Thursday, January 14, 2010

Beginnings—a New Year’s Story for 2010 by Bonnie Herscher, R.N.

The phone rang as 2009 was about to draw to a close. My dear friend, Rabbi Abie Ingber, was on the other end of the line, calling from Cincinnati to ask if I’d like to join him and a group of thirteen Xavier University undergrads on a trip to Jamaica. This was not going to be a vacation, not a story of beach resorts nor a sightseeing trip to experience the great natural beauty of the island. Instead, Abie had called to know if I would join a medical mission he had organized with the intention of providing care to some of the most impoverished residents of the country.
I had not imagined that 2010 might begin quite this way, but on New Years day I was on the plane, beginning a journey that words barely begin to describe. Joined by Dr. Richard Fry and nurse practitioner Paula Niederbaumer—with the blessing of essential financial support provided by TriHealth—we began a week that would take us to Steer Town, Golden Spring and Liberty, villages of which I’d never heard, but soon came to know for their small huts, essentially cobbled together out of plywood and corrugated metal roofs—no kitchens, no bathrooms, no plumbing to supply water. Some thirty years ago, Dusty and Corinne Cooper had come to Steer Town as missionaries, saw the conditions, found people living without any shelter whatsoever, and couldn’t turn their backs. They built Grace Community Center whose, focus has been to provide rudimentary education and training. Over the years, the Coopers have created relationships with the locals, and for this trip, they served as our hosts, guides and protectors.

So far, so good. But here is where words begin to fail me. I’ve been an emergency nurse for 40-plus years. I’ve seen more than my share of trauma and gravely ill people. But this was my first real encounter with the multitudes of illnesses that accompany the cruelty of extreme poverty. Where to begin? We treated children infected with parasites. Many of them were so malnourished that they looked half their age—boys and girls who told us they were ten years old when we would have guessed that they were not older than five or six. We brought much-needed inhalers for asthmatic children, but ran out of them by the end of the week. We encountered mothers who begged us for those inhalers, telling us that their children could not breathe at night. And what would they do, we worried, when what we had provided eventually ran out?
Most of the adults we saw were suffering from high blood pressure, so many of them at dangerously elevated levels. We had to take six of them to an ER because they were in serious danger of strokes. Having set up a pharmacy, we loaded these patients up with the proper medications. We tried to each them the importance of seeing a doctor when these meds ran out, but we kept hearing the same responses: we have no money for medicine. How disheartening it was to hear that, to know that they would not get life-saving care until the next mission would come along; who knows when that will be?
Over the course of the week, we met some 500 patients. We treated people suffering from multiple infections, and we saw widespread STDs. But it was, of course, the children’s stories that were, ultimately, most heartbreaking. It was not only painful to see so many teenaged girls who had already given birth to their own children for whom they could not provide adequate care, but to encounter girls who, in their young lives, had suffered multiple rapes.
And yet… in the midst of so much poverty and sickness, there was such a sense of hope. How could I be anything but hopeful, having worked with these thirteen young people from Xavier, all of whom aspire to become medical professionals? In the most important of ways, they’re already experienced something of the power of healing. When I arrived, I was worried I’d never learn all their names; a week later, I won’t ever forget any of them. Even though you don’t know them, I want you to hear their names, because each of them is a precious human being: Brenda, BB, Heather, Julia, Keiko, Jenna, Amber, Mena, Caroline, Kevin, Josh, Fariba and Melissa. If anyone ever tells me that they despair of the younger generation or the future they will create, I’ll them I know thirteen extraordinary reasons to be hopeful. These students gave their all; they put themselves so fully into this work, into long days and dreary conditions. Under the supervision of Rabbi Ingber, Dr. Fry and Paula—with the continuous and invaluable help of Abie’s assistant, Amy—these 13 “kids” helped to create a clinic with a fully functioning pharmacy. I taught them how to take blood pressures and dispense medications, and, literally overnight, they were seeing patients, teaching them how to take their meds and what side effects to watch out for. They watched what I was doing and jumped right in to do the work. We were out the door by 7:30 each morning, each day bringing with it an offer of a hot breakfast. But none of them wanted to waste a moment, knowing that people would be waiting at the clinic. So peanut butter and jelly were their staple breakfast and lunch.
These amazing young people—from various ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds—gave up a week of their Winter break out of a belief that they can bring something into this world to make it better. They got up early, they worked late; at the end of each day they took time to reflect on the day and, invariable, shed some tears about what they had seen; and they never uttered a single complaint. They weren’t all friends before this experience, but they worked perfectly together, created amazing chemistry, and expressed such happiness to be part of something that brought a little bit of healing, along with moments of joy and hope to the people they had come to serve. And the patients felt that, experienced the compassion of these student healers and loved them for it. When the members of a local church gathered with us to express thanks, they sang a beautiful blessing for us. I looked around the room as these women’s voices entered the hearts of our students—the hearts of all of us—and knew that the tears were a gentle response to the love.
But none of this could not have come to pass were it not for Abie Ingber. It was his idea, his vision, his fundraising, his organizational ability that made it all happen. And it was Abie who hand-selected and inspired our precious students for the mission. And then, out in the streets of our villages, it was Abie who could be seen going into the barbershop to get the barber to close up shop so that he and his wife could come into the clinic; we listened to them talk of the difficulties they were having getting pregnant, as I offered some rudimentary education of how to graph her cycle, monitor temperature, and figure out when she might be ovulating.
The barber and his wife were not the only ones Abie reached out to, (that is to say, dragged) into the clinic. He was relentless. One day he went into the corner bar and tried to convince the waitress/bartender to come in for a check-up. She was afraid to do so, worried that she’d get fired if she closed up the business. So Abie bought two beers to make up for the income of the temporarily shuttered bar.

There are so many stories to tell. And so many more that we never heard; so many lives in need of care, of compassion and healing. We ended up making time for a few more of those stories and lives on our last day. Friday was supposed to be a free day, scheduled for some time to see a little of the beauty of Jamaica. But when we closed up on Thursday night, there were still patients who hadn’t been seen during the week. How could we tell them that there was no time or space for them? So we opened up again on Friday morning to see those who had been turned away. And then, we did get to hike up to Dunn’s River Falls, a place of great natural beauty, whose waters flow from the mountains of the island all the way down to the sea.

Jamaica is something of an island paradise. Some 500 miles off the tip of Florida, it is so close to where we live our lives. And yet, it is so far away. And, we know—lamentably—we left the work unfinished, the needs unfilled. As the Coopers hoped thirty years ago, there is hope that others will step up… to create a clinic and provide ongoing care, to supply desperately needed medication, to get inhalers to the children and hypertension meds to the adults—not for one week, but every day.
I’ve been back for just a couple of days and am finding it hard to get back into my daily routine of a life filled with the many privileges for which I am so grateful. I won’t forget what I saw, the terrible conditions, the malnourished faces of underweight children, the shacks in which so many of them live. I also won’t forget the spirit, energy or goodness of my new friends from Xavier. And among the many memories, I’m especially going to remember one little boy—Roger Moore is his name, and he delighted in repeating his name over and over again—who giggled with delight and posed for pictures with us. Roger will remain a powerful reminder of the undying human spirit that survives even the worst of life’s conditions.

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