Unhindered by time restrictions, unremitting insurance regulation, and exorbitant costs, we were able to truly hear her needs and respond accordingly. We were able to make a follow-up visit to check how she was handling the appropriate medication, and to secure an open line of communication with her eldest daughter for routine care.
Once on the multiday clinic in Las Tables, I finally experienced what all of us in the original crew dreamed up so many months earlier. Attempting to sleep to the dissonant, yet seemingly operatic, tunes of feral farm animals while on the floor of a small two room house that had no glass windows, no air conditioning or fans, no hot water, no refrigeration, and limited lighting, was a clear indication that this was the REAL deal! In the morning I shrugged off a stiff neck and traded my bagged eyes for a warm smile because I was about to do what I came to do; I was going to make a difference! We were greeted by a line of about 60 people, ranging from infants to great grandparents, and the line continued to grow as the day went on. No matter how many people we saw, the crowd never seemed to clear. Although I wasn’t a bona fide provider, I was able to take records, vitals, and some diagnostic blood tests. I learned a great deal about the art of the patient in-take, diagnosing, and treating. I learned more in 3 days than I had ever learned in a classroom and I yearned for more. The BNF (British National Formulary) became my bible and I was constantly, and many times frantically, looking up conditions, drugs and their side effects, while trying not to miss the next case. At night I would try and review my notes and make sense of each case – the feeling I got from learning was unfamiliar. I was no longer simply reading a medical textbook, I was investigating a case! However, nothing compared to spending time with the village children. It was a steadfast reminder of why I am certain that pediatrics is the specialty for me.
Even if I was simply giving them a sticker, playing a game, or giving them a reassuring smile, the children always reciprocated with genuine enthusiasm. One young boy, Luís was quick to befriend me and we spent a good amount of time taking pictures, playing soccer (albeit with a flattened ball), breakdancing, and catching countless cases of the giggles. The Road From Dream to Reality Begets Another Beginning. Leaving Bocas was difficult, but I had medical school waiting for me. If I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others and feel the fulfillment of being a physician, I would have to go through the training and earn the degree. My time in Panama with Floating Doctors armed me with an invigorated sense of purpose that I hope to maintain throughout my medical training. Even now, as I study for my first big exam next Monday, I am reminded why I am doing all this. Finally experiencing a medical mission trip with Floating Doctors not only brought things full circle, but has inspired myriad goals for the future. I am working on improving the mobile technology, in terms of hardware, for their patient records. I am working with Touro University Nevada to get them portable computing devices for both patient records and diagnostic purposes, as Ishan and Chris are working hard to create a new online patient database/tracking system (probably not using the correct jargon, but I’m no “techy”). I also plan on bringing a bunch of first year medical students down next summer to experience what I have – there is nothing more motivating! I am so impressed with how much the organization has grown and how it continues to grow. I am very proud to be part of the Floating Doctors and I can’t wait to return! I am already wondering how this project will grow and what my role will be. Floating Doctor’s was born with Ben’s vision and has grown by providing a platform for others to live their dreams. In the end, it seems, every milestone humbly begins as a dream – I cannot be happier because, just like Ben, I love to dream!
There comes a time in any journey, when initial prejudices have been shed and before nostalgia settles, when one can see things as they are. I spent the month of October working with Floating Doctors, and for me that moment came while traveling from Bocas town to Kusapin on the panga, the group’s small run-about boat. Ben was at the helm. Tall Greg was at the bow intently listening to a book on tape. Little Greg had claimed the good seat, a plastic chair. I was lying on my back, mid-boat, reading about three men adrift in a tiny raft after their plane crashed in the Pacific ocean. It had been a still and shining morning, but when the sky turned dark I sat up to watch the sea, slightly concerned we might become like the characters in my book. I was more afraid that the increasing wave size would mean we’d have to turn around and I wouldn’t get to visit the fabled Kusapin.
I had extended my time in Panama in order to do one more mobile clinic: five days in Kusapin, a large Ngabe-Bugle community situated at the end of a peninsula jutting out from the mainland and accessible only by boat, a 3-hour ride from our Bocas base. Due to inevitable developing world delays the clinic had been postponed, and because it is not possible just to send a memo, we had to go in person to relay the news. Which is what we were doing when, watching the coast slip by, I had my moment. Being rather simpleminded, my epiphany was not exactly fireworks. It went like this: This is good.
In the preceding weeks I’d fretted over how I was practicing medicine in the clinics we held. I am accustomed to fully
equipped emergency rooms, the latest technology and medications at my fingertips. At home I check diagrams, doses and drug interactions on my phone, then I recheck them on the computer. I call the neurologist, the urologist, the hematologist. I go the radiologist reading room for further explanation, repeat labs, and have my patients come back for 24-hour follow-up visits. I was not always so neurotic. Prior to studying medicine I had dropped out of university, a few times. I’d worked on dive boats, monitored chimpanzees on an island in Lake Victoria, studied Indonesian in Oregon, called a horse-trailer home. I’d worked for a newspaper in Austria until I quit in order to climb. Then I traipsed around central Africa and worked for magazines. My shining minute was performing at the New York Metropolitan Opera. I rode a horse across the stage, which, although less than 30 seconds in the spotlight, would have been brilliant had I not been forbidden to open my mouth. Despite being tone deaf, I really wanted to sing.
The more we engage with the world the more it makes us want to sing, and the more it breaks our heart. At some point I realized it wasn’t enough to dance around stealing stories. I decided I must do more, it was time to become… something. Medicine seemed a good something, so despite the fact that I didn’t know the difference between an organ and a hormone, I applied to Cornell Medical School’s PA Program in New York City. My application was about how I would return with a skill to the places I’d been where there was a lack of even the most basic health care. I wanted to be able to offer something solid to the people who had so graciously welcomed me into their homes and lives. I wrote my essays about malnourishment, malaria, child mortality.
The next couple of years were spent stressing about microbes and molecules and mundane things like exams. Then came the humiliating experience of clinical rotations. There was the New York-Presbyterian cardiologist who interrupted me as I waffled through an EKG interpretation: “I’m a bullshitter too, Antoszewski! But this is someone’s heart you are assessing so I advise you get it right.” To this day, despite having now practiced medicine for six years, I’m haunted and inspired by those great doctors and nurses who taught me accountability. What test have you forgotten Claire? What question are you not asking? I learned responsibility. I also learned fear. It is one thing to play with our own lives, but someone else’s life… First do no harm.
Yet here I was, in remote Panama, seeing patients, not in a white coat but surf shorts, relying often only on hands
and stethoscope. I was handing out puppies instead of pain killers, prescribing antibiotics without the benefit of cultures, assessing limbs and lungs without imaging. There were parrots on the examining tables for crying out loud. I was very happy. I was also rather uneasy. Is it better to do something, even if that something is imperfect, rather than do nothing? I banged my head against this question, turned it over and over in my mind and in conversations. But what if we do harm by not believing in our dreams, by not putting them into action?
Floating Doctors dispenses soap, toothbrushes and vitamins at every clinic. This is a good thing. In the communities we visit worms are rampant leading to dehydration, malnutrition and other complications. The worms can be eradicated with one dose of the medication albendazole. Also very good! The Ngabe think the free eyeglasses are great. Education about water purification, nutrition, and sexually transmitted diseases is desperately needed as the modern world encroaches on even the most isolated peoples. And whether or not there is a hospital, there are always sick people. Should a tumor be ignored because there is not an operating room one floor above us? May be in the over developed word we rely too much on technology. Certainly I have often balked at scanning the head of a child who took a small tumble. A CT scan of the head is equivalent in radiation to roughly 100 chest x-rays, and studies show an increase in the risk of cancers secondary to medical radiation. When I quote this as reason for observing instead of scanning I am asked to imagine what the prosecuting attorney will say in court if the child has an intracranial bleed. There is a trend in the United States to practice medicine defensively. This is not necessarily good. I suppose wherever we work there is room for improvement, and we are constantly weighing the good against the bad.
Like many of those who practice medicine in the world’s neglected places, the Floating Doctors do not have the luxury of MRIs, there is no lab, no specialists waiting at the end of a pager. Where we practice we go on small boats, skinny ponies, our own feet. The donated medicines are carried in plastic bins. But the patients are the same whether seen in a city hospital, a private doctor’s office or during a home visit to a thatched-roof hut in the forest. They have a pain, a concern, or a question they need someone to address. They are pregnant and worried about the baby. They have headaches, constipation, wounds that wont heal. They have a child who is not eating. They have a child who faints. The child who faints has a hole in his heart. Whether or not we listen to the heart doesn’t change the hole. But because he listens Ben can put in motion the steps it will take to get the boy the surgery he needs, and that changes everything.
All of this I thought about, or rather I felt, as we bounced along in the panga that day. The dark had become a storm and the storm drove us to seek shelter on an uninhabited island. Ben drew a diagram in the sand with a stick, made squiggles to show the currents, more lines to denote wind, and an indentation to represent where the ocean floor sloped. Basically, given the conditions it was not safe to make the ocean crossing to Kusapin in our small open boat with its one outboard engine. We had to turn around. I was more subdued on the ride home, but the panga’s loud engine precludes conversation and the sea and salt are conducive to contemplation. I felt a quietening of the questions. My pendulum has had a wide arc, but with Floating Doctors I seemed to be finding a balance. I was remembering why I wanted to study medicine in the first place. It is important to doubt. But we do ourselves and the world a disservice if we forget that shining, elusive something called faith, or hope, or may be just a better tomorrow. After we tied up the panga that evening, Ben said, “Well, we’ll try again tomorrow.” I took a hot shower, and curled up in a hammock to finish my book. Against all odds, having lost everything including the clothes on their backs because the raft capsized again and again and again… the three men were rescued after 34 days at sea.
“If we listened to our intellect we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go in business because we’d be cynical: “It’s gonna go wrong.” Or “She’s going to hurt me.” Or,” I’ve had a couple of bad love affairs, so therefore . . .”
Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.”
–with thanks to Ray Bradbury for the words I wish I had written (everything in italics)
As a critical care doctor for over 30 years, my dad has seen many thousands of people die.
For the health worker this can be a vulnerable moment when the result was not what you wanted; you face your own mortality and your own ultimate powerlessness. I remember clearly the first patient of mine who passed away despite doing everything that could possibly be done. I remember feeling helpless and angry, at myself and at the world. And then I
remembered something my dad said about patients and their lives and deaths.
My dad always says, when people die–sometimes it is a peaceful anticipated passing at the end of a long rich life, sometimes it is the unexpected nightmare of a child broken beyond repair by a chance fall–that no matter what we do as doctors, ultimately everyone gets the same: one lifetime; no more, no less.
My dad says that nowhere does it say for how long a life, only that you get ONE, and one only. In this job, you see how quickly it can be taken away; how sudden and how senseless. Arriving in a community in Petit-Goave, Haiti JUST in time to administer simple antibiotic eye drops to prevent permanent blindness in a baby with gonnorheal conjunctivitis…but also arriving in a community 2 days after a 22-year old Ngabe girl died of diarrhea that we could have prevented had we been there.
We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”
One life…length indeterminate.
Why is it so hard to remember this every second of every day? Every breath is one less we will ever take; every step we take is one more both to our destiny and to the grave. So many external pressures can be brought to bear on us…money, peer pressure, social expectation; and so many internal pressures…fear, guilt, resentments. It seems like such a recipe for despair until we remember that ALL of us are Captains. Everything can be taken from us and a gun held to our heads, and even then we have the ultimate power not to give in, to retain that last bit of free will that is us, that chooses not to go quietly into the night but to rage against the dying of the light.
“So few want to be rebels anymore. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily.”
We have that power; all of us know of ordinary men and women who were beaten and degraded into hell, and who somehow found that power within themselves to defy tyranny and refuse to be coerced. The martyr who suffers torture and death rather than renounce their beliefs…the concentration camp victims who chose a bullet and a communal grave rather than inform on their fellow prisoners…the young student in Tienanmen Square who stood firm before the tanks…the passengers on the hijacked plane who decided to go down standing up.
“Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library.
Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were heading for shore.”
These ordinary people just like us became legend, but ALL of us have that power within us. Although very few of us have ever been put to the extremes above (and I hope I am never put to such an extreme test), all of us have faced moments in our lives when we had to draw on strength we didn’t know we had in order to survive–how to get past the loss of a child…the betrayal of your husband or wife of 40 years…all the way down to one day long ago when I was swimming far out at sea over deep water and got caught in a current. No matter how hard I swam, I was getting swept further out to sea and was getting more and more tired as the wind got stronger, pushing me away from the island. I actually don’t remember how I made it back to shore…I just remember making the decision right then and there that I was NOT going to die that day…and I swam. I remember breathing fire, choking on sea water, and not being able to feel my body anymore; diving down and swimming below the wind current, surfacing and being swept back, and diving again and again and again. My eyes were closed most of the time. To this day I have no idea how long that swim took…it felt like my entire life; my whole existence had been reduced to one great driving impulse…swim. And then I opened my eyes and saw the bottom sloping up below me and the breakers only a few hundred yards away…and then I was in the breakers, and as my body was hurled forward I went limp and the sea took pity on me and cast me up onto the beach, with nothing left. I lay there on the wet sand for a long time until I crawled above the tideline and lay down again. And that day I did NOT die. And I learned greater respect for the sea’s power and saw that for a moment I had touched within myself that spark of endurance that all of us have within us.
When those moments of extremity come we don’t always manage to access that power–what is is that stops us?? When the extreme tests come, however, there are always ordinary people just like you and me who time and again suddenly become strong like a wave harnessing the power of the whole sea and rise up to smash themselves against the rocks rather than retreat, “making nations quake, and monarchs tremble in their capital.” How amazing if we could unlock it at will to seize control of our destinies…to turn the power to defy a nation into the power to follow our dreams?
How beautiful and how sad that a life with infinite potential richness should be such an eyeblink in the universe…each life unique and beautiful like a single wave among the billions of others rolling across the seas and onto the beach, only once, and then gone forever except in the echoes of what we have touched during our lives.
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
One life…length indeterminate.
Make it count!
“Where would you like to go, what would you really like to do with your life?
See Istanbul, Port Said, Nairobi, Budapest. Write a book. Smoke too many cigarettes. Fall off a cliff but get caught in a tree halfway down. Get shot at a few times in a dark alley on a Morrocan midnight. Love a beautiful woman.”
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.
“Turning a ‘No’ Into a ‘Yes’–How To Adapt Your Mission For Success When Conditions Change”
Blog by Volunteer Doctor Jordan Amor-Robertson, MD (Pediatrics; Australia)
On my last weekend with the Floating Doctors a multiday clinic was scheduled in Bahia Azul (Bluefields), a Ngobe village which is on the mainland, however is only accessible by sea. We were fortunate enough to have some rather impressive friends (JP, a doctor, and Marie, a dietician) with a rather impressive boat called ‘Domino’ who invited us aboard for the journey. We even managed to fit in a spot of fishing along the way, reeling a couple of decent sized tuna, with the first fish-catcher (luckily not me) being required to eat the tuna’s still beating heart!
We had initially planned to run the weekend as a standard primary health clinic, as well as going house-to-house conducting a survey at the request of the community leaders to establish the degree of health knowledge with regards to HIV/AIDS, risk factors of the individuals and to perform clinical screening examinations for any features suspicious for AIDs. Unfortunately, shortly after our arrival, we received word that our application to practice medicine in Bocas had finally reached the national Ministry for Health and, whilst we had been granted approval to run clinics by both the local and state health ministries over a year earlier, we were advised that we were to suspend all clinical operations until such time as we managed to clear the required bureaucratic hurdles.
Now this posed a problem. The local Peace Corps Worker had invested a lot of time spreading the word to the community that we would be coming to do a clinic and laying the foundations for our HIV surveys. How could we now explain to people that yes, we had arrived in Bahia Azul, but actually no, we would not be doing a clinic. And, even worse, how could we possibly turn away the sick patients that would undoubtedly present for treatment? Do we turn-tail and commence the 4 hour boat ride back home straight away?
As it turned out, this was not the disaster it first appeared to be, but rather an opportunity in disguise. After a hurried brainstorming session, the decision was made to host a ‘charla’ or discussion and to share a lunch with the community. This would give us a rare opportunity to develop the Public Health aspect of our operations, something that is an important long-term focus for the Floating Doctors, however is often put aside somewhat during a multiday, in the face of a hectic clinical work-load.
We split into groups of 3 or 4, heading off in different directions in an attempt to reach as many families as possible to advise them of this unexpected change of plans (and to invite them to lunch!) A casual stroll through the jungle, thought I, on this glorious tropical day. Appointed our trusty guide, a young Ngobe boy who wants to be a teacher one day, Jenny, Lorie and I set off into the jungle, stopping at each dwelling along the way. We were welcomed into homes where we were given gifts of shells, bananas and guayaba and I even managed to fit in a little shopping along the way – in the form of a colourful traditional handwoven bag.
Unfortunately Lorie had difficulty negotiating the first major hurdle – a dauntingly steep and slippery hill – and parted ways with Jenny and I. I later learned that Lorie, in true Lorie fashion, had befriended the occupants of the house at the bottom of the hill (despite speaking minimal Spanish) and spent the morning engaging them in songs and colouring-in sessions.
Meanwhile, back on the jungle trail, Jenny and I were feeling increasingly like intrepid explorers, ducking under vines, clambering over rocks, leaping over puddles. And then it got real! Our guide ushered us into a kayuke (a traditional dug-out canoe), making sure that the inexperienced gringas were carefully balanced to avoid capsizing, and started paddling up through a mangrove river. We arrived at our…destination? A patch of muddy mangrove ground, indistinguishable from the other patches of muddy mangrove ground we had passed along the way. Apparently this was the only way to access the next lot of houses up on the hill that lead around the bay.
I stepped out of the kayuke tentatively, immediately realizing that my trusty Aussie thongs (or flip-flops as the rest of the world seems to call them) were grossly inadequate for this kind of terrain, losing both in the mud at the very first step. So shoes off it was, and I set off, barefoot, through the mangrove mud, as the crabs and miscellaneous other creep-crawlies scuttled out of the way. Now this is not the ideal way to greet strangers; barefoot, sweaty, mud up to the knees (and splattered even higher as a result of various misadventures), but still the matriarch of the next house greeted us warmly, offered us water to wash out feet and proudly showed us her garden.
And so this continued, from one house to the next, until it was time to return to the centre of the village for the Charla and the delicious lunch that the village women had prepared from our supplies. And, as exciting and memorable as the morning had been, this is the moment that all our efforts came together. After a brief introduction we opened the floor to the community, encouraging them to identify their key health concerns, common issues in the community and things that they would like to learn more about.
The session ran better than we could possibly have hoped! With a very good showing from the community (we filled a whole classroom and many more peered in through the windows), and an even representation of both men and women, everyone was granted the opportunity to have their say. Quickly the conversation turned to the topic of HIV, something that we knew the community were concerned about, however we were not sure whether they would be keen to talk about such sensitive matters in the public forum.
Much to our delight both men and women stood up and spoke openly and frankly on what they knew about HIV, giving us the opportunity to dispel a few myths and to outline the basic facts about disease transmission, progression, symptoms, treatment and, most importantly, prevention strategies. As one older Ngobe woman pointed out to me – topics of sex and sexual health were traditionally taboo, however now the discussions are too important to be avoided. For the sake of the health of her children she wanted to make sure they were educated on such matters so that they would know how to protect themselves.
Rather than being upset or annoyed that we were, on this occasion, unable to provide the primary health care services that are so needed, and so inaccessible to the people of Bahia Azul, they were excited to have the opportunity to discuss the key health concerns of the community, knowing that this would help the Floating Doctors and the local community to work together better in the future. That weekend was just the beginning – on subsequent visits to Bahia Azul the Floating Doctors intend to have ongoing conversations with the community about what they want and ongoing Public Health Education sessions. We are also hoping to do some capacity building with the local parteras (midwives) and other interested members of the community, many of whom have already nominated themselves as wanting to up-skill in basic health care so that they can act as Community Health Workers, allowing for a permanent health-care presence in the community.
That particular weekend was special, but it was in no way unique. During my time with the Floating Doctors there were countless occasions where we had the opportunity to engage with the local community, working with them and for them, to enact change and to begin establishing grass-roots health initiatives. I returned to my home in Australia revitalised and inspired, already planning my next stint in Panama with the Floating Doctors and the Ngobe communities of Bocas Del Toro.
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