Leishmaniasis (often called “leish” or ‘peeko de vay-hoo-co’ by the Ngabe) is a tropical skin infection found in Panama. In Panama, Leshmaniasis exists in a natural reservoir of sloths and anteaters and is then passed to humans by female sandflies (chitras). Once infected, a small red bump will appear on the skin, turn into a blister, and later break open to form a slowly spreading skin ulcer. The sore is usually painless and not very itchy, and slowly enlarges over weeks. A key feature to look for when diagnosing suspected leishmaniasis lesions is that it is a slowly enlarging skin ulcer that does not respond to antibiotic cream or wound care.
The Nbobe sometimes fight the infection with topical treatments, covering it in battery acid to burn it out, which seems to be effective if somewhat scarring—patients trade a very large, shallow scar of untreated leishmaniasis for a smaller, deeper scar from battery acid treatment. There are some botanic remedies used by the curanderos that bear further investigation, such as applying the hot amber liquid expressed by heating the meat of a raw cashew nut, which we have seen used in some of the communities with promising results.
As far as western medicine is concerned, there is currently NO effective topical treatment for leishmaniasis, although antibiotic cream can be helpful to prevent a secondary infection of the lesion by other bacteria. The two existing treatments, which are 98% effective, are daily intramuscular injections with antimony (a heavy metal) for up to 21 days, or an intravenous medication called amphotericin B, which is very expensive. Leishmaniasis responds rapidly and well to these treatments.
Because the injections need to be taken every day, early identification is vital—the smaller the lesion, the fewer days of injections will be needed and the smaller the scar will be. If left untreated the initial skin infection can spread, spawning lesions elsewhere on the skin, and involving the mucous membranes (eyes, mouth, nose) with devastating consequences. If you are worried you or someone you know has leishmanisis, it is very important to get checked out as soon as possible.
There is no vaccine or preventative medicine that can be taken for leish, but there is one really good defense that is 100% effective if achieved—don’t get bitten! Easier said than done when it comes to sandflies, but the best way to minimize you risk of infection is to protect yourself: use bug spray, cover exposed skin, and use fans with airspeeds of 5+ MPH to keep insects away. Mosquito nets don’t usually work against sandflies because of their small size unless the net is regularly treated. Place the net in a plastic bag and spray/pour a lot of mosquito repellent (ideally with permethrin, but at least with DEET) into the bag. This will deter anything from even landing on the net and trying to get through. After all, there are way worse things than leishmaniasis that are carried on tiny wings…
Until next time, fair winds and safe travels!
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!
“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.”
“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.
For me the sea has always been where I turn for inspiration, solace, and wonder. The night I was born I breathed thick salt air and first heard the sound of long Pacific swells rolling onto whispering sand, and from that day my life was held forever in the sea’s net of wonders. My mom and dad were living in a beach motel in Southern California while my dad did his medical residency, and my first steps were on the sand and behind my dad as he made hospital rounds and home visits to patients. I can never remember any time in my life when I wanted to be anything except a doctor and a marine naturalist, and thanks to my parents, extraordinary mentors and opportunities I became a marine biologist and a doctor and have had experiences in both fields that make me grateful to be alive just for one of those moments.
My favorite thing about the sea is that it is not lonely; in the sea I feel connected by the water to millions of people around the world. I imagine millions of people of a thousand colors and languages and religions and nations all floating together in the sea’s embrace and connected across thousands of miles by one continuous, unbroken sea. When we float in the vast sea, only a little of it is holding us up, but that small part is connected to an unimaginably vast and powerful body of water. In the same way, this is how a people are strong. When we say ‘a sea of humanity’ we acknowledge that humanity–all of us together–are as powerful as the sea, which is always waiting to show what it can do.
Like every wave, every life is unique and beautiful, something I have experienced time and again through this voyage. In 2011 we saw our
10,000th patient, and although I am very proud of how many people have received care through Floating Doctors, what I am most proud of in 2011 was that as we expanded our project, we always stayed committed to the individual patient. Time and again, this has ultimately led to our being able to do more for more people than we originally anticipated and I have faith that we will remain committed to the single, individual patient as continue our voyage.
Long before I was old enough to venture over the horizon the last lands and seas had long since been charted, but fortunately the frontiers of health and the sea of humanity offer an endless horizon. Looking out over the Pacific horizon so many years ago I never envisioned that my greatest loves would one day combine in a mobile medical relief team exploring frontiers of health across the living ocean that washes all shores equally. I had no idea HOW I would pursue these two passions, I only knew with certainty that if I did not have them both in my life, I would never be happy, and so I would look out over the water or read Jacques Cousteau or trail after my dad on rounds, and dream of adventures on distant seas and future patients I would see and help.
But all the time a voice was urging me to move forward, always there was another voice…darker, more ancient; a more primitive vocabulary but it didn’t need sophisticated words…it has raw fear, self-loathing, shame, narcissism, and petty angst and selfishness. This voice, all my life, has whispered under my dreams, telling me I will never become a doctor, and never see the seas I spent my childhood dreaming of. Sometimes it spoke with other people’s voices, like during the year we struggled to rebuild Southern Wind after she had been donated to us and some people scoffed and said we would never make it, and it would never work, and we would all be killed and waste all the support we gathered…but here we are. Sky and I lived with fear as a constant companion for the whole tenuous first year of our project, when so often it hung by a thread, but (especially with my sister beside me and many hands outstretched to help us keep going) we were able to move forward, one foot in front of the other, and now here we are…going on a mobile clinic in the morning, more than 600 mobile clinics into our voyage.
I know now that this pessimistic voice I’ve always had spoke from feeling not good enough somehow to deserve attaining my dreams, and although as I got older (and continue to get older) the voice got fainter and fainter (I pretty much ignore it on autopilot now…most of the time), it took many years before I could–as my wise sister says–”Allow myself to succeed” without it being a struggle. We are always our own harshest critics and unforgiving judges, but as they saying goes: ‘You never know if you can climb the mountain until you try (REALLY try).’ And as a wise man said, is it really that frightening to succeed, and is it really, in the grand scheme of things, so terrible to fail? And there is always the third option (my favorite): sometimes when you fall, you find out you can fly (or learn how really, really quickly)–especially if hands are outstretched to help you stay in the air, and your ego (and the dark voice inside us) allows you accept the help that is offered.
The kindness and generosity I have seen people show towards us and to others fills me with hope that the daunting
challenges of our time can be survived. I am immensely proud of what my crew, friends and family, and all our volunteers and supporters have made possible, and incredibly grateful to be able to be a part of this voyage and to have shared it with such extraordinary people.
Even with all its faults, earth is a beautiful planet, and humanity, despite its many, many faults, is heroic. There are heroes all around us; it has been a great honor to work alongside so many of them.
“The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.”
Check out these pictures; some of my favorite moments captured in 2011.
Please click on any of the photos to activate the slide viewer.
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…
This week saw the first heavy, 3 day long pouring rain for several weeks (of course, while we are trying to load the boat and finish our preparations for departure) and the tying off of many threads we have been following for months…we closed up our clinic in Oakridge, packing everything up and saying hasta luego a mi pacientes. Un momento muy difficile. Thank goodness we plan to return to open the clinic permanently as a satellite clinic, open every day with a doctor and staff on site even when Southern Wind is working elsewhere. Knowing we are coming back after this voyage, and knowing that with what we learned and the relationships we forged on Roatan, we can and will open that clinic, makes it much easier to say farewell. Instead, we say (we are going to Haiti, after all) aur revoir.
We finished off a lot of rainy day projects inside the boat (there are always, always more
projects), and got down to the business of prepping to load—that means taking every item out of its storage onboard, condensing everything, repacking all our medical go-bags (thank you Dr. Holly!), and most important: we took delivery of our 5 pallets of material left over in Miami from our last mission to Haiti (thank you Gary, Donna, and everyone at Roatan Rotary!), and our 40-foot container from Direct Relief International, packed with medicine and equipment for the clinics in the island and distributed the material to 5 clinics and the public hospital on the island.
This is a crowning moment for Sky. To get this container in, it required over 1,000 emails between Sky, the shipping company, Direct Relief International, Joseph Natale from Fundacion Heart Ventures, the customs office, the customs broker, Roatan Rotary, a cross-country trucking company and a local trucking company in Miami and another in Roatan, the warehouse in Miami with our 5 leftover pallets, the Ministry of Health in Honduras, 6 different clinics on Roatan, and Cepudo (a Honduran NGO on the mainland).
The difficulty is not in sending down material—anyone can order a container and have it
shipped down here…but not without enormous import fees. It is sending down material and getting it cleared through customs as donated material without $30,000 worth of customs duties applied that is difficult, not to mention that we wanted to create a conduit so that we could send containers on a regular basis. One time is easy…to set it up to be sustainable is way, way more difficult. It took more than anyone else will ever know to get it set up by Sky, but I will always know and always be impressed how much the people you already love and admire can still amaze you.
In a few months I will begin contacting the clinics again, finding out their needs and getting another request for DRI and container number 2…
In the midst of all this, we still see patients, provided the medical service for the Bay Islands Triathalon (including the kayaks monitoring the swimmers during the first leg), and Dr. Holly—whose training
includes major scene accident management—provided 2 days of training for the Fire Department, following up the training provided by our volunteer Sirin last year.
Dr. Holly showed the firemen a particular extrication trick—when you have a patient with suspected spinal injury from a car accident, you can extract the patient through the back window by lowering the front seat, sliding the board in through the back window and taking the patient straight out. Since we have the use of Gary and Donna’s open jeep, we could simulate the extraction without having to smash a car’s back window. We are nothing if not adaptable.
The weather is looking good for this weekend (pouring rain now)…high pressure pushing down, maybe keeping the low centers at bay over our projected route. Loading the IV fluids tomorrow and the next day…Finish securing the boat for sea…provisioning….and a last good night’s sleep.
Then give me that horizon.
Photos of patients used with patients’ express permission.
Photos of unloading and interior boat construction (pretty much most of the nice-looking photos) courtesy of Dan Chomistek
On Friday we painted a school in Jonesville, one of the original pirate settlements on Roatan. Last week we visited the school to drop off worming medications for the 54 students there, and while we were there we noticed that the school was in dire need of painting. We spoke to Norma, the lady who runs the school, and offered to come back and paint it. We rounded up some help, got 10 gallons of paint from our friend Joseph’s foundation Intensive Heart Ventures, bought some primer and some brushes and rollers and headed back to paint the school the following week. It was perfect–Norma got the students to clear out the building, their session ended for the season, and we arrived at an empty building ready to prep and paint.
We had Pat and Randy with us (two cruising sailors from SV Homeward Bound who have been
helping us with our clinic), Larry (a longtime expat living in the neighborhood of the school), and four kids from French Harbor that have begun having around the boat. I love having them around; they remind me of Bichal and Yvenson and Jonas and our other young Haitian friends. Noah is always the one the kids gravitate to the most–as he is the most ferocious-looking, the young kids naturally hero-worship him wherever we go, so it is usually Noah that takes charge of the kids when they are working with us. Noah has a knack for connecting with the most at-risk kids, getting enormous influence with them right away and creating opportunities to provide them with tools and new ideas.
Meanwhile, I can’t help trying to fill their heads with all kinds of random knowledge (being a teacher dies hard, and when I have them fishing out in the skiff I have a captive audience for the concepts of biology and ecology I’m constantly spouting to them). Sometimes stuff makes it through their burgeoning hormones and days later I overhear one of them telling another to throw a small fish back so it can grow bigger and have babies so when they catch it later it will be bigger, and there will be more of them. For me, those are great moments.
Friday, when we painted the school, was a great moment for me for another reason. As the chipped and faded
colors were covered by smooth new paint, I looked at the group that had assembled on a small peninsula on an island off the north coast of Honduras…a cruising couple, kids from a neighboring community, an expat, the local teacher, and us. So many people that might never have all been drawn together, all working together to do something for some kids they will probably never meet.
That is one of my favorite aspects of our project…the connections created between people, and so many people doing what they can. The school got emptied and cleaned out by the students, and we repainted the whole school, inside and out in less than 5 hours with some touching up a few days later (ran out of paint and a few folks went back with new paint to finish up the last spots).
I love that the same way our whole project was accomplished was the way the school got painted; the school was like a microcosm for our whole project: a lot of people from all walks of life all did a little (some did a LOT more than a little) and got it done.
And continue to do so…thanks to everyone who helped us from day one to painting the school last Friday!
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All patient photos and cases used with patients’ consent
As we were closing up shop after a busy clinic day in Oakridge, we got a call from the Roatan Zoo—one of the new keepers had been badly mauled by one of the monkeys while cleaning the enclosure. Oh man…after a late night working on the computer and a CRAZY day in clinic I was looking forward to lying down for a while, but when the call comes for help, you have to help–so we grabbed our minor surgery bag and some antibiotics and headed over.
Apparently, the victim had been employed there about two months, and was working (as usual) with the main keeper, who had been with the zoo
for 5 years. They had been in the cages together many times before, and had no problems, but this time the head keeper stepped out to grab some additional cleaning supplies and one of the monkeys decided to challenge the new guy.
While with the head keeper, he had been safe—the head keeper’s place in the monkey society was well established (as boss), so the new keeper got a free pass. But when he was left on his own, one of the males just went for him. He was knocked to the ground and savaged, bitten and clawed all over his legs and his arms and hands; the monkey actually went for his face—all the wounds on his arms and hands are classic defensive wounds. Fortunately the head keeper heard the commotion, ran back and pulled the monkey off (the monkey immediately submitted to the head keeper).
The male in question had been horribly abused in its previous home; it had come to the zoo nearly dead…now it is in fine form; I guess it feels strong enough to challenge newcomers in its little kingdom. Everyone always looks at monkeys and goes ‘Awwww….how cute.” And it is true, with their little human faces and adorable antics, they are pretty fun—but they are also wild animals with motivations all their own, and with lots of strength, agility, speed and teeth and claws!
When we got there, the poor guy was a little shocky, covered in blood, dried monkey saliva, and dirt and debris from the bottom of the monkey enclosure. He was so filthy and crusted that we couldn’t even see where the wounds were. Pretty bad scenario from an infection point of view; monkeys have fangs that can bite pretty deep and inoculate your tissues with their raw sewage-like saliva (pretty similar to human saliva, probably).
I immediately gave him an injection of ceftriaxone and an injection for pain. We used a garden hose (the water at this resort/zoo is filtered and potable) to soak off the filth and dried blood as it would have taken more gauze than we had with us, and been more painful. The hose helped gently soak open the dirty scabs over the wounds, and let them bleed out a little to help clean them. Finally we could see the wounds—lots of them, probably around 40 bites and claw marks. If he hadn’t been wearing jeans, I think he would have lost half the skin on his legs, and if he hadn’t had his arms up in front of his face things would have been a whole lot worse.
After disinfecting and irrigating all the wounds, we salved them with antibiotic ointment, dressed them, and gave him oral antibiotics and painkillers, and fresh bandages for his family to change for him if he got wet. We also started him on acyclovir, an antiviral given as prophylaxis for monkey bites. The next day, all his wounds were clean and dry except for his right hand and left forearm, which were very swollen (and pus was expressed from the hand). We added a second, stronger antibiotic and got him to start bathing his wounds in hot soapy water a few times a day.
It worked—his swelling went down and his wounds are healing nicely. Never a dull moment practicing medicine in the tropics, but most of all I liked that we were able to bring care to his home. The house call is still my favorite consult.
When I was a kid I watched my dad do house calls in Los Angeles…practicing Alaskan small-town doctor medicine in a big city. In my folks’ house, as long as I can remember, there is an old print of a painting of a doctor, circa 1830ish, on horseback with a lantern and black medical bag in the dead of night, riding slowly through a driving rainstorm. There’s no adrenaline rush about the figure; the doctor is not flying down the road, coat trailing behind and sparks flashing from the horse’s shoes on the cobbles.
Instead, the doctor looks cold and wet—can barely see his face behind his upturned collar, peering head through the dimly lit night. He has the air of one doing a job that he is doing because he has no choice, because it is who he is. It would never occur to him that someone else should be the one to go out in the night and go help a sick patient. He goes, and gets cold and wet and more tired (he must be a critical care doctor), because to him, that is what a doctor does. It isn’t even a sacrifice, just a part of his core being. I always felt like that picture captured some of the essence of what being a doctor means to me.
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