Friday, October 20, 2006

Michael Journal 4

After my four and a half weeks in Roatan, I definitely feel like the experience has changed me in several ways. It was very refreshing to get away from the hustle and bustle of college pre-med life, where one must worry about classes, MCATs, extracurriculars, research, and applications – so many balls in the air in the simultaneous premed juggle. But down in Honduras, living with Peggy and the other medical volunteers, one is reminded of what medicine is really about – putting the wellbeing of patients above all else. The greatest happiness for all is not achieved by selfish pleasures, like sleeping in or spending an afternoon on the beach – but rather by the small sacrifices doctors make on whatever level (whether it’s Dr. Karina waking up two hours early to meet a patient at the ferry to hand off medical documents to bring to the mainland, or Dr. Patrick taking time off from his job in Phoenix and paying his way down here to see patients – a true medical volunteer), and if you have to get up early on a Saturday, call in a favor, or make a special house call in order to get a patient the best care, then so be it. In this sense, life in Roatan was simple indeed.

One question I’ve gotten many times, especially in the past few days, is whether I’d return to Roatan. What exactly do people mean by this? Was it just a general inquiry on my experience for the past month, or do they want to know whether I’ll bring my tourism dollars back to Roatan? Or are they asking about medical missionaries in general? I decided that I would definitely love to come back to Roatan – either as a medical volunteer or just as a tourist looking for some cheap diving. I could see myself living down there for a few months, maybe doing some volunteer work – I just don’t know when or how that’d fit into my life.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Roatan is in pretty good hands. Of course, the quality of life there will never be as great as it is in the United States, but the island is vitalized by the tourism money the resorts bring, and on some level this money trickles down. As I was there, it did not seem like what I imagined a “third-world country” to be in my head. It reminded me a lot of Taiwan, maybe a little bit poorer, but I’d classify it as a “second-world country,” if there is such a thing. Sometimes I’d ask whether or not Roatan would be as well off as it was if it wasn’t a tourist attraction, and sadly, I think it wouldn’t be. A lot of the volunteers and donors to the island first visited as tourists, and then decided that the island needed help and began to contribute. This is great and all, but it leaves one wondering about the undiscovered poverty in the world, in countries such as the Dominican Republic or Haiti, or in central Africa. Why does it take firsthand experience – a rich tourist driving by El Swampo – before they’re willing to help? What about all those countries that don’t have tourist attractions? Who is going to help them? This makes me want to look for other opportunities to volunteer in less fortunate countries.
Being in Roatan and seeing the disparity in wealth distribution also got me thinking about social injustice in the world. Right now, the government and various organizations are waging all sorts of wars for the supposed betterment of mankind – wars for democracy, wars against terrorism, battles against abortion, against stem cell research, for gay rights, against cancer, for battered women, for orphans, against HIV/AIDS, for immigration reform, for social security reform, just to name a few. Paul Farmer’s view as presented in Mountains Beyond Mountains seems to be that every single human being on the planet deserves a healthy mind and body, regardless of his or her socioeconomic and legal status. I think few people would dispute this, and if you subscribe to this belief, then we as the world have a lot of work to do. But in the list of problems with the world today, where does this directive land? As Americans, should our responsibility to feed, clothe, and care for every kid in Somalia take precedence over our own social issues? Organizations can spend thousands of manhours marching and fundraising to raise money for cancer, a disease that takes thousands of lives each year, many of them elderly, but millions of kids die every year of malnutrition or preventable diseases. The money used for cancer research would save many more lives per dollar if it was used to build bread ovens or buy cheap vaccines. But the difference is, in the United States we all have a friend, a relative, or an acquaintance who has died from or fought cancer. That makes the suffering that much more real. And likewise – how does one put a price on life? It’s not as if people in developing countries don’t get cancer either – it’s just that you can save more lives by treating the “easier” problems first. But how many lives in Honduras are worth one life in the United States? Thinking about this just makes me all the more appreciative of living in a developed nation and being born with such opportunities.

Finally, this whole experience made me appreciate donors more. Peggy began with seeing a few patients in her downstairs apartment – a humble service to the community – but through the generosity of various donors, will open a brand new clinic built from the ground up, complete with a lab and inpatient care (all it needs is a small operating room and she could call it El Hospital Esperanza). Of course I have the most respect for Peggy and her persistence, and the doctors and nurses who supported her from beginning to end, but after seeing her come home smiling every day when another donor moved her that much closer to making her clinic a reality, it made me realize that becoming a doctor isn’t the only way to directly help people – all it takes is the right intentions and means.