Teacher’s capital idea brings health clinic to a village
Medicos and other volunteers band together for regular missions to the Dominican Republic
MY alarm clock goes off at 3am and again at 4am, at 4.30am and 5am. Unfortunately, since it is a rooster, there is no snooze button. As its exuberant crowing resonates across the valley, other roosters join in gleefully.
By 6am, the inky darkness of the Dominican sky has paled and my roommates and I decide to finally stir from underneath our cobwebby mosquito nets and yield to the roosters’ calls. I get first dibs on the shower, a tin enclosure outside the main house where a large bucket and dipper await. There is no hot water, but to get me through the teeth-chattering shock of pouring the first dipperful over my head, there is a milliondollar view of hibiscus bushes and mist rising over the valley.
The morning sun inches higher in the sky as I bathe. Once dressed, we trudge up dirt roads, past rolling green hills and through a small sugarcane field for a communal breakfast.
So begins our week in the village of Naranjito with Somos Amigos Medical Missions. This NGO had its beginnings two decades ago as a twinkle in the eye of Frank Brightwell, a high-school teacher in Washington, DC. He felt the students in his history class, who came from privileged backgrounds, needed to be taken outside their comfort zone and have their world view shaken up.
So during their summer holidays they helped dig trenches for water pipes, clear a blocked road and build a school for Naranjito’s inhabitants. Then Brightwell recruited his GP, Mike Keegan, and dentist, Joe Fearon, to address the village’s health needs. Eventually they managed to set up a clinic. Now, about three times a year Brightwell leads a group of about 50 volunteers to Naranjito, a bumpy three-hour bus ride from the city of Santiago.
Approximately half the group is comprised of medical professionals. The others come from various walks of life. From the moment Frank picks us up with a hug and a broad smile at Santiago airport, I feel as if I’m a guest at a family reunion.
Isabele Rodriguez, a brighteyed Peruvian matriarch who addresses everyone as mi carino or mi amor, immediately takes meunder her wing. In my role as Spanish translator for one of the doctors, I spend the evening before the clinic opens learning the polite way to ask a patient to remove his trousers and pull his knees up to his chest so the doctor can check his prostate. By the end of the week, I can say it without blushing.
Patients come on the backs of donkeys or on foot to pick up hypertension medication, get a small tumour removed, make sure their diabetes is under control, or to get their teeth cleaned or ex- tracted. As the clinic is about 160km from Port au Prince, we even get Haitians wandering across the border to access its services. One day we see a man with a rare neurological tremor and a little girl with a hole in the wall of her heart. The former has to be sent away but Frank hopes he will be able to raise funds for the child to have the operation she desperately needs.
He tells me there are four or five cases on every trip that need additional financing and followup. I believe, though, that if enough good people get together, good things can happen.
Residents of the village of Naranjito receive treatment