As the group recovered over night from Day 1 of our environmental portion of the brigade, we were full of energy and ready to head back for the second day. After a couple brigaders finished tilling the field that we had worked the previous day, we spent most of this day potting plants and helping to put the final touches on the chicken coop!
After a half-day of work, we had finished our goal for the day. Luckily, this gave us time to talk to some of the community members who were the leaders in environmental work. They had worked along side us during our time there, and our conversations with them allowed us to better understand how our work fit in to their model for how they planned to use the field and the chickens.
Lastly, at the end of the day, some of the older men and women in the community came over to where our group was working and gave us a cultural presentation, meaning they had painted themselves a deep blue color and performed a series of song and dance rituals. They also allowed us to participate with them, and the our entire group ended up learning how to dance to the songs they sang for us!
Coming into today, I did not know what to expect, besides maybe a few blisters on my hands, which I did end up getting. Today was going to be my first time partaking in an environmental brigade and after yesterday night’s meeting, we knew that we were going to be doing a lot of manual labor. When we arrived at the site, we broke up into two groups: one group was going to build a chicken coup and the rest of us would be clearing a field. My hoe and I were going to be clearing the field.
When we arrived at the site, the grass was up to knees, if not higher, and the sun was directly above us. As one of the community members marked off the areas that needed to be cleared and the soil that need to be turned, I wondered if maybe working on the chicken coup would have been better, given my small physical stature. But once we got started on clearing the field, it was actually a lot of fun. While we tanned under the blazing sun, we hacked and pulled away at the grass and weeds as one large team to reveal carcasses of animals, small boulders, and tree roots, bit by bit the field was cleared away.
Although we had the option to switch with the people who were building the chicken coup after lunch, most of us stayed with clearing away the field for the entire day. And, at the end of the day, it was incredible to see the difference that we were able to make. Just that morning, our small plot of land was a wasteland filled with rocks and weeds, but by mid-afternoon, there was a plot of land that could be used to grow crops and help sustain a community. In just a few hours we were able to make a visible difference, and there was so much potential for our efforts to grow into something even greater.
After spending two days in the community that was a little further away on from the
compound, today we returned to the community we had worked with during our
public health brigade. For the past two days, there were always community
members there to greet us when we arrived to instruct us on where we should go
and how we should set up; however, when we arrived to the school where we were
going to set up the medical clinic, there was no one there. But after some time, one
of the community members came and let us into the school. Overall, today was a bit
of a slower day.
Like during the first day of our medical brigade, I was assigned to the vision station
and I was excited to have the opportunity to take what I learned from the first day of
the medical brigade to help run the vision station even more effectively. As our day
started, many community members trickled in and out. As I, with my broken
Spanish tested each of the patients with the Snellen chart, I noticed that a good
number of the elderly patients could not see at all out of one eye. After their
consultation with the optometrist, I realized that so many people and cataracts and
more serious eye problems that we would not be able to help them with. Although
we gave these patients referrals, they would have to travel for hours to Panama City
to have a chance of being able to see, and the thought of that broke my heart.
Although there were times when the severity of the patients’ conditions worried me,
there were also moments today when I was reminded of why every single one of the
hours we spent preparing for the trip was worth it. Earlier today, we actually had
some technical difficulties with the program that we use to keep track of all of the
pairs of glasses that we had and finding the right pair of glasses for a patient was a
bit more difficult than normal. For one of the patients that I saw today, we went
through a total of nine pairs of glasses. For each of the first eight pairs of glasses, the
old man would shake his head and tell me that there was no difference or too much
of a difference. But, finally, upon trying the ninth pair of glasses, his face lit up and
he told me that he could see much more clearly. Just seeing how the man’s smile
spread across his face as he saw clearly for the first time in a long time put a smile
on my face too.
The first day of the medical brigade each year sort of gives us a barometer of what
we need to change and do differently the next day to maximize our efficiency to see
the most patients we can. One of the most special parts of the medical brigade this
year was incorporating the vision station into our clinic, but that also proved to be
challenging to fit it into the clinic setup.
However, the second day of the medical clinic ended up going great – we were
successfully able to tweak some of the things we did on day 1. On the second day, we
had a stack of patient papers of people we were unable to see on the first day but
that decided to come back for the second day. Getting through those patients and
getting through the new patients was challenging!
One of the things that I most remember from this day of our brigade was personally
staying in the vision station till we got our last patient the correct glasses they
needed. It was late in the day, and all the other stations had wrapped up and we
were the only ones left in the clinic. For whatever reason, we just could not find our
last patient the correct glasses they needed – the glasses that matched his
prescription the most weren’t the best fit in terms of the man’s style and the glasses
that he liked, he couldn’t see as well out of. Finally, on the last pair of glasses that
could work for him, he was able to see marvelously out of and really liked them! It
was certainly a long day, but one that was well worth it when making sure our
patients’ needs came first!
We stepped into the school grounds where we would be working and I saw large concrete squares that had only natural lighting. First, all stations were set-up: triage, consultation, dental, charla, and then pharmacy. But, how was the vision station going to fit into the clinic? Which room was dark enough to use the refractor and which room was bright enough to use the Snellen charts? We finally decided to place the vision station after consultation with the physicians. First, a patient would take initial nearsighted and farsighted eye examinations, then an optometrist would see the patient, and then a student would evaluate their eyes with an autorefractor. Once their prescription was determined, a team of students would shuffle through our inventory or glasses to find them the right pair that corrected their vision.
At times, I would have to re-due the refractor exam multiple times with a patient because they were moving their head or looking into the laser in the machine. I felt guilty after asking a patient to repeat the exam more than twice because many patients wanted to get out of the clinic as soon as possible. But when a patient first puts on a pair of glasses that allows them to see clearly, they get the widest grin which is naturally infectious. This kind of feedback truly allowed me to see the immediate impact we can have on a person’s quality of life and pushed me to try harder to minimize the amount of times I had to ask a patient to repeat the refractor exam. Sometimes, all it takes is a smile to motivate you to work harder.
After breakfast, we returned to Ipeti Embera. The same groups went back to the same homes as before, where we continued to build. The work included making cement by collecting rocks, carrying cement mix bags and then mixing the rocks. This cement was used to create level surfaces and walls for the structure. I was shocked about how much the families reached out to us. One woman brought around bananas for people to eat while they worked. Also, the children were very excited to reach out to us and test out the English they had learned in school. Overall, the work was very challenging physically, but it was definitely worth it. Although we did not completely finish the latrines, they will be completed by future brigades to come.
We arrived at the compound in the morning after our red-eye flight. We went to the community (Ipeti Embera) after lunch at noon to begin our public health brigade. The community was about a fifteen minute bus ride away. Once we arrived, we split into several groups and each group was assigned to a family’s home. Then each group was assigned to carry multiple cinder blocks to each home to be used for the construction of a latrine and shower. Each group began laying the foundation. These sanitation stations will help the overall public health of the community as a whole since it works to promote better hygiene practices and provides a higher quality of living than what they previously had. We worked alongside family members and masons from the community.
One, two, three...ten…fifteen...twenty one...twenty four, twenty five. No twenty six? We were about to board our connecting flight to Newark but who was missing?! I counted two more times. Twenty two, twenty seven. I took a deep breath and counted again. Twenty six. Phew.
Several things ran through my mind: did we pack all the medicine? What happens if we forgot something, someone? If someone has to go home in the middle of the trip, what would have to happen? Are we ready? But then, I looked around the plane and saw several rows of navy blue, Global Medical Brigades shirts with sleepy yet smiling faces. I could help but smile myself. I could not have been luckier to be surrounded by such a loving family for four years. I have watch many of my members grow and become driven and passionate individuals that are more than prepared to go on this trip. I leaned back, place my pillow on my teammate’s shoulder next to me and closed my eyes.
Panama, here we come.