West Georgia Voices
The Incredible Journey
This story begins back in early fall 2010 with a phone call from a good friend. It was a warm evening and I had just pulled into the Food Lion parking lot.
Greg Heath, family nurse practitioner in Health Services traveled to Nicaragua recently with a medical and dental team. The experience changed him, he said. The team set up clinics in three remote mountain villages near the Honduran border. They met people that walked for hours to get to the clinics and then waited for several hours more to be seen. "I went to Nicaragua to give back what I have been so fortunate to gain through my profession," Heath writes. "What really happened was I came back with more than I gave. The attitude of the people we cared for was so positive. The Nicaraguans celebrate every aspect of life, from birth to death."
Dr. Mike Poss said he was putting together a medical mission team to travel to Nicaragua in January 2011. The Carrollton doctor had asked me several times before if I would go with him. But I always had an excuse as to why I could not go. This time he took me by surprise. After a quick prayer and a leap of faith, I told him I would be glad to go.
This would be my first medical mission and my anxiety level began to rise. To step outside of my comfort zone into the unknown was both exciting and nerve wracking. All I really knew about Nicaragua was that it had had a civil war in the 1980s, which left the country struggling economically.
On this trip I would be one of four newbies. My duty would be to teach first aid to 25 village leaders with the help of a Spanish interpreter, and I prepared first aid kits for each of them. Our team included three medical doctors, one pharmacist, one pharmacy tech, three nurses, a photographer, an interpreter and me. We packed several suitcases with medical supplies: medications, bandages, syringes, needles, vitamins and miscellaneous items.
The bumpy plane ride took almost five hours, but the view of Central America from the air was amazing. As we neared Managua, I saw very shiny reflections through the jungle canopy and in several open areas. These were the metal rooftops of the small homes where people lived, I realized.
American missionaries who lived in Nicaragua met us outside the airport. When I met Ron, the American missionary, and all of the Nicaraguan support crew and saw their smiling faces, my pent-up anxiety disappeared. They were enthusiastic, friendly and eager to help.
We loaded onto a big yellow school bus and headed northwest up the Pan-American Highway. It was a four-and-a-half hour ride from Managua into the mountains to Somoto. The area around Managua was lush and flat. We could see volcanoes in the distance. The flat lands gave way to more arid, hilly terrain the further north we traveled. About midway to Somoto we crested a small mountain and descended into a fertile valley surrounded by rock-covered mountains. The valley was partially flooded for vast rice paddies. There were also large fields for beans and tomatoes.
In Somoto we stayed in a small 22-room villa that had cold-water showers. Our villa was a small oasis in the middle of simple, yet poor homes. Most of the residents of Somoto live in simple concrete or mud huts that have one or two rooms. Family members cook over an open fire.
Two of the medical mission destinations were to small, remote villages about two hours away. Travel was slow as our driver navigated through dried up riverbeds, around tight and steep mountain turns, and narrow one-lane roads.
When we reached Motuce, the first village, the driver sounded a loud, screeching horn. Children ran down the road to greet us. People had been lined up outside for hours and many had walked from distant villages. There was no electricity in Motuce and a car battery powered the only light source in the corner of the one-room schoolhouse where we set up the clinic. They were very patient as they waited to be seen for cold symptoms, parasites, acid reflux and pains in the their necks, legs and feet. They also described “brain pain,” or headaches.
At the second village, El Tamarindo, a couple of our Spanish interpreters took me to the river that flows over the mountain from Honduras. We saw a group of people walking upstream along a rocky trail. They were going back to Honduras; the border is about three miles away. They had walked three hours that morning to see us and waited another three to be seen. They never complained.
Back in Somoto, we set up in a special needs children’s center. There I met an 18-month-old boy who was born without the two bones in his right lower leg. I treated him for a head cold. But when I asked his mother about the brace on his left leg, she told me he was born with a birth defect. The doctors had tried to take a piece of his bone to create a graft, but it did not work. Now he cannot bear weight on his left leg and it is starting to bow inward.
I am working with Ron’s wife, Angie, to help the child get a prosthesis for his leg. Hopefully, it will enable him to walk when he gets older. This may be done in a few months in Nicaragua or we may be able to fly him here to receive medical help.
My journey to Nicaragua was eye opening and caused my emotions and fears to evolve. I went to Nicaragua to give back what I have been so fortunate to gain through my profession.
What really happened was that I came back with more than I gave. The attitude of the people we cared for was so positive. The Nicaraguans celebrate every aspect of life, from birth to death.
I have gained such an appreciation for what our country has to offer and I hope I can continue to pay it forward.
- Greg Heath, MSN, FNP-C, family nurse practitioner
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