Monday, November 24, 2008

My Commute

7:05 AM: I leave my home, Stony Hill Hotel, with the taste of Blue Mountain coffee still fresh in my mouth. I’ve got a few picture books, some homemade handouts, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a water bottle in my backpack. It’s a Tuesday, so I’m off to St. Teresa’s All-Age Catholic School.

7:15 AM: No matter that the sun has only been up for an hour; my neck and back are already drenched in sweat. I’ve climbed the first hill on my journey, but I’ve got several more to go. When you live in St. Andrew, Jamaica, there are as many hills as there are mosquitoes. I nod hello and say good morning to the people I pass. I’m off to work and so are they; the people I encounter are coming from the villages north of Kingston to work as servants in the homes of the wealthy of Stony Hill.

7:22 AM: I’ve reached the bottom of Gibson Road and am facing Junction Road, the main thoroughfare that runs from Kingston to the North Coast. I cross onto the left side of Junction and start walking. I hear the occasional “whitey!” shouted from a passing car, but after four months in Jamaica, I’m more apt to hear “brownie” than “whitey.” Luckily, before I can be harassed much more, a coaster bus pulls up. “Tavern!” yells the conductor, but I ignore him and climb on. I’m headed to Golden Spring, and every bus headed north will pass this town. Today is a good day; I manage to score a seat on the crowded bus.

7:34 AM: “Bus Stop!” I shout as I struggle to the front of the bus. “Lettoff, driva, lettoff,” the conductor calls to the driver, and the bus slows enough for me to hand over a few coins and hop off. This conductor, a young man not much older than myself, calls after me, “Baby, can I come with you?” I shake my head and cross the street. At this time of the morning, Golden Spring, a small town at the base of the Mount Friendship hills, is crowded with people fighting for taxis and busses.

7:40 AM: I weave through the people and cars in Golden Spring. Taxi drivers try to catch my attention, but I see Raymond standing by a shop. Over the past few months, Raymond The Taxi Driver has become a sort of guardian angel: he has explained dancehall music, physically carried me over landslides, and defended me against the constant harassment I face. The only thing I can offer him in return is my loyalty; he is always my first choice for my morning ride into the mountains.

7:52 AM: After a few minutes of twists and turns on the narrow country road, we reach the steep footpath that leads up to Mount Friendship. To take a taxi all the way up into the village would double my taxi fare. I hand Raymond fifty dollars and thank him, and he promises to look for me in the afternoon. I get out of the car and scramble up the path. I have eight minutes to make it to school.
7:54 AM: I reach the top of the path and arrive at the dirt road that is Mount Friendship’s main street. It is lined with a shop that sells biscuits and juice, the coffee houses where the coffee beans are weighed, and several goats that graze peacefully. Ahead of me are several children that are also making their way to school. “Kids, wait for me!” I cry, and they turn around to call back to me: “Miss!” I catch up to them and take their hands. “Did everyone do their homework?” I ask. “Yes, miss,” they answer, but I can tell from their mischievous grins that no homework was done the evening before.

7:58 AM: I wave to a few of the people gathered at the shop. “Blessings, blessings,” they respond, and the children and I head up the final hill to school. We arrive just in time; the teachers are assembling the children for devotion. They pray and then sing the national anthem, their tiny voices rising into the surrounding mountains: “Jamaica! Jamaica! Jamaica, land we love!”

8:15 AM: The gathered children walk in an orderly line to their classrooms; the latecomers scramble to slip by their teachers unnoticed. And so, as my morning commute ends, my workday begins.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Clinic is the Cure

Paul Farmer, an American transplant to Haiti and renegade doctor, once said, “It is through journeys to the sick that we identify needs and problems.”

In the course of my time with the rural poor in Jamaica, I have realized the truth behind Farmer’s musing. Health care in Jamaica is a tricky business. Private doctors are out of the question for most of the population and the public clinics and hospitals are daunting. I personally have spent entire days waiting with families to see a doctor—only to be turned away as the day wanes to evening.

One of the best solutions to the health care crisis has been the phenomenon of the free clinic. Charitable organizations, such the American program “Medicine in Action” come to a community and set up shop for a day in a church, a school, or an orphanage. A team of doctors and nurses provide free examinations and more importantly, free drugs.

As the “American volunteers” in the area, we are often called in to help with these travelling clinics. This past week, my housemates and I worked two separate clinics. ‘Tis the season, I suppose.

This past Wednesday, there was a clinic at our church in Stony Hill, Immaculate Conception, scheduled to begin at 10 AM. We volunteers wandered in at 9, unsure of our role. I was shocked to see the hordes of people already gathered at the rectory doors. We grouped some chairs, made up a hasty registration list, and, since we knew most of the patients, mingled.

“What time did you get here,” I asked 85-year-old Mr. Brooks as I bent to kiss his wife’s wrinkled cheek.

“8,” he answered, grinning widely. “Miss Edith a come see doctor!” He had a 4 hour wait still in store for him, but he was exuberant. This elderly couple had a chance to get some “pain tablets” for their crippling arthritis.

The excitement at ICC was palpable. A clinic is always a major event—it is a chance to get one’s eyes screened and one’s blood pressure and blood sugar tested. However, this clinic had promised a full team of American doctors—complete with paediatricians and gynaecologists.

The doctors arrived, with their suitcases of antibiotics and blood pressure pills. We—the PVI’s—were handed stacks of intake papers and my day suddenly passed in a flurry of activity.

I took down countless names and recorded home addresses the best that I could (“up in the hills” was an oft-quoted description) and then asked the trickiest question of all: “And why are you seeing the doctor today, sir?”

Sometimes it was simple—“my knee pains me.” Sometimes it was a chance to get “the sugar” tested, sometimes it was to get blood pressure medication they know they need but cannot afford. But sometimes it was a litany of ailments that have gone unchecked for years. Pressure, sugar, arthritis, the wound that won’t heal, mysterious bleeding, head fungus, cataracts, rashes, skin spots, ringing in the ears, aches, pains, stiffness; the lists went on.

It broke my heart to write down the ailments, but my spirits lifted when I was able to guide the person to a kind doctor who could answer questions and provide hope. This particular clinic was a long one—some waited 5 or 6 hours. In total, 105 people—an unprecedented amount—were seen at ICC.

These clinics show me what a blessing modern medicine is—a kind doctor or nurse can assuage a mother’s fear about the well-being of her child and a Ziploc bag full of Tylenol can ease the suffering of a gentleman with arthritis.

Tensions flared at times, but the patients were overwhelmingly…well…patient. They were kind to each other and polite to us as we took down their information. I made new friends, I held lots of babies, and most importantly, learned a lot about the people I serve. I now know who has “the high pressure,” and who has “the sugar.” I can be a more effective advocate and I can better empathize with their struggles.

Sometimes my experiences with poverty leave me sick, but my very minor role in the clinics seems to be the cure.