Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Emily Carey Summer 2014

My experience on Roatan was unforgettable, but in a way I could never have imagined before I got there.  As a pre med student with a love for learning the Spanish language, I knew this trip would be an amazing experience.  When I arrived, I’ll be honest I was a little bit scared – I had no idea what to expect! Ms. Peggy picked me up from the airport and brought me to the beach house where I would be spending the next month. That night, some volunteers came over to our house to cook baleadas, a staple in the Honduran diet. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming; my fears were immediately assuaged and I knew that this would be an extraordinary month.

Naturally, I was nervous for my first day of work. When I cabbed to the hospital with Genevieve, the nurse practitioner I would work with for the month, and other volunteer doctors, my nerves were again alleviated as I quickly realized just how amazing these women were.  Genevieve showed me around the hospital and the doctors taught me about some interesting diagnoses as we worked through the patients for the morning. I headed to Clinica Esperanza in the afternoon.  There, I was translating for some of the nurses who did not speak any Spanish. My Spanish was definitely put to the test, but I loved every minute of it. Explaining instructions for birth control pills, or picking out the right glasses for a patient is not the Spanish I was used to speaking in my university classes. But I worked my way through it and I returned home excited for what the next day would bring.

            As the first week went by, I explored the island a little more and began to get used to triaging patients. I made friends with a little girl named Neli, whose brother, Junior, was at the clinic for neurological problems. I drew pictures and played with the two of them as the doctors spoke with their mom. The next time they came in they were so excited to see me, and their mom told me they wanted to learn English after meeting me. This was really moving. I loved making connections like this with the patients, and this was only the first of many.

Neli and I at the hospital

A patient and her mom sporting their new butterfly tattoos

Finally a patient that didn’t scream on the scale!

Clinica Esperanza Triage

            The kids at the clinic absolutely loved the donations that I had brought. Most were just small balls, or stickers that we would give to the patients after seeing the doctor. The little boys loved the toy cars and their faces lit up when they realized they could bring it home with them. Many times, they would offer to give it back, but when I explained it was a present, they were delighted. One day I sat and put temporary tattoos on with a patient waiting to see the doctor. We ended up putting one on her mom, her grandmother and some other patients sitting in the hallway waiting. Putting that smile on the patients’ and parent’s faces was a truly special feeling, but realizing that sometimes this might be their first and only toy was heartbreaking. So many children in the US have piles of toys, but these boys and girls barely have crayons. We take these things for granted as kids and as adults, but such a small thing can make such a big difference. These children simply learn to play with what they do have, and sharing is never questioned. I learned to truly be thankful for everything I am blessed with at home in the United States.

Using my Spanish every day was a fun experience for me. I’m by no means fluent, and I’ve always been a little behind in my speaking skills because I was so afraid to make a mistake. Listening always came easy to me, and writing I could simply look up what I wasn’t sure of. But this trip finally made me realize that making a mistake while you’re speaking to a native is okay. They will always understand what you mean and appreciate that you are trying. Leaving Roatan I feel more confident in my Spanish skills. I loved learning Spanish from patients. If I couldn’t understand a word he or she was using, I would ask for an explanation. This way, we both worked out the meaning of the word, occasionally through a few laughs, and I could add a new vocabulary word to my list. I also loved it when patients would ask me about English words. It was fun to teach and it was great to see the patients’ desire to learn.

Although of course more upsetting, young patients who came in with rare, severe cases were the most interesting. Working with young children and babies allowed me to see various medical problems that are so easily preventable in the United States. Sometimes we’d see little things, like a little girl with a marble up her nose, or a fever and a cold. However, the babies born septic, the boy with a rare genetic disease, or the child with spina bifida, are the patients I’ll always remember. Many of these cases could have been prevented in the US, simply due to more sterile conditions or availability of resources and proper care. Sometimes I was also saddened to see parents’ serious lack of education. This lack of basic medical knowledge meant many children were missing out on proper care because their parents did not understand when it was necessary to see a doctor. This is definitely something that can be prevented with a more intense education program put into place for expecting mothers.

            Roatan is an interesting place. Because of the diving tourism, there are parts of the island that are well established, with resorts and shops. The rest of the island lives in poverty, however, and it creates an interesting dynamic. Volunteers are well respected on the island and the locals really appreciate the “gringos” helping out. It is quite surprising though how isolated and unaware the tourists are of the poverty plaguing the island. It seems if more of the diving tourists understood the conditions of the hospital perhaps they could help in some way. Of course, the tourism itself is helping the island, but it is terribly unfair how severely separated the island is. Perhaps if tourists were more aware of the conditions in the communities and the lacking healthcare system, word of mouth would allow more Americans and Canadians to travel and volunteer their in some way.  Roatan is a beautiful, vibrant place but I’m not sure visitors truly understand the hardship and impoverishment that exists throughout the island.

I feel very blessed to have had such an amazing opportunity to meet and work with such truly amazing people. The Hondurans living and working on Roatan are some of the kindest, most genuine people I’ve ever met. The nurses and doctors are incredibly talented and passionate, and I am not sure they get enough credit for it. My last day of work, some of the nurses and doctors were sad to see me go. I’d made a connection with these people and I’ll never forget them. In fact, I hope to return to Roatan as soon as I can, maybe next time with an M.D. next to my name.