Dentists and Dinosaurs Part II

paul on dental brigade

I’m writing a second blog immediately following the first.  The earlier one feels a little bit like cheating to me since I wrote it for our Shoulder to Shoulder blog.  The story was true enough and personal enough (hoped you liked it), but there is more going on for us right now that is not necessarily appropriate to share in the NGO blog.  You can consider this a bonus blog.

At the end of last week, a very dear friend of ours died.  He’d been ill and his passing wasn’t entirely unexpected, but losing someone, under any circumstances, always sets one reeling.  We felt ourselves fortunate to have seen him at Christmas.  He seemed very tired and we both felt he was readying himself.  We thought we might try to go home when he passed.  We are close to his family and would have liked to be near them physically in their mourning.  But it was so soon after our Christmas trip.  It would have been a very expensive and exhausting journey.  Instead, we remembered him here and sent our condolences on to the family.  We’ve been thinking of them since.  It’s the only real hard part of being here in Honduras.

As it turned out late Saturday and early Sunday I developed a very bad ear infection.  Those of you that know me well know how bad my ears are and that I’m prone to ear infections.  I’m about three-quarters deaf in my right ear.  The left ear is simply challenging.  Of course it was the left ear in which I contracted the infection.  It hurt tremendously, and though I still felt a little guilty about not making the trip back home for the funeral, I dread how I might have felt if the infection had erupted on a plane.  I wanted to fight my way through it as is my usual response.  I thought I could get by without needing an antibiotic.  But by Sunday it was really bad.  By Sunday afternoon I desperately wanted an antibiotic and pain killer.

kids shaking toothbrushes

Honduras is quite different from the States when it comes to pharmaceuticals.  You don’t need a prescription for most anything.  You simply walk into the pharmacy and tell them what you want and buy it.  The pharmacist, theoretically, should be able to tell you what the drug is for, its side-effects, and the proper dosage and how long to take it.  The drugs are relatively cheap because there is no insurance, but there are also few controls.  It’s a bit of a crap shoot.  We were in La Esperanza on Sunday afternoon looking for a pharmacist.  La Esperanza is always a busy town with all the traffic from the surrounding small towns coming to purchase supplies.  It’s like the Dodge City of rural Southern Honduras.  Busy that is except from Sunday afternoon through Monday afternoon when everyone is hurrying back to their little towns for the work week.  There were no pharmacies open.  We planned to return to Concepcion on the 6:15 AM bus on Monday morning, but we decided to delay that until the 10:15 AM bus so I could find the drugs.  The pain and a fever kept me up most of Sunday night, but we went out in search of a pharmacy at 7:30 AM on Monday morning.  We passed three pharmacies that we felt were more or less reputable that were unfortunately still closed.  The fourth one would not have been my first choice, but it was open.  The short, aging woman found an antibiotic and some ibuprofen with relative ease among the dusty, poorly organized shelves.  She seemed very certain in telling me to take the antibiotic at six-hour intervals for three days, and the ibuprofen at eight hour intervals as needed for pain.  I purchased the drugs, feeling more confident than not.

The ibuprofen gave me some relief from the pain right away.  Still, I had the bus ride ahead.  I know I spend a great deal of time talking about bus rides in this blog.  It’s a big part of our lives here.  The bus ride from La Esperanza through the Frontera is really something that cannot be appreciated without experiencing it.  I was fine for the first hour and a half.  The ibuprofen seemed to be holding up well.  But, the combination of the constant jostling, the dramatic loss of altitude, the wearing down of the efficacy of the ibuprofen, and the intensity of the infection, did me in.  The pain returned with a harsh vengeance.  Screaming in public is considered as culturally unacceptable in Honduras as it is in the States, so as strong as the impulse was, I restrained myself.   I barely made it off the bus and up the short hill to our house.  But I did make it.  The drugs have been working fine and I’ve been slowly but surely improving.  Of course, I can hardly hear.

On Thursday morning I had finished my regimen of antibiotics and ibuprofen.  I felt much better, but my ear was still impacted and I sensed something was wrong.  I saw one of the docs at our clinic and asked her to remove the wax from my ear.  She took one look and declared that my ear remained infected and inflamed and queried me as to why I had stopped the antibiotics.  As per the instructions of the pharmacist, I answered.  What a surprise, the pharmacist had given me incorrect directions for the medicines.  I needed to take the antibiotics and the ibuprofen for a full week.  The length of time between doses was also incorrect.  I’m on the right track now, however, and I’m certain I’ll be fully recovered by early next week.  Last week, before my infection, we had a group of pharmacology students from Buffalo here.  Timing is everything, I guess.

girl sitting pensively - dental brigade

In the midst of all of this, I’ve been reflecting on loss, disappointments, discouragements, challenges, and the fragility of life.  It seems life is as beautiful as it is delicate.  It needs to be attended to and appreciated.  Laura and I had the joy of visiting the school with the dental brigade on Wednesday.  I loved those dinosaurs (see last blog).  They had a great deal to say about what is truly special and sacred about life.  I think our friend whom we’ll miss would have very much appreciated the children at the school.  How important it is to be present to all of that.  We don’t always do that.  We often get caught up in ourselves.  We are fragile and we do suffer, but oh how beautiful it is to be alive.


Dentists and Dinosaurs

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I can fairly well remember my first experience as a child visiting the dentist.  Like the experience for most kids, mine held the potential to be a traumatizing event.  He was an older, unfamiliar man who seemed way too anxious about becoming my friend.  He placed me in this strange, inclining, mechanical chair with straps on it.  How could a little kid think of anything other than Frankenstein?  Then this man I didn’t know who smiled at me way too widely, who now wore a bizarre green gown and a surgical mask, shown a tremendously bright light into my eyes, pried open my mouth and squinted oddly to peer profoundly into my oral cavity.  His peering had obviously not satisfied his curiosity because he continued to poke and prod in and out of every crevice with sharp metal instruments, relics of torturing tools from the Inquisition.  If anyone ever wished to publish a manual on how to traumatize a kid, they would simply accurately describe a first visit to a dentist.  Yet, I wasn’t traumatized.  In fact, I don’t even remember any of the business end of the visit to the dentist.  Still, I do remember it.  What did I remember?  Why wasn’t I traumatized?

Dinosaurs.  After the exam and perhaps a quick brushing (I didn’t have any cavities and thus was spared the true horror of a whizzing drill), the dentist lead me, my mother in tow, to a small supply room.  There, displayed on a counter at about my eye level, were herding, plastic (actually probably rubber since it was the 60’s), green, red, blue, and yellow dinosaurs.  They were only about one and a half inches tall, but they were mesmerizing.  Then the dentist said a truly magic word.  “Pick one.”  Whatever maniacal experiment this deranged man had performed on me had been worth it, because I had hit the mother lode of prizes, my own dinosaur.  Though I should have been traumatized by such a foreign, terrifying event, I wasn’t.  The principal part of the visit, picking out my personal dinosaur, far overshadowed the otherwise haunting, intrusive nature of having someone stare into your mouth.

I remembered the dinosaurs, and the brilliance of my first dentist, just yesterday in a most unlikely, and yet again, foreign environment.  We followed the dental brigade to the small village of El Cerrón.  Though it is still vacation until February 2, the kids from the village met them at the small schoolhouse.  The school is already enrolled in Shoulder to Shoulder’s school dental program.  Most of them know the importance of brushing and the dangers of gluttonous consumption of sweets and junk food.  They also get fluoride treatments and trips to the dental clinic when they need work.  Even so, here in Honduras where dental disease from poor dental hygiene is an epidemic, the message can’t be repeated often enough.  In any case, the boys all had rings on their fingers; little plastic rings that I assumed were gifts from the dental brigade.  Then I noticed one boy playing with another boy, poking his ring at the other boy’s ring.  I focused to see the two plastic, ring dinosaurs engaged in mortal combat.  I laughed audibly.  Though you may think otherwise, things have not changed that much in forty-five years.  Closer scrutiny made me realize that some of the rings featured dolphins as well, and the girls had stick-on jewelry proudly attached to their bodies.  When it came time for the kids to line up for their exam, when these very tall, very foreign people with bright flashlights wanted to poke around inside their mouths, the children showed no hesitancy, but rather raced to be first in line.

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It really is easy to help others.  It really is easy to communicate healthy habits to others.  It really is easy to reach out across culture divides, to overcome the fear derived by the response to what is foreign by celebrating the joy discovered in what is shared.  We do great things here at Shoulder to Shoulder, miraculous things, tear-jerking heroic things.  Our brigades come down because they want to be part of it, and they are.  They do miraculous things.  We are proud of our and their achievements as we should be.  Still it is sometimes the littlest things we do, the things most people wouldn’t notice or remember, that are the most powerful.  Someone thought enough to bring dinosaurs, dolphins, and stick-on costume jewelry.  Maybe even they didn’t think it would be that important, given all the heroic acts they would be involved in.  But forty-five years from now, one of those kids from the small schoolhouse in El Cerrón might remember the magic of a dinosaur.  Truly miraculous!!

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Christmas Tree, Honduras style

Christmas Tree, Honduras style

I hope everyone’s celebrations of the holidays were joyful and that your new year has started out with great expectations.   Laura and I truly enjoyed being home for a little more than two weeks.  Laura had some quality time to reconnect with her family since we were in Atlanta in September for the wake and funeral of her younger sister.  Nancy is well remembered.  Her spirit was certainly felt as we gathered around family tables at Christmas and the New Year.  Though we only saw them briefly for four days after the New Year, Laura’s children are doing wonderfully.  We travelled to upstate New York on the weekend after Christmas and visited all of my brother’s fast expanding family.  Last year I only had five grand nephews and nieces.  This year I have eight, two beautiful, identical twin sisters, Ava and Sonia, and Justine, their cousin.  Laura’s family has yet to begin the next generation, but Laura’s nephew Chris and his wife Kaitlin proudly passed around an ultra sound image that assures us all that soon a new epoch will begin.    This abundance of life and love that surrounds us in our families is so sacred.

I suppose we all could do better at recognizing what is really important as compared to some of the trivial things that often disproportionately occupy our time.  Laura and I really hit the jackpot with our housing arrangements while in the States.  Through the internet, a service called Airbnb, we rented a room in someone’s home in Springfield for $30 a night.  Good deal in and of itself, but it turns out that the owner decided to leave and stay in Oklahoma City for the whole time we were there.  We had his whole house to ourselves.  We enjoyed all the amenities we usually lack in Honduras.  We relished non-contaminated running water 24/7, full power electricity that didn’t go out, reliable internet, the ability to flush toilet paper down the toilet, and cable.  Even with all of that, I was annoyed that his cable service lacked ESPN and all the sports channels.  I mean, it was the college bowl season.  I tried to laugh at myself as if my complaint was really just sarcasm.  I live in a country where people feel fortunate to eat rice and beans seven days a week, and still I would complain that I can’t see the Rose Bowl?  Silly, right?  But my complaints, seemingly offered tongue in cheek, had a ring of truth in them.  I certainly felt that I had the right to watch sports as an American in America.  So much for my canonization campaign.

In the US there is just so much choice, so many gadgets and toys, aisles of soap detergent and toiletries, and billions of commercials for miracle products that will make your life perfect.  Why shouldn’t I get some of that?  When I’m there, I’m like everyone else.  I want it all.  That’s why I like being here so much.  The choices just aren’t here.  Because they’re not here, I don’t want them.  And because I don’t want them, I’m content.  Hopefully, maybe just a little, I can figure out what is really important when all the noise and distraction is taken away.

Laura and I did not exchange Christmas presents this year.  We managed something of a token gift for our friends and family.  But they were very small; symbolic expressions of our love and gratitude.  I think they were well received.  Many people were very generous with us and we were certainly grateful.  Mostly we enjoyed having some time with everyone with whom we hoped to have time.

"Congratulations, Laura"

“Congratulations, Laura”

Monday was Laura’s birthday.  I published it on Facebook and she received a plethora of Happy Birthdays.  We asked a few friends over on Tuesday night, a simple, humble gathering.  We wanted to keep it very small because, even though our house is ample in space, we only have six chairs and a couch.  The party was scheduled for six pm., but at four-thirty one of the invitees called and asked if she could bring three more of the doctors from the clinic.  Knowing that in Honduras there is always room for more people, we agreed.  We ordered Chinese take-out from the same restaurant that saved our Thanksgiving meal.  He had plenty of fried rice.  He told me he could make fried chicken or a beef dish if I would come back tomorrow.  “But the party’s tonight,” I said.  We settled for pupusas.  That is a typical Honduran dish; a mass of corn meal, infused with cheese, squashed into a pancake, and fried.  Not exactly what I had in mind.  But the ten of us, six in straight back chairs and four squeezed onto the couch that barely sits three, ate well and heartily laughed at our ‘Chinese’ cuisine.  I felt like I had let Laura down because I had no cake.  The previous day in the neighboring town a family learned it was her birthday and surprised us with a cake, “Congratulations, Laura” etched in icing.  All I had was an assortment of Hostess style cakes (imitations of the good ones you are used to in the States) that I purchased at one of the local snack stores.  But we put a candle in the middle of the tray, sang Happy Birthday in Spanish and English, and she blew out the candle.  Though it was hardly a butter cream marvel, we all seemed to enjoy it.

Prof Iris, Laura and Mejia family

Prof Iris, Laura and Mejia family

Everyone was smiling and having a good time.  What more could we want?  All but three guests left.  Those three would be traveling with us on an early morning bus, so we put them up.  One had a bed and a mattress (luxury), one had a mattress on the floor (acceptable), and the third got the 3-4 seater couch (at least it’s a horizontal cushioned surface).  I didn’t turn on any sports because we don’t have cable.  Actually, we don’t even have a television.  Oh well, I don’t think I really missed it that much.