After several months of emails and phone conversations, the group that will go to Cotui, Dominican Republic in March as part of Rita Severinghaus’ DR Projects program finally gathered in person.
It was not a gathering of strangers; all of us work at Dartmouth-Hitchcock or Dartmouth (or recently worked at D-H, in Raeann’s case). And we had a lot to talk about: hotel arrangements in Boston, malaria medication options, the arm-stinging pain of Hepatitis A shots, how good it will feel to wear a T-shirt in the Caribbean after a New England winter.
Rita, the leader of our group, had much to tell us: bring sturdy shoes or boots. Pack a water bottle. Cram all of your clothes for 10 days in a carry-on, and save your checked baggage allowance to take much-needed medical supplies to the DR.
We will be the 14th group Rita has led to Cotui since 2003. She asked us for care, attention, and open-mindedness during our trip. She explained that our time will be divided between being ambassadors and providing much-needed medical screenings and primary care at daily clinics.
Non-clinical folks like me will have support duties, from guarding our baggage to carrying water to translating from Spanish to English and back again. I’ll do some translating, and also help Tom Kidder with making a video about the impact that DR Projects has had in and around Cotui.
I’ll also be blogging during our travels, to hopefully provide some insight about what it’s like to be on a trip of this kind, where highly-skilled medical professionals donate their time and talents to help others, but feel that they are the ones who gain the most from the experience.
After we had eaten, after Rita had reviewed the extensive packet she had prepared for our orientation, she asked us each to share our motivations for going on this journey.
When Justin Krawitt, MD was 14, he visited his sister in West Africa, where she was serving in the Peace Corps. The month he spent there so impacted him that he’s traveled to about 70 countries since. Although he’s aware of the effect he can have as a physician in countries where medical care can be difficult to obtain, he said that “it’s hard to know whether what you’re doing is for others, or for your own soul.” This will be his third trip to the Dominican Republic.
Jennifer O’Flaherty, MD said that she “wants to find out what Rita does that’s so invigorating.” Like Justin, she has worked in other countries as a physician. She’ll go to central Africa on such a trip before returning to the States in time for our journey to the DR. An anesthesiologist, she commiserated with Justin about the difficulty of diagnosing conditions without ultrasound machines.
Raeann Hodgson, RN, recently left Dartmouth-Hitchcock to work in home care in Maine, where she has seen that “people can be very happy with very little.” She wanted to come on the trip because she saw how excited Chris DiPaola was about her own trip with Rita a year ago.
Dwayna Covey said that she thought about joining the Peace Corps as a teenager, and wonders about what she may have missed. She was impressed when Rita said that to Dominicans, relationships are always the most important thing. She looks forward to challenging herself through this journey.
Chris DiPaola, RN, said that her previous trip with Rita was truly “life-changing.” She said that we are fortunate to work at a place like DHMC, where people are continually pushing the bounds of medicine, but that in the Dominican Republic, a donated tube of toothpaste can make a huge difference. Since her initial trip, she and Rita arranged a medical shadowing experience at DHMC for two medical students from the Dominican Republic.
Tom Kidder spent several years living in India, and feels that life in what some term “developing countries” is more human, more realistic. He struggled coming back to the United States, explaining that it was “a bit like going from wheat bread to white bread.” He’s volunteering his time and expertise in making videos to promote DR Projects, and to help prepare more people to take on this experience.
Lourdes Gutiérrez Nájera bonded with Rita as two Latinas living in the Upper Valley. Like Rita, Lourdes travels regularly to Latin America, and has worked with a women’s group in Oaxaca, Mexico since 1995. She says that she “always learns more from the women than what I feel I can offer to them.”
And for me? I jumped at the chance to return to Latin America. I love the continual challenge of improving my Spanish, and eating plantains, and how every day in Mexico or El Salvador or Puerto Rico is shot through with music and color in a way that we can barely imagine here.
But what I’ll be carrying with me most strongly is the memory of being 19 years old, of living deep in Costa Rican ranching country on a semester away from college. I remember the rolling, grazed hills, yes, and the Friday nights at the rudimentary disco in the next town over, and the kids selling fruit and frozen juices and Cokes in baggies at the train stops – hands reaching up to receive your money as you reach down from your open window – but I remember most the openness of the people, the way my host family took me in and loved me in a way that still surprises and energizes me 25 years later.
It’s the relationships, Rita said, that come first. I was touched by how we all have our stories, the things that we will be carrying, our memories and hopes and expectations for this journey.
I think it will be a great trip.