Coclé, Panama: A Global Medical Brigade Story

This trip was a long time coming.

In early January 2018, I was all set to jet away on a brigade to Nicaragua — then a blizzard hit the east coast and snowed me in.

I took German 101 instead.

Then I changed my major. And then I graduated.

So, this is my last undergrad hurrah. I finally got to do it.

Photo by Sean Thoman

In many ways, this trip is exactly what I expected. I had reviewed the brigade itinerary, watched plenty of volunteer testimonials, and read up on the philosophy of Global Brigades.

“Global Brigades offers 7-9 day Medical Brigades throughout the year in Honduras, Panama and Nicaragua. During a Medical Brigade, volunteers have the opportunity to take vitals and patient history in triage, shadow licensed doctors in medical consultations, and assist in a pharmacy under the direction of licensed pharmacists. Each of our partner communities receives a brigade approximately twice a year. Between brigades, our in-country team maintains relationships with the communities to provide follow-up and to conduct Community Health Worker (CHW) trainings to empower local leaders to sustain a consistent level of healthcare. Electronic patient records are collected for future visitations and to monitor overall community health trends.”

I was grateful that among our team were nursing and pharmacy students, who carried more medical knowledge than me (someone with pre-medical qualifications but no experience).

Before entering the community, we discussed white savior complex, and how to use social media responsibly.

We talked about their holistic model, which aims for sustainable change in the community by creating local teams and committees, getting them involved during the year, and responding to their needs, instead of fostering dependency on the brigades every year.

But despite starting on this page, I was surprised at my indifference to the upcoming experience, and my skepticism towards any lasting impact we could create.

The first two days, our efforts were on improving public health by working on setting up a water system in the community of El Límon.

We picked up where a previous group left off, and left the rest of our work to a future group.

What this looked like? Digging trenches. Lots and lots of digging. (Blisters and sore limbs were common casualties. I became proficient at pickaxing.) Mixing and pouring concrete. Sawing metal rods and bending them into rectangles; sawing wooden planks and hammering them together. Eating lunch in the shade.

After a few hours hacking away at the earth, it was a bit deflating to observe our (literal) imprint on the community — a furrow in the ground, a few meters long. How many brigades would it even take to finish this work?

It was slow progress, and many of us were inefficient in expending our energy. I wondered if we were really helping or getting in the way, and if this work was just giving us the comfort of feeling useful. But even if qualified and able folks existed, they were not here, so we did the work.

Throughout the trip, I thought a lot about what it might mean to be the hands and feet of Jesus. What it would look like for His kin-dom to be arriving here.

I did not get an answer. Instead, I looked at all the churches and cemeteries and crosses already existing everywhere. I thought about the colonialist history of Central and Latin America. I saw the images of (fair-skinned) Disney princesses hanging in the classroom, and was saddened at the lack of Latinx representation, especially in an area that did not receive any economic and political benefits from Westernization.

Yet, I questioned what it meant to possess wealth. The views of the mountains on our site were priceless. I mean — this background looks a lot more like a green screen than real life!

For the next two days, we set up a clinic on the same site at El Límon. The first day was much busier than the second, and they both went smoothly.

Some of the community members had to walk close to an hour to receive this basic level of healthcare. None of them complained, and I believe that they had done the lion’s share of the work. All I did, essentially, was in the description.

I shadowed a doctor (José) at the consultation station, but a lot of the Spanish went right over my head.

I worked in the pharmacy and became familiar with the names of several medicines over the course of a few hours.

I played ball and supervised coloring with small children in the Charla / waiting room. I do wish I was better with names.

In my free time, I practiced taking blood pressure on my fellow volunteers (when they were willing).

When we came back to the compound, we spent a few hours inputting patient data into a software called Open MRS. (Most of the time was spent discerning poor handwriting and chasing down our translators, who were sometimes equally confounded.)

Eat. Sleep. Brigade. Repeat.

On the last day of our brigades, we set up a clinic in a community called El Aguíla Arriba. They had this unbelievable map of each household and landmark.

It was a similar experience, it just took more time figuring out the layout of the school and how we could set up our stations.

They set me up in the triage station, where I took vitals and patient history. I’m doubtful I did a good job, but I did try my best with my Spanish and brief practice on other volunteers.

The rest of the day, I was a runner between dental and pharmacy. Although I was initially curious to observe the dental station, I quickly realized I did not like tooth extractions. But with limited resources, the dentists could not perform fillings.

At the end of the day, we received these cute little straw hats as a thank-you from the community. My cat is currently using mine as his toy.
Later at the compound, some of us went to the river. I learned how to skip rocks, but not very well.
I bought these two molas from this lady at the compound. I believe her name is Imaura? I probably could have bargained for a better price! But dang, they were beautiful.

The next day, we woke up at 4:30am so we could see the Panama Canal before our flights.

I should read up on it more, but I’ve always thought the lock system was interesting. It’s mind blowing that this was how humans connected two oceans a century ago, and that it still works just as well today.
We also made a surprise stop at El Mercado de Artesanias Balboa. My regret is that I spent most of my spending money and did not get another handmade craft.

We drove through parts of Panama City, so I got to see some of the skyline too.

I mean, that was pretty much it. The trip didn’t confirm anything for me career-wise, or deter me from anything, either. I could probably elaborate on a lot, and I am still thinking through and feeling the events from this week in Panama.

Now, to conclude: not only do they do Medical Brigades, they also have Business Brigades, Water Brigades, Dental Brigades, Public Health Brigades, Engineering Brigades, and Global Legal Empowerment programs in Honduras, Panama, and Ghana.

Each of these skill-based programs meet an aspect of their holistic model to strengthen the health and economic development of communities.

If you think Global Brigades is something you may be interested in, head over to their website and look for a brigade chapter near you, or start your own!

Here’s a picture of the whole team at El Límon!

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