...but this time as a changed man because of the teachings in happiness, medicine, and life Samana has taught me.
Three months ago, I decided it was time to leave home and experience the rest of the world, but the question then became, where do I go? My original thought was to go to a country in Africa, but after talking with my family about this possibility, the idea would be shot down for two reasons. First, it costs a lot of money to go to Africa. Second, the culture shock may have been too much for me to manage, as I’ve never travelled alone before. My next thought was to travel to Central America; it’s close to home, and relatively affordable.
The next step would be to find an organization in Central America that is not only reputable and safe, but also where my actions would have a positive impact on the people in the community. After quite a bit of online researching, I came to the conclusion that I would head to the Dominican Republic and volunteer with Aldeas de Paz (ADP). What really solidified my decision to volunteer with ADP was their belief that “learning through service prepares our volunteers to be role models for change worldwide.” Knowing that my heart and this volunteer organization were both in the same state of mind allowed me to feel comfortable making the decision to leave home.
After two months of awaiting my departure date, the time had come, and I was headed to the airport. Prior to beginning this trip, I told myself that throughout this journey I would make sure to never have expectations. The reason behind this logic is my belief that without expectations, you enable yourself to adapt to the culture far more easily. With this in mind, I said goodbye to my family, pulled my luggage out of the trunk, and headed to my flight, but while boarding the plane to Samana, flashes of doubt began to surface and a nervous feeling began to grab hold of me. My mind raced as I thought about how I was about to leave my family for an entire month and spend it in a country I’ve never been to before. Even more terrifying was the fact that I knew very little Spanish, and had no clue what the culture would be like in Santa Barbara de Samana, the town I’d be volunteering in.
Nonetheless, I kept my composure, cleared the negative thoughts, and carried on. After two plane rides, a taxi to a bus stop, and a 3 hour long bus ride, I would arrive in Samana. Shortly after arriving, I would be picked up by the director of the organization, Manfred, and driven to my new home. After dropping off my bags and meeting my new housemates, Henrik and Christian, they would take me to the Malecon to get pizza, as well teach me about the town and culture. The key point, or should I say word, they stressed throughout our dinner conversation was “Tranquillo”, meaning tranquil. This word is not only the normal greeting between men in the Dominican, but also describes the lifestyle of the people. They stated that everything here moves tranquilly, which in Dominican terms meant that everything moved at an incredibly slow pace. This slow lifestyle would prove to be my greatest challenge.
During the first days in the program, I created a schedule with many activities I wanted to do throughout the week. While the amount of activities planned may have been normal in USA time, it was completely unrealistic in Dominican time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t move fast enough to get to each activity, it was that each event involved the local people, who were living the tranquillo lifestyle. This first week would be my learning week, not just about the pace of the town, but other cultural aspects as well. Much different than the US, here there are very few people that drive a car, instead everybody drives motorbikes. While the motorbike aspect seemed sound, the part that seemed strange to me was the fact that nobody wore a helmet.
After some research, I found out that the single greatest cause of death in Samana is motorbike accidents. Another part of this culture that is completely different than the United States is the friendliness of the entire town. Everybody here greets me with “Hola!”, and nobody ever seems mad or upset. The inhabitants of this village always seem to be happy. With the average salary here of $120 a month, it just goes to show that money does not buy happiness. Without the friendliness of the people, I don’t think I would have been able to adjust to the slow pace of the village. While the culture in Samana may have surprised me at times, the one thing I knew would have a familiar feeling to home would be practicing medicine.
In the United States, I work as a scribe in the Emergency Department of my local hospital, and love the environment associated with the fast paced work. I actually enjoy it to such a great length that Emergency medicine is something I am really considering pursuing once accepted into medical school. With that in mind, it was quite easy to select the program within Aldeas de Paz that I wanted to volunteer with; the medical volunteering program. I figured that this would allow me to be able to keep the fast paced lifestyle I had at home; I was mistaken. I would volunteer at the “Dr. Leopold Pou Hospital” in the heart of Santa Barbara de Samana, where the Tranquillo lifestyle had taken a firm hold, and medicine moved at a pace that reminded me of the blobs of wax rising and falling in a lava lamp.
While not as fast paced as the US, medicine in the DR was still quite amazing to say the least. To compensate for their lack of modern medical technologies, they used their fingers and eyes as medical machines that could locate medical problems with each patient. Also different than the United States, here patient medical history is a huge component of the doctors’ medical decisions. Since many inhabitants of Samana are very poor, they cannot afford x-rays or ultrasounds, or even proper labs for that matter. For this reason, a patient’s history is crucial to the doctor’s decision to prescribe certain medications or have the patient carry out certain orders.
While observing the Dominican patient-doctor interaction was an incredible experience in itself, the most extraordinary part of my medical volunteering experience was helping the American Medical Mission Group who came to Samana to give free medical care to the community. For one week, they provided free surgeries and free consultations for children and adults; during this week my encyclopedia of medical knowledge would grow far beyond what I had ever imagined. Throughout each day, I was able to watch and scrub into various surgeries such as Hysterectomies or cyst removals, as well as help examine patients in the pediatric consultation center. At the end of the week, we must have had seen every single inhabitant of the town. I’m extremely fortunate that this group had come down to help the people of Samana, for they further confirmed my desire to pursue a career in medicine.
In addition to the medical aspect of this volunteering experience, I also got to help with something I never would have thought was so rewarding; construction. In the earlier weeks of my stay in Samana, the hospital was still being built, therefore most of the work in my first days here involved assisting the construction workers in the building of the hospital. This was quite possibly one of the most meaningful jobs of the entire trip, as my life goal is to build a hospital in a community in the United States which lacks adequate medical care.
After hours of volunteering, I began to realize the extraordinary amount of time, effort, employees, and patience it takes to build a hospital. Throughout the construction, the director of the hospital would show me newly finished areas of the hospital, and with an almost childish like gleefulness in her smile, tell me how happy she was to see her hospital transforming into a beacon of hope for the entire community. After the construction was complete, the president of the Dominican Republic held a massive induction ceremony, and thanked Flor, the director, for all of her efforts. He was so proud of her and the entire staff for working tirelessly in their pursuit to make Santa Barbara de Samana a great place.
Not only did I get to help with the construction aspect of the hospital, shadow Dominican physicians, and assist and shadow the American Medical Mission Group, but I also got to help create a patient record documentation system for the hospital. Previously, the hospital lacked any organization involving patient records. There was one single room filled from top to bottom with folders of patient’s records that were mostly covered in cobwebs and dust.
My job throughout the process was to help create a computerized patient record, so that if a patient returned to the hospital, all we had to do was enter in their name or social security number and we would have all the information of the patient at our finger tips. While this seems quite standard in the United States, this concept was brand new to the DR. With over 30,000 patient records, I did not get to finish entering in all of the data, but I’m sure that this will be completed soon, which will allow them to be one step closer to a paperless future and a greener hospital.
While my passion in the Dominican was medical volunteering, I also found it quite joyful to assist the other volunteers in teaching at the Mama Elba School for special needs children. Although the school was founded to help special needs children, some of the students had other medical conditions, and were considered outcasts to society. Unfortunately, some these kids were not attending the regular community school because other children may pick on them, or simply because they cannot be taught in a similar manner as most other kids.
Fortunately, at the Mama Elba School, we are more than happy to assist these children, and strive to make them want to learn. Each Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon, I would go to the school and assist Henrik and Christian in teaching lessons about the environment, Dominican Republic Independence Day, as well as other various topics.
You could tell from the joy on the children’s faces that they were incredibly happy to be here. This school provided them with time to be free and creative, as well as to laugh and learn and play. One student in particular, Yanet, was very interested in learning math, but because she was deaf it was difficult for her to understand the lessons taught in school. I decided that if her school doesn’t want to take the time to teach her, then I will. After a few quality hours, she was an addition and subtraction master. She was incredibly happy to be solving all of the problems she once struggled with, but I was even more overjoyed for two reasons. First, I was happy to see Yanet was smiling as she was completing math problems, second, I had just taught a little girl a skill that she will use for the rest of her life. Helping people like Yanet is the reason I choose to volunteer. The whole experience provides me with a priceless joy that is unlike any other feeling.
Although I may have come to the Dominican Republic to learn more about Central America and how medicine is practiced, my time here has also given me the opportunity to learn more about myself. One of the most important things the Dominican has allowed me to discover about myself is what drives my happiness. In the States, it was becoming difficult to decipher what made me happy. After being away from Maryland for some time, I realized my happiness stems from my family and friends, as well as my work and research.
Through the Tranquillo culture, I also came to realize that I had little patience. Everything at home was a rush and each day had to follow a plan; it seems as if often times I would not get to fully enjoy one activity because I was in a hurry to get to the next. Fortunately, my time here allowed me to recognize that not everything in life is a race. Sometimes in life, you need to take the backseat and watch events unfold, rather than always try and run into the storm. As I leave Samana, I hope to carry these lessons, as well as all the memories, with me as I grow into adulthood. One day, I will return to Samana, but this time as a changed man because of the teachings in happiness, medicine, and life Samana has taught me.