Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Wings to Fly — 13

Memoir Index

Medical Mission to Ecuador

Proevity, my education company, would lead me to a medical trip to Ecuador. It was such an unusual thing for me, participating in a medical mission with a group of health care providers. There were two doctors (a cardiologist from Northwestern Memorial Hospital and an internist from Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center), a dentist from downtown Chicago, a pharmacist (me), a medical technician with heart equipment, a nutritionist from Northwestern Hospital, and several other support personnel including Tamara, my business partner.

Zuly, one of our team members, had been an orphan in Ecuador. She was adopted by an American missionary, and now she is a successful business woman. She wanted to bring back to her country some of the blessings she received, so she created this medical team.

I was bringing two large suitcases full of vitamins donated by Mannatech, a nutraceutical company. One-third of our vitamins got stolen at the airport in Quito, Ecuador. We had been warned that theft was rampant. I was the one carrying the vitamins that got stolen, but I was not in the habit of securing suitcases. Was I naïve to think this would not happen to people on a humanitarian mission? I was not the only one. One of our two sets of medical equipment was stolen. I had camaraderie in my misfortune.

As we met with the mayor of a small town where we were setting up a temporary clinic for two weeks, we heard a loud speaker going down the main street. I asked what was being said. “Oh, they are announcing that a medical clinic has come from the US. Anyone who wishes to see a health-care person is to come and wait at the gate by eight in the morning. Many people have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their whole life.” The mayor promised to expedite things so that our clinic would run smoothly.

The first day, it must have been 90°F by 8 AM. Our bus brought us to a makeshift clinic, which was a grammar school vacated for our service for two weeks. This school consisted of a long roof and pillars. There were no walls. On a windy day, the dust blows right through the classrooms. I saw masses of people. There must have been 200 to 300 people. I am not accustomed to estimating such a large number of people waiting for service. I was sure that many of these people who would not get to see a doctor. Every day was the same story. If they were lucky enough to see a doctor, they would come to me for whatever medicine they needed. My pharmacy consisted of two suitcases full of medicine donated by pharmaceutical companies (mainly because they were reaching their expiration date). I placed some medicine in plastic bags and made a motion, “Take this pill X times a day.” I quickly learned to say that in Spanish. Of course I could not explain anything else—how to take it, what to avoid, food and drug interaction, etc. My pharmacy supply ran out days before the end of our program.

My friend Maria, a very successful dentist with a plush downtown Chicago office, told me, “I have never pulled so many teeth in my whole life.” She spoke fluent Spanish. My doctor friends from Northwestern Memorial Hospital and St. Luke’s Medical Center had never seen so many patients as they did in those dusty school rooms. My friend the nutritionist, who also spoke fluent Spanish, spent the time giving twenty minute classes on hygiene and good nutrition. We agreed that the vast majority of the illnesses in this town were due to the lack of proper hygiene.

There were no chairs for those waiting. They stood in the hot sun for hours. We had no water to give them. They were so thankful for our service—I never heard a complaint from any of them. As I was “practicing pharmacy” in the shaded classroom pharmacy, I wondered how the “patients” were doing as they waited in the scorching sun. I saw one father with a small, deformed child in his arms stand for hours in the sun for hours waiting for that ever-so-slow line to move. That child was fourteen years old and looked no more than five. We were told that she had never seen a doctor—the family had no money for such a luxury. I wondered what our cardiologist and internist could do for such a child.

At five in the afternoon, we told everyone that the clinic was closed. Those who had waited all day without seeing a medical person were in tears. We told them to come early the next day. I never knew when the earliest one came. At 8 AM when our bus arrived, there were hundreds in line already. We talked about how helpless we felt. The doctors felt so inept. Yet my friend Maria felt most satisfied. She was able to pull out more rotted teeth than she had ever done in her practice in any given day. All in all, it felt wonderful that we made a small dent for the humanity in need.

Sunday was our first day off. We were going to a beautiful and famous beach. It was hot everyday, yet on that specific Sunday it was chilly. We were on a two hour bus ride to go to a scenic beach that foreigners loved. We huddled in our sweaters under gray clouds. It was almost too chilly to enjoy each other’s company. We went to a quaint food shop for lunch. I looked at my plate. There was a crack in the plate. It crossed my mind, maybe I should ask for another plate with new food. I discarded that thought. The food looked so good. I ate it all and it was so delicious. That evening I was so sick I thought I would die. I was crippled with violent nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. For the next three days, I couldn’t get out of my room. Other than my run to the bathroom I was bound to my bed. My doctor friend told me, “That is why I did not eat anything the whole day.” She only ate at our “Hacienda” where food was prepared according to foreigners’ delicate make-up.

My hacienda’s hostess took care of me. She made special chicken soup and other dishes that I could tolerate. As my health was improving, she took me to downtown to help me pass my time. She told me, “ I own this building, that building, and several others.” Each building was impressive. These were high rises for business and tall apartment buildings. “My father owns the next whole block. My grandmother and grandfather …” It seemed this one family owned all of downtown. “I have a home in southern California where I spend six months. The other six months I run Hacienda here. My husband spends his six months in our home in Germany, but I don’t go there. It’s much more interesting here taking care of folks such as yourselves.”

She continued to talk about her life. She went to college. After graduation her dad bought her a home along a beautiful beach in the town of her choice in California (I don’t remember which town). She enjoyed her life. she came home to Ecuador only to visit. Her dad sent her living expense all her life. Now she was in her forties, this is the first work she is doing; running a hacienda which she loves. She sees lot of politicians for their political gatherings, lot of foreigners for different reasons; vacation, mission, and others. She liked us. We were doing good for “those poor people”. She referred her countrymen as “those people”. She never called them “my people”. She made many special foods for me and we thoroughly enjoyed each other.

We all formed a close bond. When we were at the air port, some of us hired an anti theft luggage service where our luggage would be saran wrapped many times over. This was pre 9-11 of twin towers of New York. As we were coming home we were so glad that we live in United States of America. Each of us had many special experiences and memories of this trip.

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