Dr. Monica Lockwood, an internist from Shelton, Conn., recently returned from her fourth medical mission to the Dominican Republic. Dr. Lockwood and a team of about 30 volunteers provide primary care for Haitian refugees and the poorest Dominicans living in remote villages. Here she shares her thoughts and impressions from her work in the field supported by AmeriCares Medical Outreach Program.
Once a year I travel to the Dominican Republic with other doctors from Connecticut and students from a local university to provide medical care in rural communities. The people we treat earn less than $3 a day – if they can find work at all – and could never afford medical treatment. We set up makeshift exam rooms, usually in churches with dirt floors, and patients wait patiently in line for hours to be examined.
It’s a lot of triaging. Many of the patients we see have lacerations from rummaging through dumps in search of copper wire and plastics they can sell, and injuries from intensive manual labor. Since the patients are malnourished and do not have proper medical care, many have infected wounds. We also see many patients with gastrointestinal problems from the living conditions. For them, we dispense medicines we get through AmeriCares Medical Outreach Program. We work with a non-denominational ministry to transfer the most seriously ill patients to the nearest hospital.
I’ve seen babies on the brink of starvation, and malnourished children and adults fighting for their lives. One of the saddest cases was that of a teenage boy who was bedridden for six months because of a broken leg that wouldn’t heal properly after surgery that he was fortunate to have. The 18-year-old’s bones were so weak from malnutrition that he broke his femur – a bone that’s nearly impossible to break – playing soccer. With no money to pay for follow up care or proper nutrition, he laid bedridden developing a bedsore. We gave him antibiotics from AmeriCares and protein supplementations that stabilized him until another team of volunteer doctors, a group of orthopedic surgeons, could re-operate. Without the medication from AmeriCares, he could have died from the infection because his immune system was so weak.
Sometimes, the patients we see have no medical problems. No matter their condition, every man and woman leaves with something. Others receive a hygiene kit filled with soap, shampoo and toothbrushes. All of the healthy young women we examine leave with prenatal vitamins containing folic acid because it’s critical for women of child-bearing age to take these supplements to prevent birth defects. Some get vitamins. If someone waits two hours to see me, I make sure I have something for them. It gives them a sense of hope; that someone cares about them. And for some patients, there’s no better medicine.