by long-time volunteer Dr. Anna Bazinet
At 9 years old, Mariana was confident, outgoing and so excited to see all the equipment we were unpacking that morning for the day’s medical clinic. She eagerly watched us set up the small pharmacy with medications, a scale, and a few blood pressure cuffs. She was wearing a bright green nagua, a traditional dress of the Ngäbe-Bugle people, but this was not the most striking thing about her. On her left cheek, she had a 3×3 centimeter ulcer that fortunately she seemed relatively unfazed by. As we continued to set up for clinic, I leaned over to Dr. Ben LaBrot to ask him about this lesion. Without skipping a beat he said, “leshmaniasis, a skin parasite that is carried by the sandflies.” I have since learned more about leshmaniasis and other fascinating parasites, but see this moment as the beginning of my interest in tropical medicine.
We later saw Mariana and her entire family in clinic and after learning more about her and performing an exam, we helped with the things we could but ultimately had to make the recommendation that her parents take her to the district hospital for treatment. The medication used to treat these lesions, a long course of pentavalent antimony, was beyond the scope of a one-day clinic. The family thanked us, and Mariana gave me a hug at the end of the day. I think she enjoyed watching us work and seeing patients.
This encounter happened during one of my first clinic days 7 years ago when I was first a Floating Doctor volunteer. From then on, I was hooked. I loved learning whatever I could about tropical medicine. Who would have guessed at my fascination with intestinal parasites and leshmaniasis? But, beyond the medicine, I loved the communities we were serving. I loved learning about the culture and language all while traveling by boat and regularly seeing porpoises on our commute to work. During this first trip, I had the opportunity to be in Panama for about 7 months before needing to return to Seattle to start medical school. I remember feeling very torn, both excited for the next step in my training, but sad to have to leave a part of the world I had grown to love and a set of incredible people.
Looking back, my current career path was heavily influence by this time in Panama. The mentorship and leadership that I received by Dr. Ben LaBrot and some of the other providers is one of the reasons I am currently training in family medicine. I love family medicine as it allows me to develop long-lasting patient relationships, connect with the broader community, and tackle some of the challenging issues facing patients today including healthcare disparities. This work is not unlike that of the Floating Doctors.
This September, after 7 years, I finally had the opportunity to make it back to Panama. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, I had heard rumors of new volunteer bunkhouse and base, 20 staff members, and a formal pharmacy, all of which were just dreams 7 years ago. And indeed, I was astounded by the amount of progress Floating Doctors made!
I will admit I was a bit nervous getting into the boat on the morning of the first clinic. Would I know enough? Would I live up to the providers that encouraged me along the path I am on? My nerves quickly faded as I picked up the first set of patient charts and sat down with a mother and her 4 children. My Spanish slowly came back and I started taking a history like I have done hundreds of times in many different situations. Despite the surroundings, seeing patients in Panama feels similar to the US. The chief complaints are for the most part similar; headache, rash, knee pain, back pain and insomnia. One thing I must admit is that for abdominal pain, I was not as accustomed to asking patients if they have seen worms in their stool!
Although so much has progressed with the Floating Doctors since I had been away, I was also amazed at how similar it felt. Even though they have been able to see more patients, do more clinics and keep better records, the sense of mission and commitment to the Ngäbe communities was completely intact. The feel of the clinics, the patients, and the empathetic care they receive was all just as I remember it. And finally, the organization still depends on everyone bringing new ideas, energy to problem solving and the occasional stroke of brilliance to push things forward.
There’s a lot of need for good problem solving when it comes to community healthcare in Panama. Even with all of the progress, I worry about the Ngäbe communities and the individuals I met. I worry about their increasing access to processed foods, snacks, sodas which is leading to increasing obesity rates, hypertension, and diabetes. These can be challenging issues to treat in remote communities where medication adherence and the need for at least occasional monitoring is important. This is coupled with a national health care system that makes it challenging for Ngäbe patients to get the care they need when they go to the larger hospitals.
During this most recent trip, I couldn’t help but think back to Mariana and wonder how she was doing. I could imagine her as a great doctor herself someday, with her inquisitive mind and openness with me 7 years ago. Unfortunately, I know that is a long shot for her as she is likely still living in a community where ~60 percent of people over 10 are illiterate and ~91 percent of people make less than $2 a day. For me, this is the challenge of working in Global Health and what keeps me engaged and passionate. The inequalities seem vast and sometimes insurmountable. I am constantly reminded of the work that needs to be done. I am so thankful for organizations like Floating Doctors who are able to slowly work towards change. After my time in Panama, there are a lot of projects I would love to work on, but alas, this only ensures that I will be back, hopefully sooner than 7 years…and when I come back, I can’t wait to see what Floating Doctor’s dreams have become reality.