USNS Comfort Provides Free Medical Services to El Salvador
Some of you may remember that the USNS Comfort was in Haiti after the earthquake last year http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2010-01-27-1Acomfort27_CV_N.htm.
For 5 months the medical ship is travelling to different countries in Central and South America offering free medical assistance. It is called “Operation Continuing Promise.” The ship arrived in the coastal port of Sonsonate on the 15th of July. On Tuesday I went out with other local media and staff from the United States Embassy to visit the clinic and ship. I did not get to go inside the ship though. It was a long day out in the heat, but amazing to watch doctors and nurses operate in this makeshift clinic in the middle of nowhere. The people standing in line in the hot sun and humidity, waiting for medical consultation, also humbled me.
In a huge, open-air arena, medical consultation and treatment stations had been set-up. People were there for dental work, vision, migraines and many other services that are very expensive for the poor. El Salvador has national healthcare, but it is only for very basic medical treatment. Some people were there to get a second opinion from an American doctor. However, nurse and Lieutenant Cecilia Mendoza told me that so far all of the American doctors were concurring with the Salvadoran doctors. Her family is from San Salvador but she was raised in the States. She says that the doctors here in El Salvador have great training. They just can’t treat patients who do not pay for additional health insurance.
Here is a rough soundslide…it’s been awhile since I made one.
On the way back from Sonsonate, we stopped in a beautiful town called Izalco (EE-sal-co). It is very historic and there was a big, beautiful white church at the end of the main street. One of the Salvadoran journalists in our group, who work for Prensa Graphica, a major newspaper here, took us to the panedería owned by his mother. They carried out tray after tray of fresh pastries and cookies from the oven. I had a big piece of semita with a Coca-cola. I have to say Coca-Cola because it was the real deal, in the glass bottle.
On Wednesday I went to Las Comunidades de Bajo Lempa in the state or departemento of Usulutan. I was fortunate enough to travel with the Ministerio de Salud en El Salvador (The Ministry of Health in El Salvador). A group of doctors and healthcare professionals are studying a form of kidney disease that is affecting people who work in the fields, campesinos. This is an epidemic along the coast of Central America from Costa Rica to Mexico. They are not sure of the exact cause yet because there are many factors that cause kidney disease. However, there are aspects of this form that are different from all the others, such as protein levels. These doctors believe it’s from the pesticides used in the fields.
The research for this region is called Nefrolempa.
Obviously a commodity such as sugar is a major market and so governments have been apprehensive to investigate the problem. Big companies don’t want to have to pay if it turns out workers have been getting ill and dying because of the pesticides. However, the Salvadoran government is actually putting money behind this research. The region I was in is one of three that this team of doctors has been visiting. They set up clinics and laboratories where they can find space. People from these rural areas come to give their family history and give urine and blood samples.
A side story: I spent most of the day in the Comunidad de Romero, which is part of Las Comunidades de Bajo Lempa. The people in this region live in extreme poverty, like most of El Salvador. However, these communities are very organized and provide education for their youth. On the ride back to San Salvador, one of the medical technicians told me the region has a rich history. The people who settled there were exiled during the civil war in El Salvador (1980-1992) because they were rebels, guerrillas. They left El Salvador for Panama with a priest, a padre named Angel Arnaiz. The priest returned to El Salvador with the exiles once the war ended. They returned to the country against the will of the government, who refused to let them back in. This priest has become a national figure. He helped these people build up their communities as outsiders, essentially. He led them in their struggle for workers’ rights in the fields and for education for young people. So the generation of young people now are actually going to college and obtaining professional careers.
Needless to say, I learned a lot on this trip. At one point in the afternoon when traffic to the clinic was down to just a few people trickling in, I sat in the shade with a doctor from Cuba. He was telling me about Cuba’s history. Even though it was hot and I was concentrating to follow his story in Spanish, I was completely intrigued. Raul Herrera was his name and he was there with another doctor from Cuba as well. He was regal, smart, and kind. I also rode in the back of a pick-up truck, drank atol de elote out of a bag (a warm drink made with corn and milk) and was working outside in extreme heat with no air conditioning for 8 hours. But after seeing the way the people in these towns live, I’m not complaining. In fact, I felt extremely content at the end of the day.