The Jungle Medic

Cruising does not always mean boisterous passages or cocktails on the aft deck at sunset. To the contrary, much of our time is spent exploring the country side and getting to know the local people. This approach for my wife Susan and I has enriched the experience far beyond what we expected when we moved aboard Sea Trek and started the cruising life almost 14 years ago. Beginning in mid April of 2005 the passage from the Florida Keys, down the coast of Mexico, and wandering through the many Cays in Belize has been wonderful. But that did not compare to our fantastic experience upon arriving on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. We had heard from many sources, of the wonderful work done here by Bryan Buchanan and his wife Riechelle. Bryan is a certified paramedic and has done a residency here with a family practitioner and he has also done some dental training. Both he and Riechelle have been Missionaries in third world countries for several years, the last few here in Guatemala. They primarily travel to remote villages that do not have access to medical care and set up their clinic for the day, but they will offer care and medication to anyone that might need it, including the local cruising community. Bryan and Riechelle are known locally here on the river as The Jungle Medic.

Each morning here on the river at 07:30 there is a cruisers net on VHF channel 69. So when the call went out for volunteers for one of Bryan’s clinics we jumped at the chance, and so did several others. Crew from Nueva Vida, Dragonet, Island Time, Anon, T.O. Sea, Morenga, Balance, Rose of Sharon, Bold Venture, Pegasus and of course our own Sea Trek answered the call. Arrangements were made by Bryan to pick up the individuals at the various Marinas in his van on Wednesday and we all met at Bryan's home just outside of town. The turnout was great and we had 25 volunteers for our "team". Bryan instructed us as to what to expect and how to set up for the clinic. We were all also issued scrubs for the purpose of showing the villagers that we were part of the team and there to help them as opposed to just a group of Gringos. Bryan also noted that this was a very large village by comparison to others he regularly visits and it was also a very sick village. Because he had needed to assemble a large enough group, but until now had been unable, the village had not been visited for almost a year. He generally tries to return every few months to the areas he has covered.
The next morning at 08:00 we set out in two vehicles. Bryan's van with a trailer in tow, carrying all the medical supplies, and a Jeep loaned to us by one of the local Marinas. The village was approximately 45 miles away. Once we had left the main paved road the going was considerably slower. After about an hour we reached the village and began to set up tables and the supplies on the front "porch" of two buildings of the school. Immediately after our arrival the villagers began to line up for what proved to be a long day. It had rained that morning and all of the grounds were muddy and it continued to rain off and on several times that day. We all received thorough instructions on just what our assignments were and exactly how to perform them. Once everything was ready and we were sure of what to do the first villagers started down the line.
This is not a true Medical Clinic in the sense that most might normally consider. There are no Doctors here most of the time. We had one other certified paramedic and two experienced nurses as part of the group. No one tries to diagnose serious illnesses or treat those that should see a doctor or be treated in a hospital. Those people are told they must go to one of the larger cities for appropriate treatment and Bryan frequently assists them by providing transportation. Our purpose there was to treat the most common problems related to the lifestyles and environment in which these people live. The most significant issues are infections that needed antibiotics, treatment of various types of worms that affected most of the children, and getting everyone some type of nutritional supplement since the local diets are very poor and lacking even the basics. This is indeed simply putting a band aid on a wound but as we saw it does make a difference in their lives and they do respond to it. 
This was a local village of the Kek'chi Mayan Indians. That does present somewhat of a language barrier since none speak any English and most do not even speak Spanish. And add to this the fact that there are over 20 different dialects. The few that spoke Spanish served as interpreters including the village Chief who helped in translating and keeping order as the day progressed. We could usually get the message across using some crude sign language. This village was very near a local tourist attraction so they were somewhat used to interacting with outsiders.

Each family was seen as group and at least one parent had to accompany any children. One thing that struck us right off was the lack of men waiting in line. We later found out that they usually won't come because it is not macho to stand in line with the women and children or to admit that you are sick. Many are also out working during the day. The line was very long and there were many children including some very young girls, only teens themselves, with three, four, and five children. These were the ones we were especially there to help. Riechelle kept control of the line and assigned numbers to each individual, but as a family group. The number was written on the back their hands so we could keep track.

Their first stop was at the table of either Bryan or the other paramedic, Mark. They determined the specific needs and wrote that down on a piece of paper with the number that coordinated to the one on their hand. They then moved to the next table, or station, and we would check their paper to see if they needed anything from our station. The paper needed to match the number on their hand since many mothers carried the papers for all their children. Most of the children required worm medicine which was liquid given orally. Next the children and adults were given vitamin supplements. They had been given instructions at the paramedic’s station by the interpreter as to when and how to take the pills or capsules. Next stop was for skin problems as well as eyes, and ears. Any needed antibiotics were applied by the team members. Their last stop was the pharmacy station. Each of the two pharmacy stations were manned by one of the two nurses on the team along with one helper that could at least speak Spanish. Since Susan speaks pretty good Spanish she was assigned to one of the pharmacy stations. Most of the items passed out there were some form of oral antibiotics to treat the infections diagnosed by the paramedics. There was a station set up in the middle of the school grounds at the town water pump. This station was to wash and treat the hair of the children infected with lice. We saw women and children from infants to ages I did not even want to guess.

We had started early in the morning and except for a quick lunch break finished up by mid afternoon. We saw, in all, almost 500 people. Several of us had brought along our digital cameras to photograph our experiences. The children were delighted to have us take their picture and then show them the results on the cameras LCD screen. Except for reflections in the water most had never seen an image of themselves. It was indeed a moving experience and we will jump at the chance to go again. At the end of the day we all had a good feeling inside and knew that we had made a difference in these peoples lives however small it might be. It also showed them that there were people out there that cared about their welfare. This was an experience that we will never forget. And the small space here really can not give it proper understanding.
At the end of the day we were all pretty tired but Bryan's offer to take us to the local tourist attraction, which happened to be a nearby waterfall, was too good to resist. We packed up everything in the vans and headed out. The waterfall is just across the river and a little up stream from the village. It originates from a hot spring on a cliff above that has a constant temperature of about 120 degrees. Pools at the top are better than any hot tub. The water fall tumbles into the very cool river below and the temperature difference leaves a mist on the water. You can swim from the very cool water in the river to the heated water as it runs down the waterfall. It is a great experience and we know why the tourists like to come here. This was the perfect end to an unforgettable day. As we were leaving the falls it rained again and we had a very cool drive back to our Marinas. We went to bed that night exhausted but satisfied that we had been able to give something back to these people that allowed us to share some of their beautiful country.

Bryan's clinics are not always conducted by layman. He has a group of Doctors from outside the country that participates on a regular basis and it is not unusual for him to have medical teams booked for a year in advance. He spends some time each year in the US speaking at various venues and is constantly finding medical folks willing to donate their time to this great cause. His funding comes from many private donations from folks that know of the good work he and Riechelle do, as well as a few churches that regularly donate to the cause. But funds are always needed and appreciated. Also many individuals as well as drug companies in the US regularly send donated medicines and vitamins. At the writing of this article Bryan is in the field with a full medical team for ten days.
Bryan and Riechelle also have a completely converted and fitted medical bus outfitted in the US and brought to Guatemala by the US Air Force. It has complete diagnostic, treatment and lab equipment as well as examining rooms. The bus will greatly improve the quality of care that Bryan and his teams will be able to provide these wonderful people. The United States Air Force graciously agreed to fly the bus down on a military transport. You can find out more about the work that Bryan and Riechelle do and see some wonderful photos from some of the villages they have visited. 

The website is and should not be missed. If anyone ever has the opportunity to come and visit here and participate in Bryan's clinic we highly recommend you do so. It might just be the experience of a lifetime. And you can sure bank a bunch of good karma. Chuck and Susan

1 comment:

  1. OK I love the whole thing! What a wonderful way to let us all know what you are doing. Sure hope your next cruise brings you back through Florida!
    Love you,
    Denise V.


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