Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sweet home

It's a joy and a small miracle that I can feel so at home in two such very different places. Very early this morning (I missed my planned connection in Houston and had to take the late plane) I finally reached my room at St. Mary-on-the-Lake in Bellevue. This morning quite a bit later it was great to be welcomed home by the Sisters, to participate in the Mass in English, and then to watch a bit of the extraordinary US/Canada hockey game and a bit of the closing ceremonies. As you might imagine, Winter Olympics don't have much appeal in El Salvador, and besides we were pretty busy with the medical mission. But here they're just around the corner in Vancouver, so I was glad to catch the tag end and hear some of the stories. Sweet home, sweet homes.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Remembering a great mission week

I'm packing my suitcase to go back to Seattle for three weeks, a combination of work, community meetings, and vacation time. Seems like a good time to unpack a few of the photos (by mission photo-journalist Jane Kortz, an Associate of the Sisters of St Joseph of Peace) and memories from our week in San Juan Opico.

Our group numbered 29 in the beginning and included seven M.D.s, three optometrists, an optician, a 4th year medical student, a few nurses, a bunch of interpreters, and a great group of "I'll fit in anywhere" volunteers, mostly from PeaceHealth. Sadly Dr. Betsy McDowell, one of our optometrists, was called home with a family emergency in midweek, but the rest of us stayed in good health and good spirits throughout the week.

We were all grateful to Gabina Duvon de Garcia, also known as Dina, a Social Worker with the Archidiocese of San Salvador's Pastoral de Salud program. Dina, who has been working for about 18 years with the people of San Juan Opico connected us to the Promotores de Salud (health promoters) who organized the selection of patients, registered everyone, kept the lines organized, and made our work easy. This group of volunteers even included a couple of extraordinary singers, Doña Chita and Doña Carmen, who belt out ballads like pros. They created some special songs for us - much better than our attempt at "De Colores"!

We will never forget the patients who came to us. Some carried lives filled with sorrow, like the woman who wept inconsolably when told that nothing could be done to relieve her blindness. Others were full of joy as they received their glasses and prescriptions. The photos here tell the stories of a little girl who was so scared of being examined by the doctor that she clung to Kathy Garcia through the whole procedure; of a beautiful 100 year old man who was carrying a heavy bag of tools on his back, his working tools; of a woman who showed up on Monday with an enormous abcess on one side of her throat, endured having it lanced and drained, and came back twice for further treatment, finally bringing with her a thank-you of enough fruit to feed us all.

Indeed, we have all been well fed at San Juan Opico - in body and in spirit. As usual, we are the ones who were ministered to, as we learned to weep and rejoice with the beautiful people of San Juan Opico.

Monday, February 22, 2010

An El Salvador weekend

Our great mission team got on the plane very early this morning - at least most of them did: a few are relaxing at the beach or with family, Zach Pedersen is on the way to Panama, and Cathy MacKay has started a three-month language-learning stay in El Salvador. Kathy Garcia and I drove back to the base house in Suchitoto and well-deserved naps.

Between the end of clinics on Friday and the plane ride this morning, our team members expanded their understanding of this beautiful country. We spent Saturday in the capital, San Salvador, visiting the Hospital de Divina Providencia where Monseñor Romero lived and was assassinated in 1980; we heard the story from Sister Bernadita, a Honduran nun and the only person who makes Kathy Garcia look like a basketball player. At the University of Central America (UCA) we learned about the assassination of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter nine years later. And we took a little time for shopping and sightseeing.

Saturday evening we had the traditional pizza-beer-and-coconut-ice-cream dinner, this time at the home of Leslie Schuld, Director of the CIS (Center for Interchange and Solidarity), and got to hear Leslie's take on politics, economics, crime and development in El Salvador, knowledge borne of 16 years in the country.

Sunday was our Suchitoto day, beginning with an inspiring conversation with Sister Peggy O'Neill at the Centro Arte para la Paz. Peggy reminded our team that the medicines and glasses we offered mattered less than the attention, respect and dignity we gave our patients; and that our consciousness of the limitation of what we could give was also a grace.

After a few hours to walk and shop in Suchitoto, the team headed for our new Base House and lunch and time to sit under the lemon tree and relax. Then it was back to the Novo Hotel, our elegant weekend lodging, to debrief and pack and get to bed early for the long trip home.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Last Day in San Juan Opico

Today's our last day of clinics in San Juan Opico, and it's going to be hard to leave. Over the week, we've had a wonderful, joyful and exhausting time at our medical clinics, seeing people who often moved us to tears.

As we pack up today, we're thankful for the volunteers who have done a superb job of inviting people from their communities to the clinics and organizing the long lines of patient Opicans waiting for their turn.
Most of all, we know that San Juan Opico and its people have a place in our hearts forever.

P.S. - thanks for the photos to Jane Kortz, Associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and our photojournalist for this mission.

Monday, February 15, 2010

All's going well

Just a quick post to let you know that our great team of 27 arrived at the airport Saturday, and we actually got through customs with our 54 giant bins of eyeglasses-and-medicine-and-toothbrushes-and-lotion-and-vitamins....and more in about an hour.

We`re staying at the beautiful La Brisa de Carmelo retreat house in Santa Tecla, which has great food, private rooms with private bathrooms with hot water, and gorgeous gardens. Sorry about that, you folk from earlier years who stayed in steamy dormitories or shabby guest houses.

Today we began our clinics - a long, hot day, but everything really went very well and the people of San Juan Opico were patient, hopeful, and generous. We enrolled a full group for cataract surgeries in May, managed an emergency or two, heard some heartrending stories, and gave out many packages of vitamins, tylenol, antibiotics - and toothbrushes.

As always, it´s a wonderful group of doctors and interpreters and assitants from PeaceHealth and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, and a wonderful group of local volunteers - joined by Rosa Aguiar, our splendid volunteer from Comasagua, who helped us get the eyes clinic organized. Walther Jorge Martinez, a volunteer in our Panchimalco clinic two years ago, came by with his aunt who was getting a gynecological consult. Lots of hugs all round.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Today, after a bit of nail-biting, I acquired the final piece of official paper, the franquisia that allows us to import the medications for our week of clinics without paying customs duty. The storeroom in the house is full, and the boxes have expanded into the two adjacent rooms. I've ironed ten shirts. Time for the group to come!

They're due in tomorrow evening at 8:30 and we'll be there with the permission from the Junta Vigilancia, the franquisia, Hernan's spotless red coaster, and a big truck for baggage and the plastic bins that carry the medications and equipment. Once through customs and loaded up, we'll all be off to Las Brisas del Carmelo, the beautiful retreat house in Santa Tecla that will be our home for the week. And on Sunday we'll show up in San Juan Opico, ready to set up clinics and begin our week with the people of Opico.

I don't know how much opportunity I'll have to post photos or comments during this week, but they surely will appear when time and internet connection allow. This is, among many other things, a most wonderful way to begin Lent, in joyful service to the people of God. May it be a time filled with blessings for all.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

To and Fro

Yesterday I got full use out of the car and out of the mapping center in my brain. My errands began with a trip to Comasagua (on the opposite side of the capital from Suchitoto) to take our regular donation to Nubia's family. It was fun to be met by Nubia's little sister, Veronica, as well as by Nubia and her mother, and I was happy to learn that Nubia's brother, Miguelito, is also in school, in 6th grade. Nubia just turned 13, and has grown a little this year.

That was the fun part of the day. Then I went, as quickly as the complicated pathways of San Salvador permitted, to:
The El Arbol de Dios gallery to arrange for lunch for our group on Feb. 20th;
The supermarket for plastic utensils for our Feb. 20th pizza night and - most important - for chocolate syrup to go over the coconut ice cream.
Office Depot for envelopes;
The bottle store, to buy 50 bottles for cough syrup and rehydration syrup;
The bank, for some cash for the mission week;
A medical supply store for cytology slides and scrapers;
The Archdiocese of San Salvador offices to check on our medications permission;
PriceSmart for more beverages for the week;
POPS for 3 half-gallons of coconut ice cream to go under the chocolate syrup;
and Leslie Schuld's house to deliver the ice cream, chocolate syrup, plates, napkins and spoons for Feb. 20th (Leslie is kindly hosting us for the traditional pizza and ice cream evening).

Then I drove back to Suchitoto in the dark.

Now this may not sound like all that much, but Eleanor Gilmore, who did this work before me, will be able to follow in her head the complicated pathways I mapped out to get these stops in the right sequence. San Salvador traffic is hopelessly complicated because left turns are illegal almost everywhere in the city, the pattern of streets is interrupted by deep arroyos, quebradas, traffic is always heavy in the capital, and legal parking almost non-existent. And more: landmarks are known by their former use (the ex-embajada and excuartel), streets in the capital's generally sensible numbering system get renamed (so 75th Avenida Norte, a major street, appears on street signs and some, but not all, maps as Napoleon Viera Altamirano), and the big signposts tell you what street you'll get to, eventually, if you turn right - not what street you're turning on to. I regard learning Spanish and plotting the pathways for a full day's worth of errands in San Salvador as good medicine for my aging brain.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Getting ready

My very long to-do list (last time I looked it was heading out the door in the direction of San Juan Opico) is slowly getting shorter. We have the permission of the Junta Vigilancia de la Profesión Médica in hand - those beautiful apostilles with the state seals in silver and gold were just what they wanted. The bodega (storage room) is full of snickers bars and napkins and bottles of water and maps and bags of coffee and plastic bags for pills and vitamins. Tomorrow I hope to finish my shopping, and Thursday our friends from AMES, the Archdiocese' pharmaceutical storehouse, will deliver a big order of medications. Wednesday or Thursday we should also receive a permit for importing the medications we bring with us. And then it will be time to iron shirts and get ready for the big week. Our Mission Team arrives Saturday evening - it includes some who've been part of our missions before, notably Dr. Dale Heisinger, a pediatrician instantly loved by all kids; Elba Solano, a translator and San Juan Opico native who now lives in Eugene; Dra. Silvia Pleitez, a Salvadoran doctor now living in L.A. who handles patient instructions in our pharmacy; Dr. Ken Henderson, who makes sure we have plenty of eyeglasses; Dr. Melissa Doherty, usually an ER physician, but on this mission as a pharmacist. Others are new, and it will be great to meet them. There's two special cases, Sister Amalia Camacho, who will be one of our interpreters, and Jane Kortz, an Associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, our photo-journalist - both are dear friends of mine & I'm looking forward to working with them all week.

Here, for the beauty of them, are some of the faces of San Juan Opico, the people we'll be getting to know in the coming week.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The saddest funeral

On Thursday Margaret Jane and I went to the saddest funeral either of us has ever been to. Six hearses were drawn up in front of the church (there were seven men killed in Monday's mass shooting in Milingo, but one was buried in another part of the country). Six coffins were lined up at the altar, each one attended by weeping mothers, fathers, wives, girlfriends, children, friends. The church was full. After the mass, everyone walked in procession to the cemetery, about a mile away, where the six men were buried, where the grief of the families and the community cried aloud.

Now the families of Milingo's dead are praying a novena for their dear ones. This begins and ends with a full night of prayer, usually the rosary, and the prayers continue through the nine nights. Like sitting shiva in the Jewish tradition, the novena gives a formal time and space to grieving.

We have little more information about the crime, except that apparently all were shot by M-16s, and it's clear that the murderers knew where to find their victims, who were at a remote pond. Whatever the reason, it has become another shocking statistic here, where 51 people were murdered in the first 72 hours of February. For the people of Milingo it's not a statistic; there are seven sons who won't come home again, seven faces that won't be seen again, seven families wondering why and wondering if there will be any justice.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sopa de Gallina India

I said that yesterday was a day of lights and shadows. The lights, most of the day, came from a visit to some of the campo villages of San Juan Opico with Gabina (Dina) Dubón. After the drive to Opico, by now familiar, we took a dirt and stone road to Chantusnene, where Doña Carmen Orellana welcomed us to her house. Here, as always in the country, all the visiting and eating happens on the deep front porch. On Carmen's front porch a hen, tied to the table leg, looked up at us. A pot of water was boiling away on the outside hearth, and I understood that the hen was destined to be dinner, perhaps the best loved dinner in El Salvador, sopa de gallina india, Country Hen Soup. Here's a photo of Carmen with the hen.

We didn't stay to watch the beheading and de-feathering of the gallina india, but continued up the road to San Antonio, where we found Don Erasmo talking to a large group of local people about our coming jornada medica. Then Erasmo climbed into the car and we bucketed off on what's probably about the worst road I've ever driven on to visit an extraordinary pair of farms where he and his family are trying new ways of growing food in Central America. They have tomatoes and huisquil and basil and pepián and many herbal remedies growing in pots that are watered from a wastewater pond being cleaned by water hyacinth and fish. They have an orchard of bananas and mangos and papaya and oranges and lemons, and they have a poultry pen and a rabbit hutch built from the bamboo in their bamboo grove. The chicken and rabbit droppings go to fertilize the crops. There's a pig and a goat as well. It's part organic farming, part permaculture, and all very, very impressive, an excellent model to show other Salvadorans what the possibilities are - and part of the Pastoral de la Tierra, teaching people to honor the spiritual reality of our earth. Don Erasmo's daughter sent me off with a bottle of shampoo made from their herbs and two lumps of a very strange smelling brown soap that's supposed to be excellent for the skin.

Then we went back to Carmen's, and to the sopa de gallina india, now ready and glorious. It's probably the first time that I've ever looked my dinner in the eye before eating it, and I will confess that it didn't slow me down at all. The soup was served with large chunks of pepián (a local squash) and carrot, with grilled gallina india on the side and, of course, tortillas. Dina and I ate every bite, along with Carmen and her fellow health promoters, Carmen Galdámez and Fátima Cruz. Carmen sent us off with with bulging bags of oranges and with pepiáns; her neighbor Fátima added bulging bags of mandarin oranges.

The car was getting full, but we bumped on down the road to San Juan Opico, and then headed south to meet with the third Carmen of the day, Maria del Carmen Aviles. Carmen and I talked menus, as she will be doing the cooking for our medical mission group. She asked whether the local volunteers would be eating separately from our group, and was happy when I said no, that the highlight of the week for our group would be getting to know them.

Menus set, we settled in for coffee and quesadillas (totally unlike Mexican quesadillas, this is a cake made with cheese, and it's rich and delicious) with Gumersindo and Felicita, two other health promoters who will be volunteers for our week. And Carmen Aviles sent us off on our way back to the highway and our homes in Apopa and Suchitoto with a quesadilla each, and a loaf cake, and cookies.

Experiencing the overflowing generosity and warmth of these health promoters, being welcomed to their homes and sent home with their bounty gave me a way to balance the terrible news of the massacre at Milingo with what I know of the joyous and generous spirit that is the true reality of El Salvador. Thank you, Carmen and Carmen and Carmen, Erasmo and Gumersindo and Felicita and Fátima, for your welcome, your gifts, your presence and your grace.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A day of lights and shadows

There's much I want to tell you about today, indeed about the last few days which have been rich and full. But first, the bad news today in Suchitoto is that six or seven young men were killed in the village of Milingo, part of the Suchitoto municipality, in a shooting yesterday afternoon; three others were wounded. These terrible murders are probably the work of a gang, and the police speculate that the young men were killed by a rival gang - though as yet there's no real evidence that those killed were in a gang.

This shocking news has brought great pain to my town. For a long time, we've been able to think of ourselves as exempt from the gang violence here, but no longer. What can we do? Many meetings took place today to look for a powerful response, and that response begins tomorrow with a procession bearing witness to our grief.

The gang violence in this country has increased to an unbearable level. The police and military, working together, are looking for new ways to combat this epidemic - and indeed, it has the qualities of an epidemic. It doesn't help that there's not much public trust in the integrity of the police.

It was interesting that today my friends Lena and Rosi called suggesting that Margaret Jane and I might like to stay with them in Santa Tecla for a while because of these murders. This struck me as pretty funny, because Santa Tecla has its own set of gangs. I thanked Lena and Rosi, but told them that we wanted to be in solidarity with our Suchitoto community. I didn't add that nuns in la tercer edad (senior citizens) are just about the last people threatened by this gang violence. Instead, what we're losing here in Suchitoto, in El Salvador, is a generation of youth.