The Jungle Medic
Cruising isn't always about boisterous passages or cocktails on the aft deck at sunset. On the contrary, much of our time is spent exploring the countryside and getting to know the local people. This approach enriched the experience for my wife Susan and me beyond our expectations when we moved aboard Sea Trek and began cruising almost 14 years ago. Our passage this April from the Florida Keys, down the coast of Mexico, and through the many Cays in Belize has been wonderful, but that did not compare to our most recent experience on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.
We had heard of Bryan Buchanan and his wife Riechelle's missionary work in Guatemala—Bryan is a certified paramedic, has done a residency here with a family practitioner, and has also had some dental training. They travel to remote villages that don't have access to medical care and set up a clinic for the day. Bryan is known locally as the "Jungle Medic".
There's a 0730 cruisers' net on VHF channel 69 each morning on which we heard the call for volunteers for one of Bryan’s clinics. We jumped at the chance, and so did other cruisers. Crew from Nueva Vida, Dragonet, Island Time, Anon, T.O. Sea, Morenga, Balance, Rose of Sharon, Bold Venture, Pegasus and of course our own Sea Trek answered the call. Bryan made arrangements to pick us up on Wednesday at our various marinas, and our "team" of 25 volunteers met at Bryan's home just outside of town. Bryan told us what to expect and how to set up the clinic. We were all issued scrubs so the villagers could distinguish us as part of the team. We would be visiting a relatively large village with many sick people. Because he had, until now, been unable to assemble a large enough team, the village had not been visited for almost a year. He generally tries to return to the areas he has covered every few months.
We set out on the 45-mile ride at 0800 the next morning. After about an hour, we reached the village and began to set up tables and supplies on the front "porch" of the school as the villagers began to line up. We all received our assignments and were briefed on how to perform our duties.
This is not a medical clinic our sense of the word. There are no regular doctors, and we only had one other certified paramedic and two experienced nurses as part of the group. No one tries to diagnose serious illnesses or treat those that should see a doctor or be treated in a hospital. Those people are told they must go to one of the larger cities for appropriate treatment, and Bryan frequently provides them with transportation. Our purpose was to treat the most common problems—infections that require antibiotics, the various types of worms that affect most of the children, and providing nutritional supplement since the local diets are very poor. This simply puts a band-aid on the wound, but it makes a difference in their lives and they respond to it.
Communication was difficult in this village of Kek'chi Mayan Indians, since none of the villagers speak English. The few that spoke Spanish, including the village Chief, served as interpreters translating and keeping order as the day progressed. We could usually get out point across using crude sign language. This village was near a local tourist attraction, and they were used to interacting with outsiders.
Each family was treated as a group and at least one parent had to accompany the children. We were immediately struck by the lack of men waiting in line. We later discovered that they usually won't come because it is not macho to stand in line with the women and children or to admit that you are sick. Many are also out working during the day. The line was very long and there were many children including some very young girls, only teens themselves, with three, four, and five children. These were the ones we were especially there to help. Riechelle kept control of the line and wrote numbers on the back of each patient's hand so we could keep track of them.
Their first stop was at either Bryan's or the other paramedic, Mark's, table. They determined each patient's specific needs and wrote them down on a piece of paper with the number written on their hand. They then moved to the next table, or station, and we would check the paper to see if they needed anything from our station. Most of the children required worm medicine, which was a liquid given orally. Next the children and adults were given vitamin supplements. The interpreter instructed them on when and how to take the pills or capsules. The next station was for eye, ear, and skin problems. Any antibiotics needed were applied by the team members. Their last stop was the pharmacy station. Each of the two pharmacy stations was manned by one of the two nurses on the team along with one helper that could speak Spanish. Since Susan speaks pretty good Spanish she was assigned to one of the pharmacy stations. Most patients received an oral antibiotic to treat the infections diagnosed by the paramedics. There was a station set up in the middle of the school grounds at the town water pump. This station was to wash and treat the children infected with lice. We saw women and children of all ages.
By mid-afternoon we had seen almost 500 people. Several of us had digital cameras to photograph our experiences, and the children were delighted to have us take their picture and then show them the screen. Except for reflections in the water most had never seen an image of themselves. It was a moving experience, and at the end of the day we all felt we had made a difference in these people's lives, however small it might be.
At the end of the day we were all pretty tired, but Bryan's offer to see a nearby waterfall was too good to resist. We packed up everything and headed out. The waterfall originates from a hot spring on a cliff above with a constant temperature of about 120 degrees. Pools at the top are better than any hot tub. The waterfall tumbles into the cool river below and the temperature difference leaves a mist on the water. You can swim from the cool water in the river to the heated water as it runs down the waterfall. It is a great experience and we know why the tourists like to come here. This was the perfect end to an unforgettable day. As we were leaving the falls, it rained again and we had a cool drive back to our marinas.
Bryan's clinics are not always conducted by laymen, he has a group of doctors from outside the country who participate on a regular basis and it is not unusual for him to have medical teams booked a year in advance. He spends some time each year in the US speaking at various venues and is constantly finding medical professionals willing to donate their time to his cause. His funding comes from private donations from folks that know about the work he and Riechelle do, as well as a few churches that regularly donate to the cause. Many individuals as well as drug companies in the US regularly send donated medicines and vitamins. At the writing of this article Bryan was in the field with a full medical team.
Bryan and Riechelle also have a completely converted and fitted medical bus in the US ready to be brought to Guatemala. It has complete diagnostic, treatment, and lab equipment as well as examining rooms. The bus will improve the quality of care that Bryan and his teams can provide. The U.S. Air Force has agreed to fly the bus down on a military transport as soon as the Guatemalan government approves it. You can find out more about Bryan and Riechelle's work and see some wonderful photos from some of the villages they have visited at www.junglemedicmissions.org. Chuck Baier