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Let's Get Medical

In the "Cult of Escapism": Let's Get Medical

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Let's Get Medical

(From 03/12/12)

If I ever bring a traveling clinic to a poor country, I'm making sure to pack lots of bead necklaces and peanut butter crackers.

Today, some doctors and nurses from Alabama came to my community with about 10,000 pounds of medicine and held a free clinic that included a dentist, an optometrist and an 'everything else' doctor. These three would see patients, then refer them to three nurses, who ran a make-shift pharmacy with the 10,000 pounds of medicine. After making a goody bags with the diagnosed medicine, some candy and a bead necklace, the nurses would hand the bags to Laura and I and we would translate the dosages to the patients.

Joan surrounded by a room full of medicine
The dosages were clearly written on little cards that accompanied the medicine, but this didn't necessarily mean that the people would understand them. We often had to explain, for example, why it was important to take all of the antibiotics, even if you started feeling better. We also had to do all this while competing for attention with the bead necklaces. And we often lost.

Here's some advice: if you're going to translate between American doctors and poor country folk, you should know the word for 'lice.' Because if you don't, the local nurse, who doesn't speak English, will ask you to send over some lice shampoo and when you don't know what she's asking you for, she'll give you a look that clearly says: And you're supposed to be the translator? This can be a blow to the confidence.

Here's something to look out for: old people. Old people out here in the indigenous mountains might not speak Spanish very well and may not be literate either. However, they'd often rather not look silly than actually understand what you're telling them, so they will nod when you say, “These are antibiotics. Take two of these each day, after meals, until you finish the whole bottle.” They will nod and pretend to understand, while they're actually thinking: What's a biotic? Why are his arms so hairy?

Me explaining and handing out the dosages
Luckily, I often teach basic accounting and other boring, incomprehensible, business-related subjects and can quickly spot this kind of false comprehension. So I used a very limited Ngäbe vocabulary and vigorous gestures to support my explanations, which I also repeated at least four times. Sometimes, a spectator would jump in and fully translate, if not, I just repeated in different ways until I saw the light in their eyes that indicated that they actually understood.

My personal highlight was definitely the food. I know the highlight is supposed to be the helping people part, but I was really just making the process smoother, not performing the actual help, or the complicated surgeries with writing utensils or even offering obvious diagnoses, such as: “The pain in your arm is probably caused by the giant railroad spike sticking out of it. My diagnosis is to remove the spike and use it to avenge your badly bleeding arm.”

Here's some more advice, straight from the actual doctor: if you're going to perform open heart surgery with a writing instrument, a ball point pen is the best option. You can also use a small tree as a splint. He actually did that once. That's so badass.

But seriously, the doctors and nurses were doing the heavy-lifting-helping, so my biggest satisfaction came from lunch, because they brought sliced whole wheat bread, mayonnaise, mustard, and sliced ham. I used to have sandwiches every day for lunch and I can't do that here and I miss them more than I ever thought I would. I definitely miss sandwiches more than my old pillow-top mattress.

Waiting to see the doctor
There were also some solid snack foods, including peanut butter crackers, which are a weakness of mine. I can't figure it out – I can get crackers and peanut butter here and I'm completely capable of spreading the peanut butter on to said crackers, but they just don't taste as good as the prepackaged ones. Isn't prepackaged stuff supposed to not be as good? What kind of granola-crunching-tree-hugging-organic-food-eating-hippy-Peace-Corps-volunteer am I?

Here's something you probably didn't know: one CC is one milliliter. Why in the hell is it called CC then? The doctors didn't know. I suspect it's another way for Americans to avoid the metric system. By the way, the metric system is better and we're nothing short of stubborn morons for not using it.

Anyway, when I began writing this post, I intended to educate you readers about common medical conditions out here in indigenous Panama. In a sentence: everyone has parasites, kids have skin infections, and more people need glasses than you might expect.

I enjoyed translating and working with the doctors – it was a day full of tangible victories and there wasn't any pressure on me. Plus there were peanut butter crackers and sandwiches.

(Update from March 17th: a lot of people are still wearing the bead necklaces) 


At March 18, 2012 at 6:25 PM , Blogger Laura said...

This is awesome! I'd love to be in your shoes some day!


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