Monday, March 06, 2006

The DR

The last few weeks have been crazy. Women's Health and Fitness Day was the 11th. Last week was the Minority Health Symposium, this weekend was the Galen's Smoker, this week is LGBT Health Awareness Week. And the week before last was Spring Break. Don't worry, I'm not going to write about all of these now. But rest assured that you'll still be hearing about the month of February in April, because there's so much amazing stuff going on. Maybe it's all concentrated because the M2s are about to fall off of the face of the earth to study for board examinations. Or maybe people get excited in January and schedule a million things that *of course* they will have time to organize before March. At any rate, the focus of this post is actually my trip to the Dominican Republic over Spring Break.

It all started months ago. After what seemed like an arduous selection process, the organizers of the trip had narrowed it down to 20 students (both M2s and M1s) and the fundraising began. The group received a grant from the medical school, and hosted several different fundraisers to cover the cost of medical supplies as well as the plane tickets to get us down there. By the beginning of February, we were all pretty tired of organizational meetings, but there always seemed to be just a few more things that we hadn't covered. As it turns out, our trip went much more smoothly thanks to the dedication of our fearless leaders and their interminable meetings, but hindsight is infinitely clearer than foresight...

All of the sudden it was February 17th and I had a lot of packing to do. I had acquired a mosquito net, which seemed exceedingly exotic and exciting. I'd also started my course of chloroquin (slighly less exciting, but necessary). I'd also asked Alicia if she thought she might have time to take me and another group member to the airport. She said it would probably be fine and asked what time. When I told her I needed to be at the airport at 4:00am she said that she didn't think she had plans then, but that she'd need to get back to me.

All 20 students, one of our doctors (the other flew from NY) and her family arrived at the airport just in time for them to tell us that we couldn't check in until 4:30. Jerks... So we sat around with our 28 boxes of medical supplies and a million suitcases waiting. Once we got everything checked it was as though the weight of 28 boxes of medical supplies had been lifted from our arms. (Medical school has killed my sense of metaphor.) We flew to Atlanta and then into Santo Domingo.

After several hours of waiting for the rental vans (who knows what happened... I didn't organize the trip...) we finally got on the road and drove the church camp where we stayed. It was a luxurious resort that featured running salt water from the ocean, occasional electricity, and toilets and showers within the confines of the cabins. We all stayed in one cabin with the boys and girls separated by a wall. It was close to the beach, which was nice. (Although unfortunately it put Al, my new M2 friend, painfully close to a jellyfish...)

Monday through Friday we ran a clinic in a small community outside of Santo Domingo. We'd divided one room of the schoolhouse into 7 exam rooms and set up a little pharmacy. (I say we, but most of us just followed directions. Kate and Courtney, two of the M2s masterminded the clinic...) Teams of medical students saw the patients (took histories and did focused physical exams) and then presented to the doctors. It was an amazing experience and I definitely learned a lot. At the very least I can identify fungal infections of the scalp with some certainty. I also know that parasites should show up in poop. (I also learned other, more philosophical lessons, but those will come later.)

The last few days in the DR were spent up on the north coast (Sosua) in a hotel that actually had running hot fresh water. It was an amazing experience. We spent a ton of time on the beach. I got sunburned in spite of my religious application of SPF 45, but I still had a great time. Perhaps most importantly, I got to know some amazing folks who, in spite of their busy schedules, I will force to routinely hang out with me.

As far as what I really learned from the trip, it's hard to express. I've been interested in international work for a long time, I spent a few months working as a volunteer in Honduras before my junior year of college. Working in a location that is so resource poor never fails to remind me not only of how much work must be done abroad, but also at home. It may be emotionally easier to work in other countries with women who are afraid to ask their partners to use condoms, but they exist all over the world. It's easy to criticize a system in another country where the lighter your skin is, the higher up in society you sit. Yet racism, sexism, and prejudice of every other form exists everywhere, it's just more well hidden in some places than in others. There's so little that can be done in a week. We brought a total of 23,000 vitamins. It sounds like a lot, but every patient only got enough for a month. We gave some patients pain medicines for their headaches and body aches, but they are a result of not having enough clean water to drink and working outside in the sun. It seems futile, but it doesn't make sense to stop doing it. So, when I come back, I like to think I've reached at least one person, worked with her to make her world a safer place. I can usually picture one face who really seemed to understand what I was saying, and whose story resonated particularly with me. And, if I haven't changed anything, perhaps it's worth it just to have renewed my resolve to do so.

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