By: Christmas Nguyen
Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps
Tour # 181 (Central America – Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras)
August 8, 2008 – August 24, 2008
Nervous, excited, and scared was how I was feeling at the start of the trip. I joined Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps in their second leg of the Central American Mission. I was not sure how the group would react to me since I am joining in the middle and was the only non-Taiwanese of the group. I was afraid I would be an outcast since they all had the opportunity to bond in Panama. That ideology couldn’t be far from the truth, the group welcomed me with open arms. They were all very hospitable, cordial, and glad to see another volunteer. I couldn’t ask for a more friendly and gracious group. We were a group of thirty-two individuals that comprise of physicians, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, professors, and volunteers, most of whom had experiences with medical missions in Taiwan, but for some, like me, this was their first medical mission abroad.
Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps is a wonderful non-profit organization that dedicates it’s time to improving the quality of life through medical services and health education in impoverished countries. The organization’s main focus will be in rural areas where access to healthcare is limited. They diagnosis and treat various diseases that are held in these one day clinics. When necessary, they also prescribe and dispense medication and vitamins to the patients. They are able to provide the medicine at no cost to the patients. The Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps have volunteered over one hundred and eighty missions in the mountain ranges of Taiwan and abroad. Many locations are known to be underdeveloped and isolated. Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps is a very charitable organization and should be recognized for their efforts in improving the lives of many less fortunate individuals.
I met with Dr. Young, a pediatric cardiologist, and his wife in Miami. They are a sweet and humble pair who took me under their wing. They treated me as if I was one of their own kids. Dr. Young advised me to get my Hepatitis A and B shots, because Hepatitis is prevalent in the countries we will be traveling to. They also suggested for me to bring bug repellant and a hat. Those two little tips went a long way for me. It made the mission more bearable than if I were unable to fend off mosquitoes and the sun.
What was supposed to be a two and a half hour flight from Miami to Nicaragua took five hours. Apparently, there was a little miscommunication between a husband and his wife. To make a long story short, the couple did not make it on the plane and their baggage did. We were not able to depart until the couple was located and boarded the plane. This upset a lot of the passengers. Obviously, a plane should not take off with a person’s belongings without them on the flight. It became a safety concern quickly, who knows what those bags contained. We were informed it would take airport security a lot longer to find the couple’s baggage and take it off the plane then to have waited for them to arrive.
After the missing passenger’s ordeal, we made it to Managua, Nicaragua and I received my first stamp in my passport. We were picked up from the airport by the Taiwanese embassy and dropped off at the Crowne Plaza. There we were greeted by Ms. Winnie Tsai, the CFO of the development. She was the first of many that spoke to me in Mandarin. I’m Vietnamese, and responded with, “Oh sorry, I don’t speak Chinese.” I was sure glad she spoke English as well. She was young, beautiful, and elegant. She took time out of her busy schedule to take us on a tour of the facility. She showed us the convention center, shopping mall, and hotel. All of which were properties of a development company in Taiwan. After the tour of the grounds, we went back to our rooms to clean up and get settled before heading downstairs to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. A buffet style dinner was prepared for everyone. Everything looked tasty and smelled delicious. One of my concerns going into another country was getting sick from eating their food and drinking the water. I did not drink the water because that was easily avoidable, but I did get a plate of salad. I then realized you are also not supposed to eat raw vegetables because that same water is used to clean the vegetables and my small blunder would soon be tested later in the evening. I had a little luck on my first day and did not get sick. Which leads me to conclude my first day with; Day one: Still Healthy.
The volunteers of Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps were scheduled to arrive later in the day, so we decided to take an early tour of Managua. The scenic views were breathtaking. We took a hike on several beautiful volcanoes. There was plenty of walking and climbing to be done. The trek worked my lungs to full capacity. I am not sure if it was just the elevation or just me being a little out of shape. I felt like an overweight smoker, which I am neither. The athletic Dr. Young decided to trek ahead of Mrs. Young and I and was not fazed by the long hike. I would say he is twice my age possibly three, but was climbing the trails with no problem. He was consistently ahead of Mrs. Young and me. Our last bit of time of the tour was spent visiting the local market and catching a glimpse of the large lakes in the area.
It was time for us to head back to the hotel and meet up with the rest of the group. As soon as we returned to the hotel, they told us we were meeting the president of Nicaragua in ten minutes. We had to rush and change into our uniforms. I hadn’t received mine yet, but Mrs. Young said she had a spare. We scurried our way to our room to change as quickly as possible. By the time I got down to the lobby, everyone was all loaded. Then and there Mrs. Young introduced me to the first two volunteers I would be getting acquainted with, Grace and Jo. Grace and Jo have worked a few of these medical missions in the past and were very helpful in guiding me in the right directions. The shuttle was a bit full so we had to go in one of the Taiwan embassy’s vehicle. As we sat in the SUV, we saw the shuttle leaving. We were then told by one of the hotel’s employee that we were in someone else’s vehicle. Eek! We rushed off to the other SUV. That gave us a bit of a laugh. Off to meet the president we go. We met with the Taiwan ambassador, Nicaragua’s president and their staff. The entire greeting process went over my head. They spoke only in Mandarin and Spanish. I only picked up a few Spanish words here and there, but the vast majority of the time I was boggled about what the conversation was about. After the speeches, President Ortega, came around and met with all of us and shook our hands. He didn’t have to meet with us, but he did and he recognized the good deeds of Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corp. There were cameras everywhere. My cheeks were hurting from all the smiling. We were even featured in their local newspaper.
Next, we drove to the ambassador’s house for a regale. A rather beautiful house I might add. We had a great feast waiting for us. We were waiting for awhile, for what reasons I was clueless. It gave me a chance to mingle with a lot of people. I am rather shy at first, but once I get to know you, I can talk up a storm. Everyone was very friendly. They would all talk to me, albeit in Mandarin, but that is ok too. It could have been my fault too because I would say “ni hao” and they would go on speaking Mandarin misleading them into believing I am capable of speaking Chinese. Our conversations would usually proceed as the following: “Oh sorry, I don’t speak Chinese. I’m Vietnamese.” “What?” They would say. “You don’t look Vietnamese.” “Yes, I know. I get that a lot.”
I asked another volunteer how to say “sorry, I don’t speak Mandarin” so I would be able to let them know more easily, but after he explained to me how to say and pronounce it, I realized it was too complicated for me to remember. It is so much easier to say it in Spanish, “lo siento, no hablo Mandarin.” My three years of Spanish did not all go to waste. Back to the hotel to shower, relax, and watch the Olympic Games. There I met Suzie, my roommate for the rest of the mission and also one of my many “mommies” to come. She told me how old she was. “Wait a minute, you are how old! Forty? What?” My jaw literally dropped. I knew Asian genes were good, but I didn’t know they were that good. I could have sworn she was in her twenties. I still don’t know what her secret to being youthful was; possibly a secret fountain of youth in her backyard? On that note, my second day has come to an end. Day two: Still healthy.
Wake up call was at 6:00 am. Practically every morning we would wake up to the crows of roosters, albeit, there were times where we woke up before the rooster. You can imagine how early that was. It was early, but manageable. I thought this only happens in the movies. It was different, but a good different. It was like getting in touch with nature. I’m a city girl myself, so to experience this was a bit unorthodox. Stepping outside to a cool breeze was always a plus, since the harsh rays of the sun always got to us in the afternoon. The morning was always calm and quiet. We were usually tired from the previous day. Even the brewing coffee in the morning couldn’t wake us up, although it did help. The mornings were so tranquil and silent that you can hear a pin drop on our shuttle rides. Well, you might hear snoring here and there, but that’s only because you were the only one awake. The mornings were such a great transition into the hustle and bustle of setting up the crates. Typically we had a nice breakfast buffet and would eat till our stomachs were satisfied. Then it was off to the community center where we will be setting up our clinic for the day. We had a truck full of armed guards escort us everywhere we went. I don’t know if that put a bull’s-eye on us or did it really intimidate others to stay away. It must be the latter because we were not in danger in any way throughout the duration of the mission.
As we set up the clinics, I had no clue of what we were doing as did some of the other volunteers. I had no idea how they wanted to set things up. I just helped with opening up the crates and numbering the registration forms and putting up the chairs and tables, which was pretty much the norm in the beginning for each of the clinics. We were also there with another organization. They were an American Taiwanese group and partnered with us on the endeavor. Extra help is always a plus. The day ran pretty flawlessly. We had pretty close to 400 patients that day. The responsibilities of my station were to take the patient’s blood pressure, temperature, and weight. Later that evening we had dinner plans with some local Taiwanese businessman at a Chinese restaurant. Dinner was offered family style. We had roughly ten dishes. All were equally good. There was this fruit juice that was exceptional. We had a lot of driving ahead of us before we would reach our destination, so we ate like there was no tomorrow. We also utilized the bathrooms. The line for the girl’s room was quite long. Day three: Goal is to not get sick tonight!
For the next week or so the routine was all the same. We would wake up, eat breakfast, and head out to the site. On the way to and from the sites, some would opt to take a nap on the shuttle. Once we arrived, we would be opening crates and setting up stations. After the stations were set up and duties assigned, we would start seeing potential patients. A few hours would pass and we would have a quick lunch. Most of the mischievous and entertaining times during the mission were found between seeing patients. We had to lighten the mood every now and then. Our last stretch of taking more patients would start after lunch and end before the sun started setting. Stations were taken down, and crates packed back onto the shuttle. The trip back would consist of another nap on the bus.
At the end of the day we were dirty and smelly, but at least we were dirty and smelly together. After a long days work, coming home to a hot meal and warm shower was all we wanted. We were fortunate to get hot meals every night. We were fed very well. My extra five pounds can attest to that. Dinner is served and a nice shower followed right after. The warm shower on the other hand, came to a lucky few who took showers first. What can I say; you snooze you lose! A few cold showers every so often were the least of our worries. As long as we had running water, we were all smiles. A good night’s rest is in order from a long days work.
The clinical sites were usually located at schools and community centers. There was always a few straggling malnourished dogs roaming around. There is always a place in my heart for animals and children. When I see a helpless child or animal my heart melts. If I can do something to ease their pain I would do it. For many meals, I was unable to finish my lunch box, so I would feed it to the dog. It took awhile for them to come up to me. The dogs were scared of humans. The people there treat the dogs inhumanely. I witnessed a few people kick and throw rocks at them. It is no wonder why they run when you get close to them. If only my dog came with me and saw these dogs, she would know how lucky and spoiled she is.
I had some memorable experiences seeing patients throughout my time in Nicaragua and Honduras. Most of which I wish I were able to offer more than I was capable to at the time. I am proud of myself and everyone that came out to help the people that came to our clinics. It is such a great feeling and sense of accomplishment when you make a difference and impact another person’s life. Here are a few experiences that I recall from seeing patients.
I remember an older gentleman that was roughly fifty who came in and couldn’t stand on his own. He had another man, presumably his son, holding him up. As he sat down, he would continuously put his head down on the table. He couldn’t sit still. We constantly had to tell him to sit still because the machine would not get a reading. He was very lethargic and his skin was cold and clammy. It was very difficult to get his blood pressure. He was not being very cooperative. Another volunteer and I tried at least fifteen times, but the machine would show “Error” every single time. We had no choice but to get a doctor to asses him right there. They measured his BP the old fashion way. It was fairly low. Then they took him back to their station to diagnose and further assess him. Later, I had asked the doctor what had happened to the man. He said that there was no serious illness. Apparently, the man had not eaten in days. That’s what will happen if your body does not get enough fuel or energy that it needs. As we were about to close shop at one of the locations, I remembered an elderly lady saying she had walked fifteen kilometers to get to our one day clinic. We of course took her in. We rarely turned anyone away.
I really hate giving bad news to people. So when the patients asked me if their blood pressure was good or bad I would merely say, “yo no doctor, por favor hablar con doctor” meaning I’m not a doctor please ask the doctor. Unless they had average to great blood pressure, I did not hesitate to say “bueno” meaning they had good readings. They would smile and say “gracias.” I felt it was better for them to receive a diagnosis from a doctor rather than from me. I did not feel it was my duty to give them a medical assessment. I didn’t want them to get any more stressed out because it was usually a long wait after they saw us to meet the doctors. My hesitancy for delivering bad news is the exact opposite of giving out good news. It is definitely easier to tell the people good news.
One of the most difficult tasks I had to undertake was to take the toddlers’ temperature. Before I got close to them they would already be screaming and crying. They see the foreign medical instruments and assume it will hurt. I would try to reassure them by saying, “no duele” it does not hurt. Sometimes it would work, but unfortunately sometimes I did not gain enough trust in the short period of time to reassure them. There was one particular thermometer that would take temperatures fairly quickly compared to the others. I would always try to use that particular one on the children. After, I took their temperature; I proceeded to tell them, “no mas” no more. To my surprise, some of them actually stopped crying. They saw how painless it was and realized they cried for nothing.
We frequently had to refill the canisters with alcohol wipes. I highly doubt they know the concept of a q-tip. There was a surprise waiting for me in everyone’s ear when I took their temperature. Whether it was orange, yellow, or brown there was usually always something for me to cringe about. I made sure to clean the thermometer’s tip after each use. I didn’t want to spread infections around. Just because we were in a less developed country, we shouldn’t forget about cleanliness or good basic hygiene. Another thing about the thermometers was that it will take an inaccurate reading if it was not inserted deep enough in the ear canal. We got many false readings when we did not get it in the ear canal. Although it was discomforting for some, we needed to get an accurate temperature to correctly diagnose their illness.
I despised many individuals that took advantage of other people’s time by cutting in line. It really aggravated me when some individuals felt they were better than the others and cut in line. If we were able to catch them, we would tell them, “la fila” the line. I’m certain there were a few people that slipped through and did not return to the end of the line. The only time we allowed someone to move forward in line was for an emergency. We did experience numerous emergencies working at the stations and were able to get immediate medical attention for them.
One of the most memorable cases involved a little boy. He was born with a congenital heart defect. The mother knew of the condition, but could not afford the costly surgery. Without heart surgery, the boy would die. Our one day clinic was able to take the little boy in and diagnose his problem. He was able to get examined by a pediatric cardiologist, who then talked to one of the directors working in Honduras to see if there was anything that could be done for him. The cardiologist then informed the family that there will be a group of surgeons coming in a couple of months. The surgeons would perform the heart surgery at no cost.
Towards the end of the expedition, I went to observe different stations. The dental station was not necessarily the longest line, but it usually took the longest to finish. That was because the procedures were a bit more difficult. I am pretty amazed at how much can be done in such a depleted facility. The clinics were able to offer so much to people who had nothing to help their health issues.
Day four, five, six, and rest of the days: Healthy as an ox… until the very last night. I guess I let my guard down as the mission was winding down and got a small stomach ache. It was not feeling well that night, but good thing I was around people that could give me some advice about my stomach ache.
Boy, that mission just flew on by. I was sad to see it already end. As I finish this piece, my hometown Houston and surrounding regions was in the direct path of Hurricane Ike. I was left to experience the difficulties of having no electricity or any running water. It brought back the feelings of being in Central America. Having been limited to few resources during the mission, I realized that riding out the hurricane with no electricity and running water was not so bad after all. After the storm had ravaged most of the town and surrounding areas, water was running again but the pressure was low and it was recommended to boil the water before we drink it. Since electricity was still in the process of getting back online, there was only cold water. The cold freezing water brought back memories again. If I haven’t said this enough, I am extremely grateful for accessibility to clean running water and everything electricity provides. I am truly blessed. I have met so many wonderful people on this mission, whether it be the local volunteers, the local people, the Taiwanese ambassadors and staff, and of course the amazing volunteers of Taiwan root who made me a part of their family, I would welcome another invitation to provide relief for people that need additional assistance.