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Not All Who Wander Are Lost… Everything you ever wanted to know about my Dominican mission work


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And just like that…

… it’s time to go home!  Oh my gosh… I just spent an unspeakable number of hours traveling, approximately 150 hours sweating, and the better part of the week taking care of, serving and loving up on nearly 700 Dominicans… and it feels like it all went by in the blink of an eye.

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The perimeter security wall of the Solid Rock Guesthouse compound.  This was our home base for the week.

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The Northern Nurses Without Borders group and the Dr. Johnstone surgical group

We are currently in a hotel in downtown Santo Domingo.  Most of us were in our bathing suits and enjoying a dip in the pool within minutes of receiving our room keys.  We compared notes on bug bites, swollen extremities, and generalized grossness while we bobbed in the refreshing water.  There was time for one last trek to the Super Mercado (super market) and the frozen yogurt joint for some of the group and now it’s time to unwind and hit the hay.

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Stunning mountain views between San Juan de la Maguana and Santo Domingo

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Exploring the Colonial Zone of the capital city

In the morning, we’ll enjoy a nice breakfast buffet and then gather for a group de-briefing before leaving for the airport.  Meeting to talk, laugh and maybe cry a little bit together at the end of an intense trip like this is always a good way to start the physical and emotional transition back to our everyday lives.

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Hondo Valle means “Deep Valley”…

We drove 2 hours into the Western Dominican mountains this morning, and set up our mobile clinic within about 10 miles of Haiti.  We arrived after 10 a.m., and by noon, we had taken care of 122 people!  The total for the day was somewhere around 212 people.

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On their way out of the classroom to use the bathroom, the children can grab a piece of toilet paper… no flushing, though.  TP goes in the wastebasket.

In the past 4 days, we have touched and improved the lives and health of over 600 people… most of whom have no other options for medical care because of their limited resources and/or remote location.

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This is the home of one of the families that visited our clinic today.

Each time I come to the Dominican Republic for a week, there’s one work day that stands out as the most excellent.  Today was it for me.  We were in an incredibly beautiful area where many, many people were waiting for us to help them.  Our team functioned like a well-oiled machine.  We took a magnificent hike after lunch… which involved a steep climb on a dirt path part way up the mountain.

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Lunch time hike… with X-Tina – our group leader and Dr. Erika

On the way back down , one of the local people carried a plate of food to her window, called out to me and offered me a meal.  So sweet!  Another man invited one of the ONU students into his home and insisted on sending a bag full of bananas back to the clinic with him.

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At the end of a very long day in the barrio clinic… everyone is still smiling!

To make the day even more perfect, my very favorite Dominican doctor Sandy Valdez stopped by the guesthouse to say hello to many of us who have worked with him here before.  We all were so glad for his surprise visit.

The Solid Rock staff goes through a transition process at the end of each week.  They have to get us out of here and start to prepare for the next group.  We leave tomorrow at 8 a.m., have a quick tour of the new clinic construction site, tour the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo and stay overnight there in the capital city.  We’ll then be taken to the airport on Saturday morning, and the staff will meet the next incoming team Saturday afternoon.  Another well-oiled machine.

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…. 20 minutes into the bus ride back to the guesthouse 

It’s been an exhausting, exhilarating, exciting week.  None of us smell very good.  Some of us don’t even feel very good.  But we know that we DID GOOD… and that’s what really matters.

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Morning sounds in the D.R.

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I got up extra early this morning, as I usually do here in the Dominican Republic.  Why?  Well, I’m used to getting up at the butt crack of dawn at home anyways… but also there’s absolutely ZERO chance of getting enough wi-fi power to do any kind of social media when more than a few people are online at the same time.

So, here I sit, on a white plastic chair with my laptop on a cement bench outside the guesthouse dining room…. listening to the sounds of a typical morning around me.

The roosters in the near-by barrio are pretty vocal this morning, and there’s a happy little bird chirping in one of the trees above the courtyard.  Yesterday, I heard a stray cat meow outside the security wall, and I was very proud of myself for not trying to find it and make it my own!

From inside our room, the best sounds all week have been the whirring of the bedside electric fans!  Not only do they help drown out the roosters and dogs, but they make sleeping in the heat and humidity fairly tolerable.

Our home for the week is the Solid Rock International compound, which consists of a guesthouse (dormitory style sleeping quarters) and the Clinica Christiana… where surgery and other medical services are offered.  We are surrounded by a 12 ft. cinder block wall… and outside that wall, the city of San Juan de la Maguana is waking up and moving around.  Right now, the traffic mostly sounds like trucks… but soon the streets will be crowded with motorbikes and some cars.  Lots of horn beeping to look forward to, for sure!

Behind me, the guesthouse kitchen is coming alive.  One of the Solid Rock team members started the first pots of coffee, which is now gurgling and smelling pretty yummy.  I’ve never been a coffee lover, but people rave about how good the coffee here is… so I’ve started drinking it.  Here’s my recipe:  1/4 cup Dominican coffee (brewed), 3/4 cup milk, 4 packets of Splenda.  Delicious!  I’m a coffee drinker… very proud of myself!

Time to wrap this up… my first cup of “coffee” is calling my name!


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Happiness Is…

… introducing enthusiastic students to the operating room environment.  It was so cool to have pre-med, nursing and pharmacy students observing  in the Pre-Op, Surgery and Post-Op areas today.  They were like little sponges (pun intended – operating room humor) … soaking up every bit of experience and asking intelligent questions so they could learn even more.

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Dr. Skip and the team doing a hysterectomy while the students get up close and personal with the uterus and fibroids that were removed

A total 5 procedures were completed today… most were some form of hysterectomy.  Some with approaches via the abdomen and some with less invasive approaches.    I enjoy working with Dr. Johnstone and it has been a pleasure seeing him and some of his same team members back with us again this year.

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Me with Dr. Skip and Moira – one of the anesthetists on their surgery team

Unfortunately, our day ran long, so many of the operating room staff missed the chance to go out to dinner at a local restaurant tonight.  Luckily, carry-out food was brought to us and we were able to sit down to eat around 7:30 p.m.

We’ve had several people in our group stricken with heat-related or stomach conditions this week.  On a few occasions we’ve had people on stretchers, with ice packs and fans, and two even had IV fluids to help them recover.  I guess there’s no better company than a bunch of doctors and nurses if you’re going to be ill far from home.

Most of the rest of the ONU Team spent another day doing a barrio clinic today.  They said it went very smoothly, and about 178 patients were seen.  Tomorrow, we’ll go to our farthest destination… probably an area very close to the border of Haiti.

It’s unbelievable to me that we only have one more day to go out and take care of these beautiful Dominican people.   Every trip, the week just seems to fly by so quickly.  I’m sad that I feel like I haven’t made as many personal connections with the local people on this trip.  Maybe tomorrow I will spend some time with the doctors in the barrio clinic triage areas.  That’s where the patients tell what their symptoms are and the docs determine the best meds and treatments for them under the circumstances.  Of course, I’ll try to focus on the breast health teaching and the feminine hygiene project, too!

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El Cercado…

… is a beautiful village high in the mountains to the West… about a one hour drive from San Juan de la Maguana.  The Cercado area captured my heart the first time I came here on a mission trip in 2013… for many reasons.  The elevation makes for beautiful scenery and refreshing breezes, and the homes and properties are well taken care of, with houses painted bright yellow, green, pink and blue.

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The La Guazara area… we set up our clinic in the yellow building today

I might be just a little bit biased… but I also happen to think the most precious little Dominican girl in the world lives right there in El Cercado, too!  Yep, that’s right… today was my day to visit with our 9 year old sponsor student, Yasiri.  At this point, I’ll just stop referring to Yasi as our “sponsor student”… because she and her family have become so much more than that to us.  Our girl, her Mama and her sister stay in contact with me on a very regular basis.  Yasi sends me voice messages via Facebook and Mama sends me updated photos of our girl whenever she can.  I even get to have live video chats with her on Facebook once in a while.

 

Mama / Josefina tells me that Yasiri chatters away like crazy at home, and was VERY excited that today was our day to visit… but as usual, she turned a little bit shy once we were actually together.  She, of course, loved the gifts I brought her… including the Barbie dolls (one dark skinned fashionista and one light skinned nurse), the dresses, sticker books and hair gizmos… but her little eyes lit up when she spotted the shiny 5 peso (about 10 cent) coin that I snuck into a Ziploc bag, along with a flavored lip balm.

Too soon, the group had to get back on the bus and continue another 15 minutes past El Cercado, to an area called La Guazara.   We set up our clinic in 4 of the elementary school’s classrooms, and quickly started seeing the first of 133 patients for the day.  As usual, the oldest folks and the pregnant women were given the first “ticket”, which is entry paper needed in order to be evaluated and see the medical providers.

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The pharmacy work station… Jamie, Kristen and I checked each filled prescription for accuracy.  The Dominican children supervised us from outside!

We were very busy dispensing medications today, and I was not able to borrow any of the female translators in order to do Breast Self-Exam teaching… but we were able to provide 25 women with the amazing kits of washable feminine hygiene pads.  When one of our Dominican leaders, Bienva, gave a kit to one or two of the women… several more all crowded around to see what they had.  Soon, they were all asking if they could also have a kit, and our supply for the day was gone in an instant.  Imagine having a VERY limited income, and having to spend money on disposable sanitary products because your only other option would be to use pieces of torn-up towels, blankets or clothing.  The women were so thankful for the gift of these kits… which will save them many pesos each month.   We are definitely going to have to continue this project in the future!

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These Domincan women were thrilled to get their feminine hygiene kits!

Every single item that we bring to the Dominican Republic is used to the best advantage.  The suitcases that we use to transport medical supplies on the plane (there’s really no way to send or ship items ahead) are highly prized by the local people.  In most cases, they don’t have dressers or shelves to store their clothing and belongings… so a suitcase is a perfect under-bed storage container in their very tiny houses.

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This family was at the clinic all day today.  The children got medical care, the Mama got her feminine hygiene kit and they went home with a suitcase to use in their home.

Tomorrow, I will be helping in the operating rooms.  We have 2 GYN surgeons here with their entire team of support staff, including anesthesia providers and surgical techs and nurses.  Each day, one of the  Northern Nurses Without Borders licensed nurses and a few of the college students take turns working in one or more of the surgical areas… pre-op, OR and recovery.  I’m very much looking forward to using my “at home” O.R.  job skills to help on the 4 hysterectomies that are on the schedule.

Ps… our group is already planning to return in May 2019… so let the countdown begin!

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Note to Self… Benadryl is Your Friend

I’m starting this at 5:40 Monday morning after a good 8 hours in bed and a cool shower, so I have to say that I feel slightly refreshed… but, whew… it was a restless night. I supposedly “learned” after my first trip here, that it’s a good idea to just pop a Benadryl at bedtime…to help unwind and get to sleep better/faster in this hot/humid/noisy/over-stimulating environment.  Didn’t do it last night, though, did I?  Nope.  Tonight WILL be different!

So, we have almost fifty people staying here at the guesthouse!  It’s crowded!  Our group from Ohio is joined by Dr. Skip Johnstone’s surgical group from NC.  They’ll focus on GYN procedures this week, and we’ll focus on barrio clinics… but we’ll help each other out.  As far as I know, I’ll be working in surgery on Wednesday.

(I will continue this update this evening when I have more pics and stories to share… I’m excited to start the day and am already looking forward to getting out into the barrios and making connections with the Dominican people.)

OK… so now it’s 15 hours later, and I finally have the time and energy to get some pics and stories uploaded.  I’m hoping to get a decent internet connection yet this evening so I can get this update into my blog.

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Anyone care for a nice cut of fresh meat?

Today, we took about a 20 min. tour of the local open air market.  This is where the local people go to do their shopping… everything from meat, produce, shoes, toilet paper and cooking utensils!  If you’ve ever donated shoes or clothing to one of those big boxes that sit in shopping center parking lots… your items have ended up in a market like this.

After the market, we drove about 20 minutes North, to the village of Los Montones, where we treated 126 patients.  This community seemed to have an unusual number of people with fungal infections of various varieties.  Many people also suffer from headaches… either related to high blood pressure and/or dehydration.

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Teaching the ladies (and man) about breast self-exams

In addition to serving as one of the required licensed professionals in the pharmacy station, I was able to teach a few small group Breast Self-Exam sessions (with the help of my friend and translator, Bienva).   We have several young people in the group who needed to learn how to take a patient’s blood pressure, so I was able to take care of getting them started, too.

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Our youngest two group members (13 and 16) learned how to take blood pressures today

One of the coolest moments of the day was when a patient came to see us carrying images from a CT Scan of his head.  One of our medical providers today was an American Neurologist!  He took a look at the images, and even took the time to explain them to Michael – who is planning on Med School in the future.

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Reading a CT scan in a third world country!

Before supper, many of our group took a walk to the nearby barrio.  As expected… lots of kiddos came running to us to hold our hands, get horsey back rides, and walk through the streets with us.  Of course, it helped that we had suckers in our pockets!  Many followed us back to the gates of the guesthouse, and asked us to bring balloons to them tomorrow!

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Home made pull-toy… a used oil container with plastic caps for wheels!

Tomorrow, the group will go toward El Cercado… a beautiful area in the mountains – closer to Haiti.  On the way, we’ll stop for about 20 minutes so I can have a chance to visit with Yasiri… always a highlight of my week.

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It’s not WHAT we have…

… but WHO we have in our lives that really matters.

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I am soooo incredibly blessed to have an amazing army of people in my life who GET me.  They understand my passion for my mission work, they ask me questions about my projects, they find ways to donate items or money toward the next trip, they invite me to speak at their club meetings, and they spread the word of my work to their own friends.  So in this entry, I am going to try to celebrate the people who stand behind and beside me… who make it possible for me to fly to the Dominican Republic each Spring and do this work that I love so much.

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There is no way I’ll be able to mention every single person who has ever helped me… but I want to share a few stories of those who have.

Of course… I always have the support of my parents and my hubby… they cheer me on, proudly tell their friends about my trips, and lend moral and financial support!  Couldn’t do it without them!

 

A few years ago, a local Pre-School Director (who I babysat when I was a teenager) volunteered to have her school children collect their out-grown shoes for me to take to the Dominican children.  The students collected hundreds of pairs of shoes, had lessons on poverty and geography and learned about sharing with others.  When I went to the school to collect the shoes, I shared my picture books with the children and they sang a song in Spanish for me.  The local TV station covered the project, and the student’s families were involved in sorting and donating the shoes.

One of the little girl’s Daddy is a former high school classmate (from 35+ years ago).  He and his wife became interested in my mission work, and started following me on Facebook.  From there, beautiful things happened… the parents have been incredibly generous donors every single year.  They contact me to ask what items are most needed for the next trip, and then they purchase those items (vitamins, fungal creams, etc) and provide some extra money for additional needs.  One year, they gave a generous cash donation and asked me to make sure it was used for whatever the Dominican children needed.  Part of their donation helped purchase equipment for the neonatal unit at the local clinic (which is currently under construction.)  Last week, when I thanked them for their generosity… here is what they wrote…

“You are welcome.  So glad we have you as a conduit to all of these poor people.

You are doing God’s work and we appreciate that the most.”

 

I get a kick out of designing a different fund-raising t shirts every year, and my friends and family members are great about buying them.  Depending on how many I sell, between $6-$9 per shirt goes toward mission expenses.  Many people tell me to “keep the change” when they hand me more money than they should for the shirts that they buy!

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2018 Trip T-Shirt

Lots of my supporters are my friends from work.  One of my former co-workers has an engraving business with her husband.  Just recently, she donated 8 engraved wine glasses for me to sell for fund-raising.  In less than a week, all the glasses were sold and I had an additional $120 in my mission expense fund!20180310_095151

 

 

 

 

My neighborhood and church friends have been such kind supporters over the years.  One friend has become my “agent” at church, where she makes sure I get on the program to share my stories/pictures with the congregation each Spring.  She also spearheads the effort to have church members bring in needed donations such as empty pill containers, toiletries and paper products.  She has become my spokesperson at her sewing groups, where she has encouraged others to take up the cause!  As a result, I will be taking dozens/hundreds(?) of empty pill containers and hygiene items on this year’s trip!

One neighbor, who is very active in her local nursing organization, has invited me to share pictures and stories at an upcoming group event. Last Fall, when I needed some funds to take a “bonus” trip to the Dominican Republic to help with 4 days of general surgery, this friend/ nurse/ neighbor went to her group and they donated all the last minute money I needed to make the trip happen!

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Adorable little pillowcase dresses

The wonderful folks in the Shawnee Optimist Club are very generous supporters.  In years past, they have donated personal items, hygiene supplies and adorable little pillowcase dresses.  I expect to hear from them, very soon, about another stash of donations for me to pick up and add to my growing list of items to pack!

One of the docs at work has a house full of kids who are involved in every sport known to man.  Each Spring, he sorts through their used athletic shoes, piles them into several large trash bags and brings them to me.  The Dominican kiddos all want to be baseball stars, so the gift of a cool pair of American sports shoes is truly awesome to them.  You should see the smiles on their faces when they see their new baseball shoes!

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I can’t even count the times that someone has sent me a check or handed me some cash… maybe with a little note, ( “Laurie – praying for you and your trip.  You’re an inspiration) or maybe with a smile and a hug.  Sometimes, people ask me about our little sponsor child, Yasiri.  (How is she doing?  She’s getting so big.  Bet you can’t wait to see her again?)   These blessings mean so much to me.  Not only the money (every single penny adds up… it costs a lot to make a mission trip) but the kind words, the thoughts, the understanding, the prayers for my safety and the safety of my group.  It all means the world to me.

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Yasiri Vicente Morillo

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My pharmacist friend, down at the corner drug store, would love to be able to take a mission trip… but her responsibilities at home just don’t allow it… so instead, she has adopted me!  My girl uses her connections to get a hold of much-needed medications for the trip and happily donates them whenever she can!    This year, she even got her sister-in-law interested… so now I have another source for travel-sized hygiene items and toiletries.

As in past years, I will be doing breast-self examination teaching in each village we visit.  This year, it will probably involve “charlas” or “chats” with small groups of women while they wait to be seen by our medical team.  In addition, this year’s group of nursing students from Ohio Northern University will be concentrating on a project involving sanitary / hygiene products for school girls.  Needless to say, girls living in very remote areas of developing countries don’t have access to modern menstrual products. Lots more info in future blog entries…

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Reusable sanitary product kit

 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again… I’m just an ambassador… I represent each and every person who helps to make these mission trips happen.  I am the lucky one.  I GET TO GO.  I get to feel the feels, smell the air, hold the hugs, cry the tears, share the smiles…

…and then I get to come back home safe and exhausted … and try to find the words and pictures to somehow share my experiences with all of those who have made these adventures possible.

 

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