Sunday, May 30, 2010

Red Alert

Over the past six days El Salvador has gone from a green alert - Wednesday - to orange - Friday - and today to a red alert. So much rain has fallen that all the country is super-saturated. Rivers are overflowing. Villages are cut off. The new fields of just-planted corn are washed away. Six days of torrents, six days without sunshine - we're living in the back-wash of Agatha, the first named Pacific tropical storm of the season.

At least this week there was time to evacuate villages in danger and to help people cross the raging rivers (see the photo from La Prensa Grafica). Some lives have been lost - I think I heard of seven fatalities - but many less than in last November, when a month's worth of rain fell in one terrible night.

Here in Suchitoto, we're doing OK, but more than a little damp. When you wash something out in this weather, 100% humidity, it just stays damp. Saltshakers clog. The drainpipe above our washing machine is leaking copiously. Small problems, indeed. Our spirits have been lifted today because we were invited to share the Trinity Sunday Eucharist with a visiting Jesuit and students from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY (they've spent their whole week here in the rain and the mud, and still seemed to be loving it). We're also hopeful because it hasn't rained in Suchitoto for about 10 hours and maybe, just maybe, the weather is going to change. Primero Dios!

Friday, May 28, 2010

A necessary gift

When I got back to Suchitoto after the eye surgery mission, I learned from Margaret Jane that one of our Suchi friends was going through a hard time. She's a young woman - I'll call her Maria - who works in a local restaurant, and she had come to ask if we could give her a loan for medical tests her mother needed. We have a special fund for local needs donated by some of our Sisters and Associates, and Margaret Jane gave her what she needed, and told her it was a gift. A couple of days after I got back, Maria came over to thank us and tell us what was going on. Her mother will need a hysterectomy - and the surgeon may remove her gall bladder at the same time. The surgery will take place at a national hospital, and so will be free - but the tests to show what she needed were not, as often is the case.

We learned more about Maria's life as she talked with us. She has two children of her own - like many women in El Salvador, she is a single mother - and adopted her brother's two children after his wife died from uterine cancer at the age of 27. The four range in age from 6 to 16, and they are all in school, though she herself never went to school. She grew up far out in the country, and learned to read from a book her father brought her. She and her brother support this family from what she earns as a waitress (working 12 hour days, 6 days a week) and what he earns fishing.

We were so happy that we could help this brave and cheerful woman with one part of her heavy load of family obligations. And we know that Audrey Kettell, CSJP-A, our UK Associate who sent the dollars that went to help Maria, will be glad as well. How glad I am that we were able to help - and how I wish that help were not so desperately needed by so many here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Rain in abundance

Yesterday I got up well before dawn to take Kathy Garcia to the airport, and drove through a lot of fog and rain - no fun in the dark - to get there. All week, the sky overhead has been gray, and we've had heavy rains every day. The country is on a "green alert" because of the rains, rivers are overrunning their banks, and huge waves are reported on the coast.

Heavy rains are normal enough here, at this time of year. But five days of gray skies with no relief in sight? That never happens here. It almost feels like Seattle (but lots warmer). I have two weeks worth of clothes waiting to be washed, but until the sun comes out, it will be pretty hard to dry them.

The people who suffer in this weather - or any weather - are the poor, people whose houses have roofs of plastic or cardboard, people who can't afford to fix the roofs, people who live under earth banks that may collapse in the rains. The United Nations Development Program in El Salvador recently issued a two-volume study of areas of urban poverty and social exclusion in the country ("urban" is a bit misleading: the study mapped all areas with more than 50 dwellings, so only the truly rural areas are excluded). It's downloadable and fascinating for those who know a bit of El Salvador and like maps; it should be a great guide for the government's plans to build additional low-cost housing. Sadly the amount of poor housing is far greater than the government's resources for building new housing. Most of the poor, it seems, will continue to suffer in the heavy rains.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Full of the Holy Spirit

Today, Pentecost, the church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the first apostles and to us today. The Spirit speaks through beautiful images of the great wind, the tongues of fire that appear over the heads of the gathered community, and the power that burst forth from them as they proclaimed the Good News in many languages. That's the Good News that Jesus proclaimed when he read from Isaiah in the synagogue: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." (Luke 4:18)

We've been about that work this week, helping the blind recover sight, and it has been a joyful experience for everyone on our mission team - and for our patients, who will be seeing this Sunday with new eyes. Come, Holy Spirit, Ven, Espiritu Santo, send us your light.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The gift of sight

Today, Thursday, our doctors did cataract surgeries for nine patients and a pterygium surgery for one (for those who don't know a pterygium from a hole in the ground, it's a fleshy growth over the eye that can fairly easily be surgically removed). The two top photos show patients after surgery, with the eye bandaged, and after their post-op check the morning after surgery, with just a plastic shield protecting the eye (they wear this for two weeks). Our optometrist, Dr. Bob Davis, has also been offering free vision checks and reading glasses (where needed) to hospital employees, and we've had many people waiting patiently in long lines for their chance to get free glasses. Yesterday Bob, with some assistance from our surgeons, did 75 eye exams; today we held the line at 40, but only with great difficulty. We were happiest when people showed up from the laundry and maintenance and kitchen - these were people who really can't afford reading glasses. The third photo shows the long line forming yesterday.

People kept thanking me, and I kept saying that it was a blessing for us to be here and to help them, and indeed it is. When we get together at night before and during dinner, you can feel the good energy and delight of all our team - Bruce and Vincent, our surgeons; Bob, the optometrist; D.J. and Silvia assisting in surgery; Mitch taking photos and managing the sterilizer; Nelson translating our folk into impeccable Salvadoran Spanish; Cindy, our nurse; Kathy holding the whole enterprise together; and me, out in the waiting room with our amazing volunteers Reyna and Rosa and Gumersindo. It's an unbeatable high, to be spending a week giving the gift of sight to others. It's we who should be saying thanks.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mission and vision

On Saturday afternoon, Hernan, our great bus driver, and Alcides, a Suchitoto friend, moved a small mountain of bins and boxes and bottles of water from our storeroom to Hernan's microbus, and we took off to meet our mission team. They came in right on time, even though they'd lost three hours on the takeoff of their Seattle-Houston flight, and while we had to wait two hours in customs, we got through without any difficulty, perhaps thanks to the elegance of our new burnt orange duffles (see photo).

We set up the operating suite at Hospital San Rafael in Santa Tecla on Sunday, and bright and early on Monday morning the patients showed up, a wonderful group of hopeful seniors. So, happily, did our community volunteers, Reyna and Gumersindo, and Rosa, who started volunteering with us in Comasagua in 2009, and seems to have made it a habit - for which we're more than grateful. Rosa and Reyna and Gumersindo help everyone get dressed in their hospital gowns and booties (see photo).

Rosa and Reyna and Gumersindo and I are the outside crew, getting the patients ready for surgery and taking them to their beds for the night afterwards. The inside crew - our two ophthalmologists, optometrist, operating room staff, nurse, interpreter, and photo-journalist - quickly found the rhythm of a successful team. We did ten surgeries on Monday, nine today, and it's all gone very smoothly. In the evenings we gather at the Centro Loyola in Antiguo Cuscatlan, not far from the hospital, for talk and a good meal. And we all remember the beautiful faces we've seen in the day. The final photo shows one of them.

Talk about mission and vision - what a great combination!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Eye surgery week begins

Getting our franquisia - to import our medications and equipment without paying customs duties - was more of a cliffhanger than ever, as the folk at Customs invented a new twist, requiring an extra seal and signature from the Archdiocese, and by the time we got back to the Archdiocese, those who could sign officially were nowhere to be found. Somehow Licenciada Angela Vasquez, who's charged with getting franquisias through the process, located a signator, and the papers are complete.

I don't know who has the main seal-and-stamp making business in El Salvador, but that would be a very prosperous enterprise here. Every organization has to have its seal, and every transaction has to be stamped, often multiple times.

Soon I'll be off to the airport to pick up our eight volunteers and Kathy Garcia. On Monday we'll begin our surgery week at Hospital San Rafael, in Santa Tecla. I'm told that the Centro Loyola, where we'll be staying during the week, has wireless internet available, so hope to be able to post some photos and stories.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Beginning the day right

We were up early this morning to get everything ready for breakfast, then walked over to Peggy's house, where Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas met us at 6:00 AM (which mean leaving San Salvador at 5:00 AM). He said Mass for the three of us in Peggy's tiny chapel, thanking us in his homily for the gift we had given in leaving family and security to accompany the people of El Salvador.

Then Monseñor Luis and his driver and Peggy joined us for a good breakfast. It was a pleasure to tell him a little about our work here, and especially to thank him for the excellent assistance we've received from the Archdiocese. And it was a pleasure and honor to hear him talk with deep feeling about the longings of the people here, about their need for justice and hope.

A fine way to begin the day!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Running-around week

I haven't posted for a while, because I've been running around this week, getting ready for our cataract surgery group, arriving Saturday AND for a visit from the Archbishop of San Salvador tomorrow morning. Monseñor Luis Escobar Alas, the Archbishop, has been visiting all the religious communities in his Archdiocese - tomorrow he's visiting the Sisters of Charity (Peggy O'Neill) and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. He's arriving at 6 AM to say Mass for us in Peggy's home chapel and then all will come to our house for breakfast (orange juice, coffee, omelets, toast).

It will be an honor to meet Monseñor and to tell him that it has been a joy to work with his staff in the Pastoral de Salud and Pastoral Social, who've been our very effective community organizers on many medical missions.

It has crammed the week a bit, though, to be working on housecleaning and breakfast menus, as well as on last minute purchases and arrangements for the surgical mission. At this point, almost everything is ready, packed, organized - except that, as usual, we are waiting to the last minute to receive our franquisia (permit to import the medications and instruments without paying customs duties). I hope and trust that it will come through, probably tomorrow. But, as everyone says in El Salvador, "Primero Dios," - God first, God willing.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Clean water for Las Granadillas

During our February Medical Mission I spent a day translating for Dr. Anne Welch, one of our excellent pedia-tricians. We saw family after family where the baby at breast was round and rosy, but the children who were no longer nursing were thin, pale and listless. Anne diagnosed likely cases of parasites or water-born bacteria, and it made her mad. Why didn't these families have access to clean, safe drinking water? She told the Mayor of San Juan Opico how important it would be to improve the water systems. Clean water is hard to come by in El Salvador generally, not just in Opico, and the children are the ones who suffer most. I came away wanting to find something we in PeaceHealth could do to help families with this basic need.

When I came back to Bellevue, WA in March, I talked to Sr. Andrea Nenzel about the need for clean water in Salvadoran communities. In one of God's minor miracles , she had just heard about Sawyer Water Filters and encouraged me to look them up. I was impressed with what I read about them and ordered one for a trial. Dina Dubon de Garcia, a longtime friend of the CSJP community and our main contact for San Juan Opico, tried out the filter in her house and discovered that it worked well, filling a 5 gallon jug in about 20 minutes.

Today we took the filter to the community of Las Granadillas, located in a coffee finca in the hills at the southern end of the San Juan Opico municipality. Dina and Reyna, the local health promoter, called together a group for training, or "capacitacion," as it's called here, and did a magnificent job of community education. People in the group knew that you could clean the water by boiling it, but, they said, it didn't taste right after being boiled. They were curious to learn how this system new operates - and how the water would taste.

It's a very easy-to-understand and easy-to-follow system, using gravity flow to pull dirty water from an upper bucket through the small filter into a lower, clean water bucket. The Sawyer filters are cleaned by back-washing when they get full of gunk, and are guaranteed for 1 million gallons, enough to last a community for quite a good long time. It filters out bacteria, protozoa and cysts, filters water fast enough to be used by a small community, and the price is quite reasonable.

Dina showed the community how the system is assembled, and we were ready for the first test: water from the community tank was poured into the top bucket, and quickly passed through the filter into the bottom bucket. And then we all took a drink of the clean, fresh water, and everyone said it tasted just the way water should taste: "rica," said one man, the ultimate compliment for food or drink here.

They decided where the system will be placed and which family would be responsible for back-washing the filter. We'll be following up with a test of the filtered water and gathering the experience of the Las Granadillas community as they use the filter. And if it works, as we hope it will, we plan to provide more filters for more of the communities in San Juan Opico, thanks to the generosity of our donors. It's been a happy day.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Don't Pay the Rent!

I've been wondering about a poster that recently appeared, draped modestly over the front of El Salvador's famous "La Chulona" statue on Boulevard Constitucion (La Chulona is a statue of Justice, portrayed as a beautiful naked woman carrying a sword and scales. There's also an El Chulón elsewhere, but that's another story). The image of this wild-eyed man saying "I'm not paying the rent" was a puzzle until I read Tim's El Salvador Blog, and realized that this is an initiative to get people to refuse to pay extorsion money (known here as la renta). I won't retell the story, but recommend you follow this link to Tim's telling.

It's a beautiful grassroots movement, and it's what is most necessary for a change from the violent conditions of today - may Don Ramon's face and this slogan be the beginning of a new day in El Salvador.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How sweet the Cross

Monday was the Day of the Cross here - as I learned last year, on this festival Salvadorans display a wooden cross in their house, green wood from a tree grown in the Suchitoto area that can sprout again. The cross is decorated with flowers and fruits and sweets - as Peggy O'Neill pointed out to me, the message is "how sweet the Cross"! The photo here is of the cross we decorated in our patio, not an outstanding example of the practice.

This celebration has its roots in pre-Columbian traditions: this is the time when the rains are supposed to begin, and the fruitful wood is a symbol of the land's fertility, a call for the blessing of rain. This year the rains have already begun. We've seen rain every day since I returned from New Jersey a week ago - an early start to the rainy season which more typically begins in middle or late May. Farmers will be out planting corn in the milpas, hoping that the rains will continue to bless the crop each day until harvest. May there be an abundant harvest!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The feast of St. Joseph the Worker

The first of May, Inter-national Workers' Day, is a holiday here as it is in most countries, though not in the United States, where we continue to insist on celebrating Labor Day in September. The Catholic Church long ago put its stamp on May 1st by designating it as the feast of St. Joseph the Worker - and so it's a feast for my Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace (CSJP).

May Day is always celebrated with a giant parade in San Salvador, but we had a small and special celebration in Suchitoto today - Estela Garcia and her daughter Susy Solis Garcia came for lunch, their first time to visit this house. Estela has been a friend of the CSJPs for more than 20 years, since the happy day when she came to work at El Despertar, the Jesuit Refugee center where Sisters Eleanor Gilmore and Margaret Byrne were helping people from the country get medical care. My sense, from hearing Eleanor tell the story, is that they were overstretched and desperately needed help to keep the house clean and the meals prepared. They asked at the local parish, and along came Estela - and soon everything was in beautiful order.

Susy was a little girl then: now she's an accomplished young woman, working at a preschool and leading catechetics in her local parish while she finishes her degree. We talked and told stories and ate pasta and enjoyed the leisure of the day. Margaret Jane kindly took a photo of this happy feast day.