Fernanda Guevarra, translator and Rabbi Chana Leslie Glazer
Why join a medical mission? I will admit I have been holding this question ever since our team leader, Tresha Mandel, invited me to serve as spiritual leader for the Tikkun Olam Nicaragua 2015 trip several months ago. I knew it was the right thing for me to do, but that it was also something I probably wouldn't quite make full sense of until I got there.
And even a few days in, I will admit I was still holding that question. In an ideal world, wouldn't we rather find some way to help build and strengthen Nicaragua's medical system from the inside out, rather than spend all that money on airplane tickets, food, hotel fees, materials etc. in order to import an entire medical team, equipment and translators, that will only serve for a few days across a few villages? That's a tiny drop in a huge barrel compared to what the country really needs.
While that may be true, I discovered there's a lot more to it than that.
First of all, Nicaragua's medical coverage is so poor, there are people suffering and needing help now. Children in rural areas born with heart defects who needed help getting connected to a cardiologist in the capital. People who need blood pressure medication now to prevent strokes, but the local health center was out of that medication. A woman who was tormenting herself because she was getting goose bumps when she got cold and she didn't know what they were - and she feared the worst.
As I've learned during my trip, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean behind Haiti, and it has held that spot for decades. While the government is doing what it can to recover and build its economy, and has been making some real strides, getting those benefits out to the people is going to take time. If our team members are willing to take their own vacation time and spend their own resources to set up a medical team to help treat these cases, of course being able to bridge that gap through a medical mission is doing concrete good now.
The government has even started coordinating some health campaigns with the arrival of the medical missions, to take advantage of the higher than usual number of people who usually come out for treatment. There was a group of Nicaraguan nurses that followed us on our clinic route this trip, and after we were done offering our medical care, they would give immunizations to children and parents, gynecological exams, and other services we weren't offering.
The second reason for supporting this medical mission - and this is something I really didn't get until one of our translators explained it to me - is that it means a lot to Nicaraguans to see North Americans coming out and sacrificing their time and money to help out their country.
After all, the U.S. government invested millions of dollars over the course of a decade trying to topple the socialist government established by the Sandinista Revolution of 1978-1979, and decades before that the U.S. sent the Marines down to fight Augusto Sandino himself in the 1930s. Overall it's been close to a century of conflict and a lot of hard feelings are there between our countries now. We have repair work to do! For some Nicaraguans, seeing U.S. citizens coming out for medical missions year after year, seeking to represent the U.S. in a very different way than has been done in the past, is bringing healing between our people. I could get behind that.
And so for this and other reasons, I have sought to find out what's my part I can do to support this brave team of Nicaraguans and North Americans in their medical mission. My job during our medical clinic days was intake - writing down people's names and ages and handing off the sheet over to the next phase of their medical exam. Basic stuff! But in doing so, I got to work with Fernanda, a delightful young woman studying to become a doctor in Nicaragua. I got to watch how she did even that basic work with such care and tenderness. I also got to welcome people, ask them questions and even give blessings to a few folks because my Spanish was good enough to do so, and that felt great.
I got to work with Russell Scheinberg, one of my congregants at our synagogue back home in Memphis, in building a spiritual and Jewish learning program for our group over the course of our trip. That has also been very rewarding, and I am sure our work contributed to the strong and intimate bonds that our team formed over the course of the trip.
And I've had countless other opportunities for offering spiritual and emotional support where I could - both to our patients and to our team. Like the doctors, I feel like this was a drop in the bucket compared to what I wish I could do. But I also understand that every little bit helps! That's why I am proud to support this medical mission.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!