Monday, May 28, 2012


We met Rosibel in San José Villanueva, during our February General Medical Mission.  She's a 32-year-old woman, a beautiful woman, who has been deaf and mute since the age of 18 months.  It's a sad story.  Rosi was running a high fever, and just at that time - during the Civil War - her father was brutally murdered.  Everyone in the family was so distraught and grieved that they couldn't give much attention to Rosi.  A little later, they realized that she was no longer hearing.

The family saw some evidence that she still had some hearing capacity - she noticed loud music, for example, so they brought her to our clinics to see what our doctors would think was possible.  I still don't know how she came to us in San José Villanueva, since she lives with her mother in San Martin, nearer to my home in Suchitoto, but I'm glad we connected with her.  A couple of weeks ago we went with Rosi to an ear, eye, nose and throat specialist, who sent us on for some specialized testing.  She does indeed have some auditory capacity, so there's a good possibility that with a specialized hearing aid she will be able to connect with the hearing world again.

Rosi has created a vocabulary of signs that she uses with her family, and recently some visitors from Jehovah's Witnesses have taught her the Salvadoran Sign Language alphabet, but she has never had any formal schooling in sign language or in Spanish.  If she is able to hear some speech with a hearing aid, she will need speech therapy to begin to understand what she's hearing, to understand the sounds and construction of spoken language and perhaps to learn to read a bit (and it's my hope that she'll also learn Salvadoran Sign and have opportunities to connect with other deaf Salvadorans).  It's a long road ahead for her, but she is a bright and capable woman.  Here she is, with her mother on the left and her sister-in-law on the right:

Friday, May 25, 2012

Adaptable Adobe

Back a long time ago when I was working in historic preservation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we found Albuquerque's many historic adobe buildings really challenging because they were such shape-shifters.  A new generation in the family?  Add another room at the back of the house.  Too many leaks in the east wing?  Let it return to the earth.  It was hard to say what part of the classic adobe houses came from which period, what part had been added, what part had been changed.  That, of course, is the beauty and delight of an adobe building.

It's equally true here in Central America, and in Suchitoto.  I walked down the street the other day and came on men putting two parallel brick pillars into the wall of a delapidated adobe house.  What could they be planning?  A couple of days later, the arch appeared, linking the pillars, and it was clear that they were creating a new door. 
A second archway -probably a tall window - has now been put in to the left of the new door.  It'll be fun to see what shape this old building has after all the work is done. 

Fruiting season

Yes, the rains have come, it's officially winter, and along with the rains comes the ripening and plopping of millions (I'm not exaggerating here, or only a little) of the nances that grow on the tree in my patio and fall, sometimes with an amazingly loud plop, into the patio.  I have yet to meet a Salvadoran who doesn't adore nances and rush to pick them up.  I have yet to meet a gringo who likes them very much, so it's a joy to give them away.  Lately we've been filling a gallon bag each day with these cherry-sized fruits.  Here they are, making a wreath around our rain drain where they were blown in a huge tormenta last Thursday:
It's not just nances that are ripe right now.  I had lunch today with Alex Hernandez, one of the students to whom we've given a scholarship for university studies, and he brought me a huge bag of fruit from his mother which included zapotes, a wonderfully rich tasting red-orange pudding inside a dull brown skin; marañones japoneses, a cashew relative without the nut, red-skinned with a white, mild interior; and uvas salvajes, wild grapes, deep purple-black round fruits with a tart-sweet pulp inside.  Ah, and it's also the season for avocados, mangoes, lemons, oranges, and who knows what else.  So it may be the case that in this climate fruits tend to ripen at the beginning of the rainy season, with the tree or vine beginning its next cycle during the rains.  Someone who knows the biology and climatology of Central America could probably explain this.  I'm just enjoying the results.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


It's been a long, long week with lots of meetings and events, little time for blogging.  The highlight of the week was seeing our eye surgery patients arrive in Dra. de Burgos' office for their post-surgery checkups.  I always worry about patients finding the office - I think because it's often hard for me to find places in El Salvador, and because the office is on the 2nd floor of a small building on a very busy street in Santa Tecla.  But no problem for our patients, who either got on the parish bus in San José Villanueva or had the good sense to phone Cecilia, Dra. de Burgos' friendly and capable assistant, for directions.  Everyone got there in good time, and almost all are doing very well.  As usual, a few will need additional laser surgery.

I always enjoy watching the patients connect with each other - there's a cameraderie and cheerfulness that makes me think they are pleased with themselves for having the courage to have surgery and come out with better vision.  The two men in this photo were enjoying telling stories to Elvira Chicas, our volunteer coordinator at San José Villanueva:

One very special note this year: we included Cecilia's grandfather in our surgery list, and he came to the post-op with his daughter, Cecilia's mom, and great-grandson, Cecilia's son David.  Here's all four generations of Cecilia's family:
I'm awestruck by Cecilia: she gets up at 3:30 every morning to get on the bus at 5:30 so she can get to the office by 8:00 - she lives a long way away in Nahuizalco.  Then after the office closes, she reverses the process, getting home by 8 pm to put a quick meal on the table and fall into bed.  Her mom takes care of David and her daughter Camila.  But I can't imagine how she can manage this schedule and be - as she always is - cheerful, helpful, and upbeat.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Looking ahead

A couple of weeks ago, after we put all our surgery mission folk on the plane home, Kathy Garcia and I hopped in the new CIS pickup with Leslie Schuld to take a long drive to Estanzuelas, the town Leslie proposes for our 2013 mission.  And since our first question is always "and just where can we put the 28 people on our team?" we stopped first in the beautiful hill town of Alegría (the name means "happiness") to visit the Casa de Retiros (retreat house) run by the Pauline Missionaries.  It's a simple, spacious and beautiful retreat house that borders a finca, a coffee plantation, that's also owned by the padres. The town perches among steep hills, was the home of El Salvador's most famous philosopher, Alberto Masferrer, and has many beautiful moments like this shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.  

We were sold even before we got to Estanzuelas, where we were generously welcomed by Marvin Hernandez, who guides the CIS scholarship program there, and Dra. Jakellyne Jimenez, Director of the Estanzuelas Unidad de Salud (the government health clinic).  Dra. Jimenez invited us to use a portion of the clinic for our medical mission and we accepted most happily. Below, left to right, are Leslie, Dra. Jimenez, Marvin and Kathy. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Getting to know Cristóbal has been one of my joys over the last couple of weeks.   He's a 20-year-old from San José Villanueva who showed up at our eye surgery mission one day in hopes of getting some help for his bad eye.  Our ophthalmologists quickly saw retinal damage, and recommended that he see a retinal specialist.  I made an appointment for him with Dr. Solorzano and met him in the doctor's office, which was a challenge to find (it's in an area where one-way streets and diagonals and dead-ends make nonsense of one's rational driving plan).  Once I got there, Cristóbal and I settled into conversation, and I quickly found out that he speaks excellent English.

It's not because he's lived in the states or had native speakers for teachers.  But a visitor from New Hampshire sent him a set of ESL CDs, and he worked and worked with them.  He must have done that work with great determination and great ability, because at this point, halfway through his first year at the University of El Salvador (he's majoring in modern languages, studying English and French as well as his native Spanish) he's very comfortable and skilled in conversational English.

We had a lot of time to speak English together, as Cristóbal had to get his eyes dilated, a process that always takes quite a bit of time, and then we waited for Dr. Solorzano - who turned out also to have excellent English, due to five years in the U.S. specializing in retinal and glaucoma problems.  He quickly diagnosed Cristóbal with a detached retina - but the damage had happened four years ago, and there wasn't much likelihood of recuperating sight in the damaged left eye.  He recommended a laser surgery to prevent any additional damage to the left eye and to insure that the retina in the right eye would not become detached. 

Happily, that meant coming back for the surgery itself, which happened in Dr. S's office,  and another two hours of English conversation with this talented young man (he also plays piano with a local group).  The surgery hurt, which I hadn't expected - Cristóbal had a fierce headache as well as pain in the eyes - so he was quiet as I drove him home.  But we'll connect again when he comes back next week for a checkup, and I look forward to more conversation in my own native tongue.

Cristóbal is one of eight children of a campesino family, the only person in his family who's ever been to a university.  There's neither TV nor a radio in his home, so it's not surprising that the family didn't have the resources to get him help when the retinal detachment happened (I gather he did see one doctor, who recommended glasses).  Dr. Solorzano is now one of my heroes - he waived his fee and charged only for the cost of the laser equipment.  Cristóbal was sad that his vision couldn't be restored - but for someone with his bright future possibilities, it was "vale la pena," worth the trouble, to make sure his other eye stayed good and strong - lots of books in his future, I suspect, and he'll want to enjoy reading them.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Buckets upon buckets

On Sunday it was time to give out water filters and buckets to the San José Villanueva families who'd fulfilled all the requirements (getting someone in the family tested for parasites and bringing $5 to cover half the cost of the water buckets).  I traveled out to the community with Iris Chacon (from San Rafael Cedros) who does an expert job of explaining the importance of clean water and how to use the water filters.  Darren Streff, a new Maryknoll lay missioner with a background in health care, also joined us - and got landed with the somewhat challenging job of hand-drilling the hole in the bucket (the water filter packets from Sawyer contain a small hand drill which works beautifully - but not quickly).  Here's Darren at work:

And here's Iris, teaching - my favorite of her stories was about a woman who said her filter was a bust, didn't work, couldn't get any water through it.  When Iris when to take a look, she found the woman had forgotten about cleaning the filter by back-flushing it and the filter was completely packed with mud.  Once cleaned, it worked like a charm.  Our participants - mostly mothers, many with several generations living at home - paid close attention.
The buckets, in the background, had all been previously used - mostly for Tang or some quite similar product from the smell - but will be washed out and converted into the bucket that receives water from the tap or the well.  The water is gravity-fed through the filter into a clean-water bucket that has a tap for drinking water.

All that talk about water - of course the inevitable happened, the clouds opened and water came pouring down from the skies, almost like a solid wall.  It rained buckets.  It rained cats and dogs.  And yes, we said, you can filter rainwater with the Sawyer system.  And then we put our papers and bags in one of the buckets and ran for the car.  Much of a good thing!