Thursday, October 13, 2005

My Family’s Visit to a Private Clinic in Santo Domingo

October 11, 2005

“I haven’t been this sick since eighth grade,” Dana strained herself to say. She’s fifteen pounds lighter from the last time I saw her a month ago. We are not the twins we used to be. Her pale skin and fragile body contrast the unfortunate ten pounds I gained this summer and my Dominican-tanned face.

I lay on the floor on a folded comforter while my mother rubbed Dana’s back on the queen size bed on which I usually sleep. “Don’t worry about me,” Dana pleaded. But, how could we not? How could I sleep comfortably as my twin sister cried next to me? I could see the pain in her eyes that tell me that she’s tired and frustrated, that she is ready to give up, but Mommy and I would not allow that. We’re fighters. We have always been. I did not sleep that night; no one did.

In eighth grade, Dana was diagnosed with a rare stomach disorder called Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome (CVS). CVS is a rare stomach disorder which causes a person to suffer severe vomiting and nausea. It is as hard for me now as it was back then when I first learned that Dana was sick. I refuse to get used to seeing her like that, vulnerable and in agony all the time. I still believe that she will get better one day. I have to be strong because that is all I can do. I am helpless but not hopeless.

The doctors are helpless too. None has ever tried to find out how to make her better. When she goes to the emergency room, the doctors drug her up to mask the pain, leaving her even more vulnerable and incoherent then when she entered. She tries to tell the doctors what is bothering her, but they do not listen. They seem not to care.

When my host mother insisted that we go to the emergency room this Saturday, we hesitated. We thought that if the hospitals to which we have been in the United States are bad, then the ones in the Dominican Republic could not be any better. Desperation kicked in though and we went to the hospital despite our reservations.

It was raining as we walked the two blocks to the private clinic on the corner of Calle Jose Joaquin Perez. The white sign with big red letters that read, “Emergencia” welcomed us as we entered into the waiting room. The room was empty unlike the waiting rooms I have become so used to at Hartford Hospital and Waterbury Hospital. Instead of institutional, worn-out, and stained seats, the clinic had what seemed to be antique furniture. The floor was so spotless and shiny that you could see your reflection in it.

We did not even have the pleasure of waiting in the waiting room because the nurses, who dressed in white, neat uniforms, attended to my sister immediately. They led Dana to a clean bed where they attended to her. A woman with glasses, the doctor, walked to Dana and asked us what was wrong with her. My host mother explained to her that Dana had been vomiting for several hours.

I continued, explaining to the doctor my sister’s medical history as best I could in a language that is not mine. At times, I had to ask Dana questions because she knows her body best, and the doctor listened to me intently, as I made up words for medical terms. Despite the language barrier, it was the first time that we had ever experienced a doctor who listened, who empowered us.

Perhaps, she understands that the patient has the most expertise on his or her body. A medical degree from Harvard or any other medical institution seems be reason enough for American (US) doctors we know not to listen to Dana. One should not insult these know-it-all doctors or their egos by trying to explain anything. This is what I have learned.

After conversing with the doctor, she decided how she would treat Dana and explained everything to us. She would give Dana something for the nausea and the pain. We knew that she could not cure Dana right then and there, but she tried to help anyway unlike the American doctors we have experienced, who see patients as tasks and not as people they need to assist.

The nurse came to inject Dana with medicine. I turned away because I could never stomach seeing people poke my sister with needles. As always, the nurse had to try more than once to find a good vein. Dana barely has any left. Her many trips to the emergency room have left her with thin veins and scar tissue—battle wounds of her illness. The nurse felt bad; she said she hated digging people more than once. She tried one more time with a smaller needle and was unsuccessful.

Mommy and I did not judge her. We know that it is difficult to find a good vein in Dana’s arms. Instead of stabbing Dana’s arm multiple times like most nurses at Waterbury Hospital do, she called another nurse over who tried to find a good vein and who was successful. Dana tensed up from the pain the needle’s intrusion into her vein caused, but the nurses, both of them, rubbed Dana’s body to soothe her. “Respira, mi amor, mi carino,”(Breath, my love, my darling), one said, as the other gently and humanely injected the pain-killer solution into Dana’s weak body.

I observed the nurses; I observed how they treated Dana like family, like a person. I was surprised by how close they were to Dana, how they touched her in a loving way. When they talked to us, their tone was not condescending like the tone we have become so accustomed to hearing at Hartford and Waterbury hospitals. They do not assume we are ignorant minorities who have nothing better to do than go to the emergency room. They respected us, and we almost did not know what to do with ourselves.

Thirty minutes later, Dana was ready to leave the hospital. They treated Dana without even knowing if we had enough money to pay for it. Their priority was on helping Dana, not on getting paid. We ended up only having to pay thirty dollars for Dana’s treatment, treatment that usually cost more than a thousand dollars in the states. What the Dominicans lack in financial resources, they make up for with love and compassion—something that some American (US) doctors have lost. After we arrived back to my apartment, I realized that my mother and sister had to come all the way to the Dominican Republic to have the best hospital experience they ever had in their lives.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Trip to Bonao

October 3, 2005

So, there I was, a foreigner from the Bronx, heading to el campo. We loaded onto a guagua (bus) early Sunday morning for our journey up north to Bonao. Danielle, another Fulbright scholar, and I were the only Americans (US) in our group. We traveled with students from Movimiento Sin Aula, a section of la Escuela de Formación Socioeconómica y Cultural, where I am taking the "Ser Mujer Hoy" class.

On our way to Bonao, I gazed out the bus’ window the same way I used to glue my face to the train’s glass to see whatever there was to see in New York City’s subway tunnels as a child. Instead of rat-infested tracks and graffiti-covered walls, I saw lush, green mountains that reminded me of the mountains I miss seeing in Vermont. I am simply fascinated by the tranquility and the simplicity of rural life—both of which are non-existent in the hustle of city life.

When we finally reached the town of Bonao, we drove pass colmados, corner stores where people gather at plastic tables to chat and to drink Presidente beer. Bachata music resonated in the air while people swayed their heads to the music’s rhythms. Elderly women and men sat in front of one-room wooden houses that looked as old as the people who sat in front of them.

Then, all you could hear of the once-loud bachata music was a low hum. The paved roads turned into dirt paths, and green fields were now all that I could see. The guagua’s engine roared as it worked its way up the unpaved path. Suddenly, we stopped and unloaded where what seemed to me to be the middle of nowhere.

A man, wearing rubber boots, passed by on his horse, as we struggled to walk along the uneven, clay path en route to our destination. There was a steep hill that we struggled to descend. A few yards after the hill, we reached a stream that we had to cross to continue our journey. We waited in a queue to take off our shoes and socks. The water was cold but refreshing. I walked across the flowing brook carefully and slowly, partly because the rocks were slippery and unsteady and partly because I hate the feeling of anything under my bare feet.

A few yards later, after having had put on our socks and shoes, we were at our final destination. A guard dog greeted us with his hostile bark. We waited outside the make-shift gate of the blue house until the dog realized we were no threat. There was a young boy up in the guava tree which reminded me of summers in Antigua when Dana and I would climb the tree behind Grandma Vi’s house even though we were not supposed to.

After resting for some time, the group gathered in a semi-circle, and Ingrid, one of the leaders, introduced us to several families who live in the area. These families are part of a campesino group, fighting for the right to health and educational services. When we finished with introductions, we gathered into a circle, and Julio led a meditation session. Just being in the country is relaxing in itself, and the meditation was the icing on the cake.

Soon, it was time for lunch. We ate tasty rice and chicken that one of the women from the farm prepared for us over. When I entered into the kitchen to pile my plate with food, I realized that there was no stove in there. She had cooked a meal for twenty over wood. The food was delicious and tasted as though she had prepared each plate individually for each person.

We decided to go see the waterfall after lunch, which was not too far from where we were. The village’s water supply comes from the waterfall, and I realized afterwards that I drank this same water during lunch and am still not sick. After crossing two more water streams, we made it to the waterfall, and it was beautiful. The mosquito bites that I had acquired along the way were well worth it. Unfortunately, the unexpected rain shortened our trip. The clay roads were harder to travel while wet, but we made it back to the bus anyway.

On our way home, I stared out the bus as intently as I had done on my way to Bonao. I reflected on how difficult it would be to live in a place like that—a place with such challenging paths to travel and with no near-by hospital or schools. There seems to be nothing up there in the mountains where these people live; yet, they manage each day and make the best of their situation. Although they do not have many of the luxuries others have, they have the honor of knowing nature well and of understanding that humanity is not separate from and dominate over nature—something we need to realize before there is nothing left for us to enjoy.

Unrealized dreams

September 27, 2005

The guard in front of the USAID office begs to see my ojos (eyes) each day on my walk to the hospital. He acts as though I am only wearing sunglasses to avoid eye contact with him, but the Dominican sun is blinding and requires some eye protection. I smile at him though, not to be rude, and continue on my way to the hospital.

I was more prepared for my day’s work today. I know that my task will be difficult, emotional, challenging, enlightening, and rewarding, and that is why I am here--to make some difference, even just a little.

This morning, a sixteen-year old girl walked into the small space we use to collect the patients’ medical histories. She is having her second baby. She said she knows nothing about contraception when Sabala, one of the nurses, asked her. A Haitian girl walked in next. She spoke Spanish but could not read or write well. Another girl we saw was not even in school. The fact that so many teenagers come into the hospital who are illiterate and who do not know about contraception is a problem. There is a need for better educational programs—health literacy programs, comprehensive sex education programs, and general education programs.

Someone once told me, “to educate a mother is to educate a family.” My friend is right. How could a fourteen year old who cannot read or write teach her child to read and write? Teenage pregnancy perpetuates a cycle of poverty and disadvantage. If the mother has little education, where will she find a job that will pay her enough money to support a family? Someone needs to do something to support teenage mothers, and even better, to prevent teenage pregnancy.

After my work at the hospital today, I attended a panel discussion of liberal women in politics at FLACSO in the evening. It was so great to hear these women tell their stories of hardship and of success. I left the panel, empowered by these women, and as I walked home today, I reflected on their testimonials, on the injustices they had to suffer, and on the hope they gave me.

When I reached the colmado (the corner store) near my apartment, I ended up talking to one of the boys that I pass everyday without saying, “Hola.” I usually avoid the men at the colmado because I hate how they always hiss at me when I walk by. I ignore them, as not to condone their objectifying behavior toward me. However, today, I said something—I must have forgotten my Dominican tigre repellant, and I am glad I did.

I learned that this boy, Mayo, who works at the colmado, is a teenage father. He is nineteen, and the mother of his one year child is only fifteen. Although he is no longer with the mother of his child, he told me that he had no choice but to leave school to find a job so that he could make money to take care of his baby. I listened to him intently, as he shared with me his desire to return to school. I urged him to stick to his dream and to return to his studies, but deep down, I know that he probably would never be able to go back to school because he will always have to work to support his baby. At the end of our conversation, he said that he lost his life, that he lost his childhood, and I left him, wishing that I could do more than just listen to him share his dreams.