Blog by Volunteer Doctor Jesus Niebla, MD (United Kingdom)
I am a man who before this trip was scared (well I’d say apprehensive) of heights, mountain paths with sheer drops and free running river crossings.
I was not too fond of thunderstorms either.
In the early hours of the 16th of July I set off with the Floating Doctors on a surgical follow-up appointment. In the UK its normal for the patient to come to the hospital, wait an hour or so and get seen by the surgeon who operated on them, then go home. This appointment was different, we went to them, that’s the fundamental difference in our mission.
But when I say ‘We went to them,” what exactly do those few words mean? We took a high-speed water taxi from 25 miles from Bocas to Almirante on the mainland–it takes about 35 minutes bouncing and thudding through the sea. From Almirante we bundle our way into a taxi, pick up some supplies (water, tuna, rice, condensed milk, Gatorade and the important Panamanian Hot sauce). It takes about an hour to sliver up the shoulder of this mountain motor-way to our first base camp. The scenery is lush, I’m pretty tired from the early rise, but I stil take some time to enjoy it while my team-mates sleep (a wise choice with what was ahead of us).
Eventually we get to our base camp, Pueblo Nuevo. It’s the rendez-vous with our guides and pack horses. We charge up on some rice, chicken and the tastiest avocado I’ve set my hands on. We meet our guides and horses to help take the heavier loads; they ride ahead. The horses effortlessly cut through the path ahead–they go first as they scare any snakes or nasty surprises away. They pick their way up the steep climbs with practiced ease; its what they do almost every day and they know the way better than we do. We find ourselves walking on a parallel and tricky path, crossing an Indiana Jones style bridge (except we’re not surrounded by bad guys and its in fairly good shape, although the odd broken panel wasn’t too reassuring).
We make our ascent, climbing up and walking down the steep- clay-brown-well beaten tracks, but this didn’t make them easier. Our guides soared up the tracks with embarrassing casualness.
In-between the sweat, heat, humidity, knee-deep mud baths, sheer drops and snake shaped branches there was a different assault of the senses, a real appreciation of the beauty of this place. Our path dissected fields through flowing rivers, to the butterflies that garnished the clear, blue-sapphire sky above us. It felt like scenery that was the mostly an inspiration of the Steven Spielberg classic Jurassic Park. At every bend in the trail I expected to see a Tyrannosaurus.
Four hours later, sore legs and sweat soaked we make our 2nd base camp of the trip. La Savana, “The Grasslands” and such an aptly named place. We try and rehydrate and rest, an hour or so passes, and too soon it’s time to find and see our patient. We head off again, although this time only for an hour; I’m relieved at this small amount of time, but the path is much different. It was such a steep incline compared to the other paths. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of the trip, the dehydration, missing the most important meal of the day (breakfast; I know, schoolboy error), but I think I must have hit the wall as soon as I reached the house where our patient lived. Luckily Ben had a Gatorade, it made such a difference.
This didn’t matter, the fact our patient was pretty much running down the hillside to meet us. His actions and motion answered so many of our questions effortlessly. He was fine, he pulled off his wellington, the amputated toe we came to see had healed nicely. There were no signs of infections and the skin flaps were opposed nicely. There were no problems with his balance or ability to continue with his daily routine, although I expect he is a bit more cautious with his machete.
So we made our way back down to Las Savana, make a few house calls on the way (including ANOTHER machete wound), see some patients with pulmonary TB (surprisingly a clear chest on auscultation). We bump into some National Health workers and have positive interactions regarding sharing the responsibility for the medical treatment of the patients with TB.
Eventually we settle back to our camp, have an impromptu clinic under the village’s rancho and soon meet a 6 year old boy with a tricky problem. His father mentions he has a piece of maize in his ear. Ben attempts to extract it, but we just didn’t have small enough tools (my first Job is ENT; I’ll see if I can borrow a set next time). One part of Floating Doctors’ mission is to bring healthcare to patients, if this can’t be done we bring the patient to healthcare. That is exactly what we decided to do–help with the transfer of this young patient and his father to the local hospital. This would normally mean a good 4 hour walk, a few bus trips and perhaps a taxi, so we would accompany them and cover the cost of travel and any medical fees.
The next morning we set off down the mountain with the corn-in-the-ear boy and his father, thinking that descending it would be a little easier. The horses have the heavy loads and we are pretty much on a continuous descent. We still cross the same rivers, and there a few steep sections, but the sun is a lot kinder than on the way up.
A few hours into our walk back it starts to rain, at first a welcome change. We progress, but the rain doesn’t stop–instead it intensifies; the heavens have opened above us. It doesn’t take long for the well-trodden path to become a quagmire. Now it’s a like playing hotch-scotch, planting one’s feet on anything that isn’t the centre of the path otherwise you’re the stick in the mud–a knee-deep mud bath. The downpour also makes the river crossings a tad trickier, as the water level rose significantly in less than 20 minutes.
I am all up for a bit of a challenge, the mud isn’t too bad, we all get used to it, but it saps one’s energy. There is the odd fall, but nothing too serious to anything other than pride. The quagmire now turns into small rivers of chocolate-milk-mud, and then the heavens open a little bit more and decided to spice things up. A thunderstorm starts, we are about 1-2 miles from Pueblo Nuevo, and the more we walk through the jungle trenches the smaller the gap between seeing the lightning above and around us in the canopy and the sound of thunder. We are walking into the eye of the storm. The pace and urgency naturally pick ups, each snap of thunder signals a small sprint for me, then a lull, a sense of dread and then back to a fast march.
An opening is ahead of us, not only are we void of the “protective” jungle canopy but we have to ascendand cross a high, open hill. I recall saying to Ben and Steve we have to clear this ASAP. All the pain, muscle ache and fatigue from the last and current day of trekking for miles of tricky terrain and river crossing all disappeared, the adrenaline was released with a mighty crash of thunder directly above us and and fight-or-flight chemicals coursed through my arteries and veins…. I sprinted up the hill, I slipped on the muddy slope, I got up. I am on my hands and knees trying to get up this hillside as quickly as possible. The desire to get over this death-trap is like nothing I have experienced before. I crest the hill and slide down on my backside, it looked inviting but a few stones and rocks proved otherwise on the way down.
Only a small stretch of jungle is left, and at last we step onto a concrete path that signals our re-entry into Pueblo Nuevo. Stumbling our way through the village back to the shop where we had eaten before making our ascent on the mountain path. To my amazement the town is bustling with Ngabe who have come down from the mountains to place their vote in the general elections, tightly packed under the tin roofs of the local school to shelter from the storm. It gets more ridiculous–there is a local football match ( Soccer) in the football pitch, at the centre of the school. I make a comment to Steve ‘How could the officials allow this match to be played, the pitch is waterlogged”, the players showed no concern of playing in the middle of a lightning storm…until a lightning bolt hits the ground 30 yards from them…then they scarper like they should have 90 minutes before.
We take a short break from the downpour, under the overhanging roof of a house, and the pain starts to re-defuse through my feet and is interrupted only by the thunder and crash of another lightening strike; this one shrieks and booms onto someone’s roof near by. Unfortunately this is followed by cries and panic. The message got passed through the crowed…shouting that someone had been struck by the lightning.
I turn to Ben; “Let’s go check it out”. We now make our way to two houses about 50 yards apart. These houses are elevated about 2 meters off the ground on wooden stilts. Underneath we meet a ring of 200+ people crowding around an 18 year-old Ngabe woman, crying and in obvious distress. Ben checks her out and she seems ok, just in shock (literally) and hyperventilating with some muscle spasms and pain. As we calm her we here cries of two more lightning-struck victims.
I sprint over to the other house (trying to avoid being hit by the continuous lightning attacks), but she is in another house–apparently they were inside when they got struck through the thatched roof. The crowd surround my patient; they eclipse my light; I can’t see. A few choice words and they let the light in.
I notice that her abdomen is distended. This lady is pregnant, 8 months pregnant. My adrenal glands squeeze their last drop of adrenaline. The baby!
She isn’t saying much; visibly shocked, dazed. So I’m thinking to myself, what do I do, its time to get this woman assessed as best we can and transport to hospital. ABCDE, it all comes back. Her airway is good, she is breathing, her lungs are clear, equal air entry. She is pulse is slightly elevated, with a normal character and volume. Heart sounds are normal. She seems a bit dazed, but is responsive. Phew! I notice she has a zig-zag burn starting on her right scapular, working it way down her back to about L5. Presumably the energy dissipated through her feet as she was complaining of severe tenderness in her ankles.
The third patient was a man who had been struck and hurled ten feet across the grass, and wasn’t able to move his arm. I was worried about compartment syndrome, another condition requiring a speedy intervention.
We needed to get the patients transported to hospital as soon as possible for a full review and appropriate investigations, in particular an ultrasound of the 8-month pregnancy. Practically this would mean hailing down a taxi on the jungle highway, or maybe a bus. Fortunately for everyone, this challenge was made much easier as we met some police officers who were able to drive us in a safe and speedy manner to the nearest Hospital in Rambala, a town some miles down the road from Pueblo Nuevo.
How the story ended…
The little boy with a piece of corn in his ear was admitted and had it removed under a general anaesthetic.
The two sisters who had been struck by lightning were both ok and thankfully so was the baby (although perhaps it will be born with super powers).
The man did not have compartment syndrome and eventually regained arm function.
Soaking wet, tired, feet-blistered, hungry and drained we sat outside the hospital and I realized this is what it takes to provide healthcare to these remote communities. On the long taxi ride back (in clear weather at last), and on the water-taxi back to Bocas in the deepening evening, the fear is now replaced with the drive to help these communities further. After a couple of hours of travelling we arrive back in Bocas del Toro absolutely devastated with exhaustion and satisfaction…and I realize this is just another day for the Floating Doctors.
I’m coming back.
Today’s blog was written by one of our recent volunteers, Dr. Ravi Chokshi, just beginning a residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology. These are his thoughts and impressions of our 4-day mobile clinic up in the mountains to a remote village called La Sabana, or ‘The Grasslands.” Over 200 patients were seen, including pediatric and trauma emergencies. Thanks Ravi! best of luck in your residency, and I look forward to working with you again.
He was different at first glance. Quieter. Saw more, spoke little and took his time to smile.
“It hurts here” he exclaimed pointing at his 12 year old heart.
I had examined 20 chests that day, listened to 20 hearts. But only his jumped at me as I lifted his shirt.
A heart that had decided the only way to get noticed was to become outgoing. I place my stethoscope and still the squall fighting within. My ears record and my fingers feel for the familiar radial pulse. There is a flaw here. A Woosh-woosh where a lub-dub should be. I bring over some counsel and we use the portable ultrasound to perform a tropical echocardiogram. What I had heard, we now see. A hole connecting the two atrial chambers of his heart, and a chance to be normal forever taken away.
By the second morning, we had hit our stride. Awake at 7am with the hum of the village around us. I wish that I could say that I
slept wonderfully on the hammock. Tied across the wooden beams of the village Rancho, covered in a mosquito net donated by the Lake County Sheriff Cliff Matthews.
I almost did, but the cold from the two rivers that flow around La Sabana got to me.
To build your own bed where the clinic just was. Settle into it with the laughter of new friends around and your mind alive with the memories of the day before you. Of the cold stream water you had bathed in, or the hojaldras and coffee that had started your day. Sleep comes easy and you drift imperceptibly towards it as the days’ labor catches up to you and the hungry river swims around you.
The cold shudders in, and you wake up surrounded by the chatter of excited Ngobe children. A quick breakfast and swim later you are ready for work. Walking back from the river you can already see a mass of patients organizing themselves around the rancho. In 10 minutes a fully functional clinic sits where we had just dismantled our bedroom. A pharmacy lies ready and capable. Our amazing interpreters have already lined up patients, sequestered the roving bands of excited children and started patient intake. I sit with my stethoscope around my neck, a clipboard on my school desk of a chair and try to look ready.
This is impossible.
And we begin! In groups of 4 to 6 the mothers and fathers patiently answer my questions posed in broken Spanish while the kids run around, openly gawking at me and my strange tools. As I address them, smiles break out. They are terribly shy and hide their little faces in their mother’s dresses. But I bring them out and I let them listen to their heart beat through my stethoscope and I see their eyes widen and them calling out their amigos to do the same. ‘Ahh this crazy gringo is funny’.
I hear about coughs and colds, about chronic pain, about diarrhea that just won’t go away. I examine distended bellies and the scars from years of no-see-um bites and battery acid burns from cured cutaneous leishmaniasis. Most of all I see the relief as I dispense Albendazole like candy telling them, “Este Medicamento va a quitar las lombrices de su estomago y su piel”. And I urge them to eat it in front of me. I work in a chain with 4 other doctors, most with many more years of experience than me and I confer with them constantly. I learn to recognize scabies and lice and infected wounds and what treatments we can offer for such. I get called occasionally for my input on obstetric patients, being that it is my area of interest.
Using the Sonosite I am able to show a woman 7 months pregnant her unborn child’s face and lips and nose. The kick she feels – she now sees and she can’t stop smiling. In a place where most of the people have never seen an outsider, a white person, or even a TV an ultrasound is magic and we are a mystery they are too polite to solve.
We are observed constantly. And for good reason. In a place as isolated as this from the rest of the world, we are as alien to them as
imaginable. Taking a picture of the children and showing it fascinates them. Then I realize why. There are no mirrors here, no still water. Their first good look at themselves is thru the lens of my camera.
These are the Ngöbe-Buglé Indians, Panama’s largest indigenous group. After years of historical fighting they were allowed to retain their ancestral lands largely confined to the western rainforests of Panama. Here in their Comarca, they implement their own system of governance and economy. In terms of healthcare they have a raw deal. A long history of poor interactions with outside groups (pretty much everyone since the first explorers) has left the Ngöbe understandably skeptical of ‘Meriginees’ (non-Ngabe people). As the mother of a very sick Ngöbe child put it to us, “the hospital is where we go to die.” Language is another barrier. While the Ngöbe men have reason to conduct business with communities in close contact with the mainland and thus have some Spanish speaking skills, the women and children are different matters. Not being able to speak Spanish in Panama is as isolating as it gets.
La Sabaña, the remote Ngobe village that we have made our way too, is one of the more isolated communities dotting the Chiriqui
province of Panama.
Our journey there begins at 5am from Bocas marina, where the Southern Wind currently rests.
A group of 9 odd, we sleepily catch a water taxi to our first destination – the port town of Almirante. Blazing through the Caribbean on a 200 horsepower boat is enough to get everyone up and awake.
?Costa Rica!, usted? is the banner cry as we disembark.
Ahh Almirante. A hastily thatched together port town created entirely by the Chiquita Banana Company, it is best described as a jump off point to better places.
Brushing off the taxi drivers, we find ourselves in a car on a 90-minute ride to the sleepy little village of Pueblo-Nuevo. A tasty Panamian breakfast of fried bread and coffee awaits us and now we are ready for our hike. Ben has hired horses to carry the supplies up the slope, while we carry only water and essentials on ourselves. A 3-hour hike when dry, 5 plus when wet and we approach La Sabaña by late afternoon.
La Sabaña – literally translating to ‘The Grasslands’ is a mesmerizing place. Found at the crossing of two rivers, its thatched huts and raised wooden floors are as living artifacts to the age before Panama won the geographical lottery and started collecting revenue from the canal. The Ngobe here live simple lives, the men work in agriculture and raise animals. The women take care of the children and keep the house, all while dressed in the colorful patterns unique to their culture.
It is here we are most in need.
Along with the storm, comes the call from up the mountain. A child has been hurt severely, on his foot by a self-inflicted machete cut. Ben quickly
dispenses half our group with the general surgeon on a race up the slope. I am part of the group that stays behind, together seeing the last few families waiting to be seen. The number of patients has been growing larger every day. Word has gotten around about us and families have traveled on foot for many hours to see a doctor, possibly for the first time in their lives. I have to remind myself of this, as I quietly ache to learn what is transpiring with our other half.
Hours we wait, the rain pouring down, the darkness absolute. The conversation feels forced, every one’s mind on our missing party and what has transpired with them.
Moments before a search party must be raised, their lights are spotted, little moonbeams making their way down the muddy path. They have returned, soaked to the bone but with stories to tell.
It had been necessary to amputate the 10 year old child’s little toe. Amputate it. In the darkness, working on a wooden floor guided by headlamps.
They had quelled the bleeding, stitched it together and addressed his pain as best as they could. We would return the next day with antibiotics and supplies to redress the wound. To leave supplies and to teach the family to keep the site clean. And a phone number to call, just in case.
By our last night the hammocks come up like clockwork. Clinic today had been a sold out success. Patients came from all around the mountain, with many families walking a day’s journey to reach us. We had worked like a well-oiled machine.
As we pack our boxes for the long journey back, the stories come through.
And its not the number of patients seen that we count, but the tooth brushes we had run out of. The soap we had no more off. The medicine for scabies we had to deny.
If there were patients to count, they were the ones we now had the responsibility of following up on. The 12 year old that needed to see a pediatric cardiologist. The women with suspicious breast lumps that needed mammograms, and the ones we couldn’t quite put a diagnosis on out in the field.
Ben and his crew will arrange transport, appointments with the necessary consultants and provide a voice of advocacy to accompany these patients.
What I have seen here erased all presumptions I had before the trip. We were there to see patients and dispense medicine yes, but much more importantly we were there to build trust. To raise the community up bit by bit. To give out toothbrushes and teach kids how to clean their teeth. To teach mothers to recognize dehydration in their children and how to make ORS. Most of all, to provide the village with an avenue of communication they could rely on when posed with a serious problem.
I had been promised an experience of a lifetime when I signed up to volunteer. I say they undersold it.
Four days I lived alongside the Ngöbe Indians. Absolute cutout from the world I knew and an absolute outsider to this hidden world that time had forgotten. I almost died. I very nearly lived. I fell in love again. I yearned to go on, to live this fantasy of waking up in a hammock with lines of patients to see and a fast flowing river to bathe in. Four days is much too short but somehow felt like a lifetime in terms of lessons learned.
In a few short weeks I will return to the US to train in one of the most developed and technologically advanced healthcare systems in the world. I will learns volumes everyday and gain skill sets I ache to possess. But it will always be in a remote Ngöbe village in the protected area of western Panama where I first really learned the gravity of the promise we make everyday on saying these words, “Me llamo Ravi. Soy su Doctor”.
Added by Ben La Brot:
“It is from the numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
–Robert F. Kennedy speech in South Africa, carved in stone on his grave.
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I believe everything that we do in this life has a cost and a benefit associated with it—at times the cost that you pay for the decision you have made far out weighs any benefit you may gain while the profit that you get from another totally justifies the negatives. A cynic would say I view everything through a ‘cost analysis’ in my life and in many ways I believe that is a true statement. On this stormy day in Panama with inches of drenching rain replenishing the jungle around me I find myself thinking of what prices I have paid, both good and bad, for the decisions that I must call my own. April 27, 2012 marked my 1095th day out of Los Angeles and away from ‘my’ life, or rather, the life that was once mine. Anniversaries to me are not a time to celebrate but rather a time to reflect upon what has transpired, the roads you have traveled and where they have taken you, how you have acted, and if those actions sit well with you after time and perspective.
Last week’s multi-day mobile clinic led us once again to the shores of a rushing jungle river to bathe and wash away the stress, sweat, and sadness of the clinic. There is nothing like plunging into the cold hastening current of a
river that has cut itself through miles of remote mountains before touching your skin. Its pace caresses the beautiful pain of the day out of your body in ways that are indescribable and leave me refreshed like no other body of water does. I have done this countless times before, but this time, as I sat with my volunteers between the smooth river rocks and watched the Ngobe Indians of the village make their chest deep evening river crossing home with kids and animals in tow I was struck at how far, in every sense of the word, my life has come in these last three years.
In the past I have done my best and most profound thinking in the shower. With hands propped high on the wall in front of me, head slung, eyes closed, and hot water pouring down my back I come to my greatest conclusions, my most honest thoughts, and in all truth, it’s the time that I also allow myself to feel the emotions of my life. As a result the shower has been a deeply personal place for me—private, unavailable, closed, and bare. My perfect place for reflection, tears, laughter, and thought. I have not had many of these moments since I left the United States—conservation of water on the boat, public showers, no showers at all, no hot water, bucket showers, etc have all been barriers between me and my time in the comforting steam and solitude of my once were showers. I have often missed them – one of those daily luxuries that I never even contemplated as a luxury before I left home. The ability to walk barefooted out of my bedroom into a clean (well most of the time) bug free space, turn a faucet, slip my towel off, and bury my head under the seemingly never ending warm clean water is something that now seems so foreign and long ago to me. A price that I have paid for leaving home- it doesn’t seem like much, but on those cold and windy nights on Haiti’s northern coast when showering with a cold 5 gallon bucket of water that we lugged from 2 miles away, it really did.
It’s funny, to me, the things that I have ended up longing for… none of them are what I would have guessed. My mom’s hands, driving on cold nights with the heat on and the windows down, my best-friends green place holders- all small and ordinary but when I conjure them up in my mind I never fail to get a lump in my throat. The life that I have chosen is full of people but can be desperately lonely at times and I crave the company and comfort of those that I left behind. I have wished that I could have carried so many of them with me over these years and shared with them the beauty that I have witnessed and humanity that I have gained. The person that I was when the plane lifted me away from Los Angeles in April of 2009 is not the same woman that sits in front of this computer today and I have come to realize that the biggest price I have paid for my experiences here has been the loss of my old ‘me’. But, as fire is to forest, this death has brought forth a budding growth of spirit, heart, and perspective that makes the pain of this change worth it.
The three years after leaving has blessed me with bonds of love like no other- ones that can only be forged, both metaphorically and physically, through black stormed filled nights far from land with only each other to look to. The love of stranger children across 5 different countries whose affection comes with no strings attached and no expectations to fulfill- simply love for love and affection for the simplest of gestures. In Haiti when you would give a child a juice or a soda they never fail to share it with the kids around them… sometimes 10 of them passing around a bottle of juice, each of them taking a small sip and then passing it on, even though you never tell them to share, they do. And they do it out of goodness of heart and the common understanding that this gain should be shared with those around them. To me that is witnessing the goodness of humanity at its most basic element and I am grateful beyond all measure to have been that witness.
As I sink my head below the river of my experiences now I have come to deeply realize that life truly is change and the flow forward never allows for anything to stay the same. The life that I left behind was changing while I was there even if I couldn’t or wouldn’t at the time see it. Often people that knew me back at home say that I gave up my Manolo’s and Jimmy Choos’ for Wellingtons and flip flops- this always makes me smile. For me, what I gave up, was my quiet warm lonely showers surrounded by beige tiles for smooth rocks cut out of mountains, rushing jungle currents, and the sounds of life penetrating every pour that I have.
For me the sea has always been where I turn for inspiration, solace, and wonder. The night I was born I breathed thick salt air and first heard the sound of long Pacific swells rolling onto whispering sand, and from that day my life was held forever in the sea’s net of wonders. My mom and dad were living in a beach motel in Southern California while my dad did his medical residency, and my first steps were on the sand and behind my dad as he made hospital rounds and home visits to patients. I can never remember any time in my life when I wanted to be anything except a doctor and a marine naturalist, and thanks to my parents, extraordinary mentors and opportunities I became a marine biologist and a doctor and have had experiences in both fields that make me grateful to be alive just for one of those moments.
My favorite thing about the sea is that it is not lonely; in the sea I feel connected by the water to millions of people around the world. I imagine millions of people of a thousand colors and languages and religions and nations all floating together in the sea’s embrace and connected across thousands of miles by one continuous, unbroken sea. When we float in the vast sea, only a little of it is holding us up, but that small part is connected to an unimaginably vast and powerful body of water. In the same way, this is how a people are strong. When we say ‘a sea of humanity’ we acknowledge that humanity–all of us together–are as powerful as the sea, which is always waiting to show what it can do.
Like every wave, every life is unique and beautiful, something I have experienced time and again through this voyage. In 2011 we saw our
10,000th patient, and although I am very proud of how many people have received care through Floating Doctors, what I am most proud of in 2011 was that as we expanded our project, we always stayed committed to the individual patient. Time and again, this has ultimately led to our being able to do more for more people than we originally anticipated and I have faith that we will remain committed to the single, individual patient as continue our voyage.
Long before I was old enough to venture over the horizon the last lands and seas had long since been charted, but fortunately the frontiers of health and the sea of humanity offer an endless horizon. Looking out over the Pacific horizon so many years ago I never envisioned that my greatest loves would one day combine in a mobile medical relief team exploring frontiers of health across the living ocean that washes all shores equally. I had no idea HOW I would pursue these two passions, I only knew with certainty that if I did not have them both in my life, I would never be happy, and so I would look out over the water or read Jacques Cousteau or trail after my dad on rounds, and dream of adventures on distant seas and future patients I would see and help.
But all the time a voice was urging me to move forward, always there was another voice…darker, more ancient; a more primitive vocabulary but it didn’t need sophisticated words…it has raw fear, self-loathing, shame, narcissism, and petty angst and selfishness. This voice, all my life, has whispered under my dreams, telling me I will never become a doctor, and never see the seas I spent my childhood dreaming of. Sometimes it spoke with other people’s voices, like during the year we struggled to rebuild Southern Wind after she had been donated to us and some people scoffed and said we would never make it, and it would never work, and we would all be killed and waste all the support we gathered…but here we are. Sky and I lived with fear as a constant companion for the whole tenuous first year of our project, when so often it hung by a thread, but (especially with my sister beside me and many hands outstretched to help us keep going) we were able to move forward, one foot in front of the other, and now here we are…going on a mobile clinic in the morning, more than 600 mobile clinics into our voyage.
I know now that this pessimistic voice I’ve always had spoke from feeling not good enough somehow to deserve attaining my dreams, and although as I got older (and continue to get older) the voice got fainter and fainter (I pretty much ignore it on autopilot now…most of the time), it took many years before I could–as my wise sister says–”Allow myself to succeed” without it being a struggle. We are always our own harshest critics and unforgiving judges, but as they saying goes: ‘You never know if you can climb the mountain until you try (REALLY try).’ And as a wise man said, is it really that frightening to succeed, and is it really, in the grand scheme of things, so terrible to fail? And there is always the third option (my favorite): sometimes when you fall, you find out you can fly (or learn how really, really quickly)–especially if hands are outstretched to help you stay in the air, and your ego (and the dark voice inside us) allows you accept the help that is offered.
The kindness and generosity I have seen people show towards us and to others fills me with hope that the daunting
challenges of our time can be survived. I am immensely proud of what my crew, friends and family, and all our volunteers and supporters have made possible, and incredibly grateful to be able to be a part of this voyage and to have shared it with such extraordinary people.
Even with all its faults, earth is a beautiful planet, and humanity, despite its many, many faults, is heroic. There are heroes all around us; it has been a great honor to work alongside so many of them.
“The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.”
Check out these pictures; some of my favorite moments captured in 2011.
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For the Floating Doctors, 2011 was a year that was marked by thousands of patients seen, turbulent ocean crossings, and hundreds of boxes of medication and medical supplies distributed. It was our most successful year to date in terms of patients treated, countries visited, and partnerships formed. The 12 months cemented our belief that the next and most important phase of our project will be the procurement of funding, support, and supplies for Floating Doctors’ permanent clinics in the countries that we have visited thus far. We clearly defined our role as the primary care givers to the remote communities that we serve and the importance of the follow up care we provide to them. We worked hard to secure lasting partnerships in Haiti, Honduras, and Panama which have enabled us entrance into and support from communities that otherwise would have been nearly impossible to gain.
As an organization, I am proud of what we have accomplished in the past twelve months but, for me personally, it goes much farther than miles traveled, pounds of supplies delivered, and numbers of patients seen. It is about the individual. It is about who patient #127 was and what it meant to her for us to be there, or how we were able to give patient #3679 relief from the pain he had been suffering from for years. It is the joy on a woman’s face somewhere in a forgotten jungle when she sees her baby’s heart beat on an ultrasound that fuels my pride in Floating Doctors. Rather than numbers on a spread sheet, for us, our patients are people with lives, children, and family who cherish them.
As the Director of Operations, I am both honored and humbled that I get to witness these individuals first-hand and to be a part of the care that they receive from us. Daily, I am able to work closely with our doctors and patients while running clinics, breathe in the culture of distance lands, and know what it is like to be one with a vast ocean. I get to live our work and see the results of it on levels that are deeply personal and important to me. I believe that my hands-on involvement makes me a better leader for the Floating Doctors and our crew.
One person can be just a number, but to those that love them, they are the entire universe, and we feel they should always be treated as such. Our belief that, “nothing is more important than the individual” has become a core ideology for the Floating Doctors, and it has woven itself in the fabric of our every action. I am endlessly blessed and inspired by our work, and I am honored to be there and be available as a resource to people who have no other option. I feel an immense sense of gratitude to those who have contributed to our work and who make it possible for us to be of service to so many. When a lot of people do just a little, it is amazing what can be accomplished. An innumerable amount of people have helped us in many ways, big and small, and the ripple effect of that collective work has reached thousands of patients across five countries and hundreds of isolated communities.
On the precipice of 2012, I am excited for what the year will bring through our clinic doors and under the keel of Southern Wind. The past three years have been a wonderful learning and growing experience for us – on both professional and personal levels, and we are eager to continue that growth in the coming years. With thousands of miles of coastline and countless communities in need, the future holds no bounds for us as an organization.
Fair Winds and Calm Seas,
Director of Operations, Floating Doctors
When I last posted in June, a couple of months in, we had just started to really connect with the various subcultures in the Bocas Province, and some situations we quickly identified for interventional projects were as yet beyond our reach. Now we have many more friends and contacts in the community, and we can tackle much more ambitious projects for far less cost.
• Partnered with local group Operation Safe Water to help transport and install raincatcher systems at local schools when we run clinics
• Arranged CPR certification for the fire department
• Worked with the Ministry of Education to train local high school students as trainers for health education in the community and give them medical work experience by participating in our mobile clinics
• Created pictorial and written information sheets on health issues we have identified and that we make available at our clinics
• Gathered and data-entered over 600 patient health data sets and begun doing surveillance of our own interventions and identifying health issues from the data to help guide our mission activities
• Microfinanced patient transports to care on the mainland and chaperoned them in the hospital system (many Ngobe don’t speak Spanish, and are VERY shy, so they easily fall through cracks in systems)
• Connected with an indigenous Curandero to identify and investigate the plants he uses medicinally and are helping him develop his small botanical laboratory always keeping a lookout for.
• Arranged and executed a CPR and First Aid Seminar for the cruising community in Bocas
• Partnered with the Mayor’s Office to run mobile clinics in conjunction with the government visits to the community
• Partnered with the local Lion’s Club to work in a community they support and help supply the neonatal support unit they built with Direct Relief International supplies
And, as always, sometimes we find situations that are just not right. Por ejemplo…
While I was in California, Dr. Barney found out about a 14-year-old girl with what turned out to be undiagnosed cerebral palsy in a small squatter’s community called La Solucion. I have been told it used to be where the airport is now (right next to a mangrove swamp), and when they built the airport the community moved out onto shacks built on stilts over the mangrove mud.
She comes to land at most twice a year…land is about 100 feet away over the sewage-contaminated swamp (all the homes
have outhouses and sink drains that drain directly into the water below). She has never gone to school…she has a wheelchair, but rarely uses it because she has nowhere to go; she has to be carried over the dangerous footbridge by her grandfather, and she is too big now for him to carry (Noah noticed he has drop-foot also…potentially a serious falling hazard, especially if you are carrying your 14-y.o granddaughter over a wet slippery footbridge). She is COVERED in bug bites…she can’t really swat bugs away or keep moving to keep them off her, and she lives in an open unscreened house on stilts over mangroves.
Her grandparents have always thought they were at fault for her CP because she fell out of bed at 6 months (though she had never crawled, which makes me think it probably was CP at birth)…they have carried that burden and they always worried they would get in trouble if the hospital found out, so they have indicated that she has never seen a doctor.
If I were a Hollywood writer writing for some medical drama, my editor would probably throw me out of the building for it being so unbelievably challenging emotionally and physically…but this is real life…this is somebody’s actual life. Sometimes people ask if I miss ‘the real world’…let me tell you, it looks pretty real from where I’m standing.
We said we would build her a walkway, and now—6 months into our time in the community—we called on the community to help and EVERY level of Bocas society came together to make it happen. Mangrove posts from an indigenous community, lumber and funds and food from local Panamanians and expats, help from boat owners, crew on other boats, locals from La Solucion, local taxi drivers, local restaraunts…at the last minute we even had no trouble rounding up 2 sledgehammers (one from the fire department and one from the fish market, which I sometimes haunt in the afternoons when the fishing canoes come in).
Everyone gave a little (some more than a little), and in 5 hours we sank thirty 10-foot mangrove tree trunks 7 feet into the mud, from the shore all the way to her grandparents’ house. The walkway went on in the next few days, and then this little girl went to shore (we still have some work to do to finish the walkway and make it safer for a wheelchair). I asked if there was anything in particular she wanted to do on shore (which she can see, 100 feet away) and she said ‘Quiero pasier’—‘I just want to go.’
This is my favorite, favorite kind of project…one where the whole community comes together when it learns about a situation like this. When the walkway is done, it will have been done right, with the right material (always seek expert advice) to make it last for many years. No matter what, this girl’s life is going to be changed forever—and here’s the best part: total cost for all the lumber, food for the volunteers actually building the walkway, gas to go pick up the posts from another island, hardware, etc: less than $1000.
There’s opportunities for helping, constantly around us…when we are alone we can help in small ways…but mira aqui, look what we can do when we all come together! Poco a poco para cambiar el mundo.
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The last time I wrote a blog, an unconscionable number of months ago, we had recently arrived here to Bocas del Toro and I ended the blog excited by what might be possible over the coming months…now those coming months have passed, and it is time to catch everyone up and take stock of what we have accomplished here in.
6 months ago feels like a million years ago…with more long-term volunteers, we’ve been able
to really expand some parts of our project, including self-surveillance. I looked at what we had done—how many mobile clinics, how many volunteers, how many projects, how many patients…it is overwhelming to try and describe. I should either write bullet points, or a 3-volume novel to describe everything since my last update.
Over most of our time here, for example, for every 3 days we were here, we ran one day of mobile clinic work—even counting rained-out days (and it rains 150 inches a year here) and days we were involved in any other kind of activity, whether it was working on boat projects, escorting patients to the mainland to get treatment, holding office hours in our consultorio, working in the asilo, eating, sleeping, or doing anything else. We’ve seen over 3,000 patients in more than 17 communities that we visit on a roughly 2-month rotation across the entire province of Bocas (an area of over 4,500 square kilometers), in addition to all our other activities.
No matter what other projects we get involved in, the core of Floating Doctors is our mobility—even the permanent clinics we are now working to establish are to serve as bases from which to continually run mobile clinics by panga, as we have done everywhere we go. I’m incredibly proud of all my volunteers and my crew for maintaining that level of dedication to work one day of mobile clinic for every 3 days we were here.
We’ve seen a lot of different communities, and noticed that there are enormous clusterings of health issues in different small communities that at a glance may seem similar. Why does one community have an incredibly high rate of obesity and diabetes, while the neighboring community has no obesity or diabetes but has lots of parasites? We have gathered detailed demographic and health data on over 550 patients so far, community assessments on a dozen different communities, and are beginning focused projects based on issues we have prioritized based on the data so far. Results of our first survey project coming in the new year…
We’ve started doing overnight and multi-day mobile clinics—getting two or more clinic days for the price of one day’s travel, since our accommodations have almost always been in the homes of local members of the community, or expats who notify the community that we are coming, house and feed our team, and often allow us to use their facilities to hold our clinic and arrange our transport to work in communities near their homes. I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the expat and local community here…I have never worked anywhere—in the developing or the developed world—where the community at every level will actually deliver on its promises of support like here. From the Mayor sending trucks to help us cart garbage out of the nursing home, and letting us use his old consulting room to open for patient consults two days a week to the local marina workers who are giving their Sunday to help drive 36 10-foot posts into stinking mud to build a wheel-chair walkway, this is a wonderful community, with many eccentric people (after all, we are here too) and many people with good hearts who have shown us enormous kindness and support for our work here. Thank you to everyone—this is what makes Floating Doctors possible. A thousand hands holding us afloat…
We’ve also joined forces with the Peace Corps volunteers scattered throughout the province;
Peace corps Volunteers have thus far been 100% reliable—individual peace corps volunteers live (very often alone) in a community and work on a project. We got in contact with one, on the mainland, and ran a mobile clinic at his village…it is so awesome to arrive with everyone notified, a place to work, directions, someone to help interpret and to give us the inside scoop on patients we are meeting for the first time, someone to pre-arrange accommodation in the community, and best of all, the Peace Corps volunteers can and do follow up with patients that we have identified as needing more advanced care. This has been our experience with the Peace Corps every time we have worked with them, and we look forward to our upcoming multiday clinics to some new communities we are visiting through Peace Corps, including a Ngobe community way up in the mountains that I have heard a Peace Corps volunteer visited but that he thinks has NEVER been visited by a medical team. Looking forward to that later this week…
Bocas del Toro, Panama
As always, leaving Haiti was difficult. There is always a sense of leaving things unfinished, no matter how many patients you see or projects you complete. I always tell people, we are not going to go help Haiti. That is beyond our power…but we went to help HAITIANS, and helped many. Leaving is hard…but I comfort myself when I remember that our anchor will drop in Haiti again.
We had an amazingly calm and uneventful passage from Haiti to Jamaica (our 4th time crossing the Windward Passage…it was tolerable this time, I’ll give it that). We ghosted through mirror glass seas 200 miles off the coast on our way south to Panama, a full moon reflected among the stars on a sea so smooth that the horizon was not visible. We caught some fish, slept well, had a whale shark partially breach in our wake, saw pilot whales and dolphins…Jamaica to Bocas del Toro has been by far our easiest and most pleasant transit.
Our arrival in Bocas was marked by the immediate generosity of the expat and local community here. Dylan and Darien on S/V Jackaroo, the owners of the Calypso Cantina at Bocas Marina, helped arrange Bocas Marina hosting us while we are here, welcomed us with a fire dance at the cantina, and have just organized a big fashion show fundraiser to support our time here (blog with THAT story coming soon!). Chuck, Courtney and Rosemary and Dana from Bocas Marina have gone way out of their way to support our mission here, and everyone in the local community has reached out to help us here.
This place is almost purpose-designed for a team like ours: a large population spread out over a large area, mostly accessible only by boat, with little or no access to health care…nearest surgery is an hour and half by fast boat ride…a mammogram is 2 hours away…a very, very, very underserved population (lots of indigenous people who have had a long history of poor interactions with foreigners).
We immediately became involved in several initial activities:
By car (thank you Rosemary!) and by panga (thank you Alcaldia!) we have so far been running mobile clinics for the communities in San Cristobal, Drago, and Shark Hole and have returns for follow up and visits to other communities on the calendar for the next few weeks, with help from expats in the area, peace corps volunteers in the communities, and with the help of the local mayor (the Alcaldia).
Dr. Joe, previously the town’s only doctor before entering politics, visits the outlying communities once a week with a government team (health inspector, education directors, building inspector, etc) and we go with to do a mobile clinic. We have some bigger multi-day mobile clinics coming up; on one we will be carrying five 750 gallon water tanks to a remote series of coastal communities for Operation Safe Water.
Nursing Home (The Asilo):
3 staff (cook, cleaner, nurse) on each day shift to cook for, feed, clean, wash, change, dress, and otherwise care for 25 long-term care residents who are wards of the state, most with few (usually none) family members and no means of support. The fact that the floors are clean and the patients are fed is a huge achievement, but otherwise it is heart-wrenching. There is a 3-inch concrete sill in each door…to go outside, I watched an old man with no legs roll himself up to the sill, climb down out of his wheelchair, lift the chair over the sill, lift himself over the sill, and then climb back into his chair.
Piles of rusting metal and trash and junk fill the backyard, and vultures walk amongst the patients in the fall-hazard garden. There are no handrails anywhere, including the bathrooms. A doctor has not come from the hospital to look at the patients for months, and they have no meds at all. And the patients have no charts at all. SO…we created charts, did full histories and physicals on everyone. Now we can write and document progress notes and exams and studies.
The mayor sent a municipal truck and we filled it three times with garbage and junk, CJ has gathered many cuttings and plants given by other members of the community and begun systematically landscaping the demilitarized zone that was the backyard, we’ve been doing wound care, skin care, walking and exercising the patients, repairing leaking water pipes, changing inappropriate shower heads, providing eyeglasses, and generally trying to improve conditions everywhere we turn. If you are in Bocas and reading this, come by and give us a hand!
Bocas Emergency Network:
We arrived here to find that the BEN (Bocas Emergency Network) was already in existence here—a network of about 50 expats scattered across the area who remain in radio contact to alert and assist each other in emergencies. The name seemed a fit made by fate, so our call sign in the BEN is ‘BEN911’. We have taken a couple of calls through the network, but fortunately none which were serious enough to necessitate an emergency callout. We are working on getting our own panga and programming known safe routes through this maze of mangroves to all the different BEN member homes (which are all located near local villages) into our GPS so with a searchlight we can make high-speed response to emergencies or do fast transit to Changinola (closest place with surgical facilities)
So far here we have had medical students from Israel and Saskatchewan, Canada, an RN and her cameraman fiancé from Australia, pre-medical and nursing students from Duke and Berkeley, an Optometrist living locally who is going to come do monthly prescription clinics (we have glasses), a nurse from Florida who just moved here with her husband, and we have a tropical medicine specialist coming from the UK, a nurse from California, and other volunteers coming throughout the summer, and some of our old volunteers returning too (awesome). It is amazing watching them go through the experience. It changes us daily, and it is fascinating and rewarding to watch people rise to challenges, encounter people and situations which push them past their boundaries, and seek out and develop opportunities to help.
I read about a playwright/director, terrified after an awful dress rehearsal before the debut of his one chance at success, who fell asleep and dreamed that he was scaling a immense mountain peak…vertical walls…no ropes…he, who had always been scared of heights, in the dream is climbing like a man born to the rock and the sky, and as he nears the summit, he loses his grip and slips, hanging just below the summit by his fingertips.
A man on the summit looks down and asks him if he is afraid of failing…and says ‘it is sometimes a mistake to climb; it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt. Sometimes, when you climb, you succeed, and sometimes, yes, you fall…but there is a third option…’ And then the playwright falls. And as he is falling, he realizes what the third option is: sometimes, when you fall, you find out you can fly.
This I believe.
And in this community there are already many hands under us. What do we have in the works? Of course we want to bring in a container from Direct Relief International with equipment and material for the hospital and dispensarias here; we will soon be doing training with the firemen (who do water rescue here also) in Bocas, working with Operation Safe Water to deliver more tanks and equipment for water projects, doing consults using the mayor’s old consulting room, putting a raised vegetable garden in at the asilo, getting some specialists down here, doing more multiday mobile clinics and continuing to return for follow-up…who knows what else? I feel like this is a community in which we can accomplish a lot…it’s an exciting feeling after 1 month; wondering what we will have done here in another few months…
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Nec Aspera Terrent: “Difficulties be Damned”–the Family Motto of Perry Fawcett, Amazonian Explorer
Labadie, Camp Louise, Caracol; Haiti
It has been a very, very busy few weeks…a lot accomplished; we recently treated our 750th patient for this month. That’s an average of 30 patients a day, including minor surgeries, ultrasounds and acting as 24/7 floating urgent care center. In that time, we have also done mobile clinics in Shadda, Coco, Camp Louise and pre-natal vitamin distribution in Caracol and have visited Milot Hospital, Justinian Hospital, and the HHH physiotherapy center and have helped many patients connect with needed specialist care (I got the schedule of all the visiting American specialist teams for the next few months at Milot so I know when and to whom to refer patients).
Pietre, Dave and everyone at Royal Caribbean have been awesome—we are wrapping up
our time here and getting ready to make our way to Panama to work south of the hurricane zone as the season advances, but I am very grateful to RCCL for making us welcome in Labadie and we will miss everyone when we go.
There’s a saying in medicine: “Common things are common,” and at a certain level of poverty some things become VERY common. Scabies, parasites, respiratory infections and fungal infections are common among my patients, but I hate when several such conditions are found simultaneously in all the members of only one family. A mother, daughter and young son came in with terrible scabies, secondary skin infections from scratching, bad worm infestations, anemia, and chest infections…we medically treated all the ailments, but I spent most of the consult working to make the mom understand the importance of washing, cutting the dirty fingernails of itchy children, washing, not drinking coffee at age 5, washing…and washing. Properly used, a single bar of soap can prevent an awful lot of disease, but poor home conditions and poor health awareness are two regular factors in the illnesses of my patients.
We did a mobile clinic by small boat in Camp Louise, a diffuse farming community of a few thousand people living a few miles west of Labadie. We visited the health center there but did our clinic in one of the local schools, treating the school kids and a lot of other children in the neighborhood. We were joined by a nurse from the Camp Louise Clinic, a Doctor, Physio and two teachers and Hannah from the Cap Haitian Health Network. This clinic was a tough one…a crowd of several hundred gathered within minutes; people were trying to literally pull themselves into the room we were working in (we all worked in one room, hot and crowded but impossible to maintain security otherwise). Hannah and the teachers had their hands full trying to keep us from being overrun, but we got through it—as usual in schools, lots and lots of scabies and parasites, and this location had lot of urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis in the young kids. Camp Louise is somewhere I would like to spend some time doing health education in the charitable schools there, as the high prevalence and poorer hygiene of the kids with UTIs suggests there might be a special need there.
Aside from the common stuff, the last couple of weeks have also brought us some very
unusual cases, and some unfortunate ones. The one that caught me the most off-guard was when I was consulting with a 96-year old woman (she’s in awesome shape, totally ambulatory) presenting with shoulder pain radiating to the arm. As I was writing “?mild strain?arthritis” on her notes, she told me that she had accidentally picked up some cursed money (people don’t like picking up money on the ground in Haiti, because JuJu men will curse the coins and scatter them around) and essentially been voodoo’d, so I gave her an anti-inflammatory and Noah showed her gentle stretches and exercises for improving shoulder stability. A few days later she came in and thanked us because she hadn’t had to go to a voodoo man to pay to remove the curse; our medicine had beaten the voodoo.
Let’s see…my shark bite victim is all healed up…the kid who came in with his stitched knee all torn open and infected is all healed up, but he’ll have a big scar on that knee for the rest of his life (but gets to keep his leg; it was pretty horrible looking when he came in and we first unwrapped the dirty bandage covering the torn-open, homemade stitches). The other night, just before dinner, we heard a familiar sound…a small wooden boat making its way towards Southern Wind, with a man, a woman, and a young kid with a dark-stained rag wrapped around his leg. He had been cut with broken glass, and a deep, 5-inch laceration on the back of his calf. It was pretty deep, with a lot of fat and connective tissue exposed and swollen with fluid; at first I wasn’t sure if the edges could actually be
closed, but skin is always a lot stretchier than you might think—I washed the wound and sutured it back up, and a few days later the edges had pretty well opposed. Incredibly, the sutures were ready to come out after about 4 days (really—they were already starting to be grown over); I love healthy kids—they heal so fast and bounce back.
While walking on the beach, we met a guy whose upper arm bone was completely fractured 2 years ago—I mean completely fractured, and it was never treated at all. It hurt badly for a year…and then the next year, without healing, it somehow stopped hurting and he retained use of the arm. It’s some kind of one in a million medical anomaly; absolutely incredible. His arm essentially has another hinge in it…if you bend the arm, the broken bone tents up under the skin and the arm bends right at the middle of the upper arm—Noah and I were absolutely shocked; this guy needs surgery to screw the 2 broken bones back together, so we are going to see if we can get the surgery arranged with someone before we leave.
And lastly…some bad news…a small baby came in about 5 days ago, age 1 month. It looked premature; it had been born weighing 6 pounds but had lost half its body weight, tipping the scales at a skeletal 3.3 pounds. It had no fever, no diarrhea, no vomiting, no cough, but hadn’t eaten much at all since birth.
The baby was listless and weak; it looked pretty thin at first glance but when Donna unwrapped it, we were shocked and dismayed at its emaciated body. I will always remember the apathy of the mother, the frustration of her sister…but especially the moment when we were examining the baby for its sucking reflex—young babies, if you stroke their cheeks with the tip of your finger, will reflexively turn toward the stimuli (as when the nipple brushes their face when they are being put to breast). This baby repeatedly turned its head away, almost as if it were deliberately giving up…unsettling to watch.
We contacted the Cap Haitian Health Network and got the mom and baby transported over the mountains to a hospital in Cap Haitian where they tried to feed the baby through a nasogastric tube, but last night, after 5 days of deteriorating steadily, the baby died (and it was only fed for 1 or 2 days through the NG because the mom couldn’t afford more…I found out too late or I would have found the funds somewhere!).
Things like this almost always penetrate my Zen, I’m afraid…it takes a lot of determination to let it go when things
that shouldn’t happen just keep happening, like that poor guy’s untreated broken arm, or the 10 kids with urinary tract infections I saw in Camp Louise, or that woman’s baby, or the hundreds of other things like that that drop in my lap every month. If you have a 1 month old premature baby that has lost half its body weight you damn well get it care right away, not after it has been deteriorating for a month…but that is easy to say, since to get checked or get prompt neonatal care, care has to actually be available and affordable, and this baby and mother didn’t have that luxury.
So when I sent that baby to the hospital, I knew that it was so fragile it could slip away at any moment, but I knew that its life or death was not mine to decide, only to do everything in my power right then to give it a chance, and the universe would decide. The universe chose to take it back. I’d be lying if I said this time I really, really, really am working hard to not be upset that the result I wanted wasn’t what happened. I wanted the baby to have a future, not just a chance, but I can’t give futures…only chances.
I need more doctors and clinicians out here. Come where your training is REALLY needed!
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Cap Haitian, Labadee, Shadda, Milot, Coco (east of Bayeux)
Today is the 1 year anniversary of when we first set sail from Florida to Petit-Goave. Returning to Petit-Goave after a year and seeing our old friends and patients (and meeting new ones) was an incredible experience, but after a week working in Petit-Goave we weighed anchor and headed north to Cap Haitian. After the Windward Passage, it was great to ride across the smooth glass of the Bay of Haiti, but as we approached Cap-du-Mol on the western tip of Haiti’s northern peninsula we entered the edge of the Windward Passage and had a few rough miles before turning east along Haiti’s north coast, arriving shortly after daylight and pulling onto the commercial docks in the port of Cap Haitian.
We were met by Hannah from the Cap Haitian Health Network, and after several days of
paperwork and meetings we unloaded our medical cargo onto the docks, onto a truck and got it into the CHHN warehouse, where it will be available for distribution to the clinics that are members of the network. While we were waiting to unload at the dock so we could move to our mobile locations, we took the opportunity to visit a couple of other health centers, meet the minister of health for the north, do a mobile clinic in Shadda—Cap Haitian’s worst slum—and see a steady stream of patients at the dock the entire time we were there.
It took us almost 4 days to get our material cleared in, which gave us time to visit Milot hospital, the primary center for major or specialist surgery (staffed year round by local and visiting teams) and get a schedule for the next few months of that doctors and specialist teams will be visiting there; that way when I am further afield I can write referral letters and give the dates and doctor’s names to patients I encounter who need specialist care. Above Milot is the Citadel…the largest and most impressive castle I have ever seen, perched on a mountaintop above Cap Haitian. Built after independence, it was made to hold 12,000 troops and be able to fight a devastating guerrilla war from the mountains should Cap Haitian have been re-taken by the French. I liked the raincatchers built into all the roofs, but mostly I was shocked by the size and scale of it. “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings…Look On My Works, Ye Mighty, And Despair…” The castle was never really used or completed but it has been well preserved as a UNESCO site and SHOULD be a huge tourist draw for anyone visiting Haiti…just plan to bring $10 for a horse if you don’t want to walk all the way up (3,000 feet in 3 miles…I made it but I wanted to have a coronary at the top).
Cap Haitian was not too badly damaged in the earthquake and is quite prosperous in
comparison to other places I’ve been in Haiti, but Shadda, its central slum, was awful. We saw a ton of scabies, which always tells me an area is really poor, and some half-done operations (like a colostomy that has not been reversed though it was supposed to be). A toxic river draining sewage, agricultural and industrial runoff and storm drains from all of Cap Haitian flows between two dykes made of garbage, medical waste and sewage…Donna was saddened to see three children: one standing in a huge pile of garbage, another simultaneously defecating on the pile, and another simultaneously picking a can out of the pile and checking it for scraps of food. The general health of the population in Shadda reflects the surroundings.
By contrast Labaddee, where we moved and dropped anchor to work from this protected fjord, is one of the more prosperous-looking little villes I’ve seen in Haiti—pretty much 100% because of the jobs and income that come with Royal Carribbean Cruise Line’s destination here. RCCL run a school, help support the small clinic in Labaddee, and have extended themselves to us by providing fuel at cost and allowing us to get water from their dock (thank you Peter and Dave!! Lifesavers!!) and do laundry (16 continuous hours of laundry when we first went over there). I
It is important to remember that Labaddee’s prosperity is relative to places likes Shadda,
so we still saw loads of bad injuries, poorly healed wounds, a LOT of major operations with little or no follow up (we asked Hannah from CHHN to come do a day of physiotherapy and she is planning to try and come regularly), and some unusual cases also—I treated a little boy with a knee wound all septic with ripped apart stitches (almost all healed now), we ultrasounded nearly every pregnant woman in the village of 6,000, and after only two days people started coming out to the boat, night or day, for emergency care.
You never know what will arrive paddling up in a canoe at 10:00 at night—a guy came by
the other night and I saw the blood-soaked rag wrapped around his left hand. We pulled him aboard and unwrapped the hand to find he had been bitten by an 8 foot hammerhead shark (HE says 8 feet…but I’m a fisherman too, so I say read ‘5-6 foot;’plus 5-6 feet is about right for the bite radius). We patched it up and he has come every day for dressing changes. I understand he was offshore, tried to pull the hammerhead into his small boat, and it got the best of him before it escaped. Two worlds collide…Shark one, fisherman zero (for a change).
Speaking of worlds colliding, I am fortunate here to have met one of my childhood heroes, Jean-Claude (one of Jacques Cousteau’s original divers), who has built and run the Cormier Plage hotel near Labadie for the last 23 years. He is 79 years old, dives every single day, swims a couple of miles in the ocean every couple of days, and showed me the artifacts he has collected off wrecks he has discovered over 23 years of diving this dangerous lee shore (I nearly keeled over in shock at the collection of priceless artifacts he has recovered for a museum display when it is complete).
I think that so far one of my favorite days here in the North so far has been setting off
from our ship on an 11 mile trip in a leaky handmade wooden boat with no floor or seats, run by one of our new friends here, through a treacherous series of shallow reefs (on a lee shore, too…bet there’s lots of ships’ bones down there), landing not far from columbus’s landing in the new world. I’ll always have a memory of Sky sitting on the bow trying to keep her back from being destroyed, scanning the mile-long, desolate beach for our contact and a safe passage through the surf. We located our contact and another boat rowed out through the surf, we transferred our gear and under oars we backed through the surf.
Donna’s shorts were soaked in the landing and she abandoned them, so partially clothed
we put our gear on our backs and heads and followed our guide off the beach into the trees, stopping at a small school in a village supported by Dr. Anne, an HIV specialist who helped make this mission possible. We did health checks on all the kids in the school, treating a LOT of scabies and skin fungus, respiratory tract infections, some severe malnutrition from parasite infestation, anemia, and a pre-teen patient who told us they ‘had dirty blood’ from birth. This patient travels 2 days once a month to visit a doctor providing their meds. And, as per our SOP, we gave vitamins and albendazole (for worms) to every kid (and quite a few adults, too).
I love the mobile clinics…each one is its own adventure, at the end of it I have a wealth of valuable firsthand information about the location, and I’ve never done one that did not have at least one patient that I was very, very glad to have come to see.
And to be honest, it also felt good to ply the same waters as Columbus for a short time. I
hope the legacy we leave behind has a kinder footprint than his, but I loved rowing through the surf to land in a new place, with mystery and unknown patients waiting somewhere beyond the tree line in the Haiti’s own heart of darkness. Humans aren’t meant to look at cubicle walls…we are hardwired with the desire to stand on new worlds and look to the next. All of us have the explorer soul written into our DNA, and the expression of this most uniquely human characteristic is always a beautiful thing—I think it is when we are being the most true to who we are as human beings.
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