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Time and compassion: Volunteers with the Waves of Health medical nonprofit dedicate themselves to helping the underserved 

The pills are huge, bleached white with “IP 220” stamped on one side, and they’re pouring out of a bottle you need two hands to hold. 

It’s metformin, a drug used to treat type II diabetes. Two residents (doctors in training), a medical school student, and I are measuring six-month supplies into zip-lock bags. A small tag reads: “Metformin 1000 mg 1/2 pastilla al dia,” informing the would-be diabetes patient to take half a pill per day—500 milligrams. 

Next up on the repackaging list are 150-milligram pastel orange capsules of doxycycline, an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections such as urinary tract infections, chlamydia, gum disease, and acne. We count out 14 per bag—enough to take twice daily for seven days. 

Two doors down, eight to 10 pharmacists unpack suitcases of bottles and boxes, stacking them onto makeshift shelves. Amoxicillin, Visine, Motrin, vitamin A supplements, acetaminophen, deworming medication, cough syrup, and dozens of other things that I can’t pronounce or explain. One door down, volunteers organize medical-grade gauze, bandages, and tape; machines that check blood sugar levels; Old Navy flip-flops; toothpaste; and toothbrushes. 

click to enlarge NOT FUN:  A mother holds her child close while Dr. Shadi Lanham (pictured), Dr. Rasha Aurshiya, and med student Afsha Aurshiya check the dark-colored spots on his skin. Waves of Health treated more than 1,200 patients during five days of clinics. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • NOT FUN: A mother holds her child close while Dr. Shadi Lanham (pictured), Dr. Rasha Aurshiya, and med student Afsha Aurshiya check the dark-colored spots on his skin. Waves of Health treated more than 1,200 patients during five days of clinics.

All of it was shuttled via plane from New York to Santiago in the Dominican Republic; via bus from Santiago to Dajabòn, which is a border town near Haiti; and via hand into a Catholic school in Barrio Sur. For the next five days, this schoolhouse will serve off and on as a Waves of Health clinic. Although the clinic doesn’t start until later this afternoon, the din of Dominicans and Haitians huddling under the eaves careens off cement walls through open window slats.

It’s Nov. 2, 2015, and rain is pouring off the corrugated metal roof of an open-air classroom just outside the door. The air is thick and sweaty. A boy of about 7 years old peers into our room, big eyes and a blue and red striped shirt looking into a room without electric light. More heads join him, giggling in the doorway.

Ramon Perez, a Dominican man in baggy shorts and a pale blue scrub top, gruffly yells out a number above the low murmur, sending the family that responds to a teenage volunteer who can help them fill out paperwork.

Age; number of kids; medical history; what medications they’re taking/have taken; whether they have access to toilets, cell phones, and running water. As the clinic gets moving, another volunteer will take height and weight, while yet another will take blood pressure, test blood sugar, and try to figure out what’s ailing them. 

Then they will wait for a doctor, a resident, a fellow, or a nurse. 

click to enlarge HEAD FUNGUS:  This is the very first patient of the day in Bahia, a village near Dajabòn. The scabby yellow skin peeling off his head is a skin fungus. Unfortunately, the child is also diagnosed with scabies. The clinic pharmacy has medication to treat both. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • HEAD FUNGUS: This is the very first patient of the day in Bahia, a village near Dajabòn. The scabby yellow skin peeling off his head is a skin fungus. Unfortunately, the child is also diagnosed with scabies. The clinic pharmacy has medication to treat both.

I am none of those things, but I’m here to help where I can, translate in broken Spanish, and be extremely proud of my sister (the doctor!). Shadi’s the smart one—at least, that’s what I tell people. This is her second mission with Waves of Health, a grassroots nonprofit based in New Jersey that makes two medical missions a year to this little school in Dajabòn and three other makeshift clinics in nearby villages. 

The city of about 40,000 is famous for its downtown market, to which Haitians often bring items given to them by various nonprofits. You can get a pair of Timberland boots and a down jacket for less than $10—made possible by the kind hearts of U.S. citizens who believe a country located near the equator is in desperate need of winter wear. Haiti is just steps over or through the Dajabòn River, and along its banks, women seem to always be hand-washing clothes and dishes.

Waves of Health lives to serve the health needs of the underserved in an already underserved part of the country, treating patients from both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It’s tiny compared to medical nonprofits such as Doctors without Borders, with each mission costing less than $40,000 to pull off and every single cent raised going into the mission for purchasing medication and other medical supplies that potential patients might need. Volunteers pay their own way—ticket, food, room, and board. 

The medical backgrounds of those volunteers are what make Waves of Health work. They are the people who make it possible for the various clinics to see and dispense medication to more than 1,200 people per mission.

The right thing

Dr. Christopher Boni, who helped found the nonprofit, meanders in and out of the rooms, checking in with the volunteers who are on their first medical mission, helping diagnose when it’s necessary. He says revisiting the same area every six months or so ensures a continuum of care that most of the patients seeking treatment from Waves of Health wouldn’t get otherwise. 

click to enlarge TESTING:  Peace Corps volunteer Claire Dal Nogare points to the letters of vision test on the wall in a makeshift medical clinic in Sabana Larga. Dal Nogare and four other Peace Corps volunteers based in the Dominican Republic helped translate in Spanish and English during the latter part of the week. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • TESTING: Peace Corps volunteer Claire Dal Nogare points to the letters of vision test on the wall in a makeshift medical clinic in Sabana Larga. Dal Nogare and four other Peace Corps volunteers based in the Dominican Republic helped translate in Spanish and English during the latter part of the week.

“We can’t just go treat, hand out medication, and not come back. We need to make a commitment,” he says. 

That way, the person who was prescribed diabetes medication six months ago can get a checkup and another six-month supply. The patient with high blood pressure can get his medication adjusted. The mother who needed prenatal care last time can get her new baby checked out. The teenage boy whose hand is infected and swollen can look forward to getting it fixed. 

Boni, a slender man with gray hair who’s New Jersey straight-to-the-point, is my sister’s attending. Shadi reports to him from the hospital she’s doing her residency at, Saint Michael’s in Newark. Bringing residents like my sister on these medical missions is important to Boni: It gets them out of the hospital, full of high-tech machines, lab tests, and protocols. It puts them in this real-world situation where they can’t just order a full set of labs for blood work. They have to use the breadth of knowledge that’s been crammed into their brains—working through symptoms for diagnoses and using each other to come to the most viable conclusion. 

This whole thing started on the other side of the country, in an area near Santo Domingo with seven people and 17 duffel bags full of medication and equipment. That was in March 2007. In November 2015, there are more than 40 volunteers—physicians, pharmacists, nurses, technicians, EMTs, translators—and more than 45 checked bags full of medications and equipment. Boni and co-founder, Humberto Jimenez—a pharmacist with Dominican roots, started the nonprofit after that first year, moved it to an area that was desperate for health services, and have come back twice a year ever since. 

click to enlarge MED CENTRAL:  Although most of the medication and vitamins that Waves of Health brings on each mission are donated, the nonprofit spends between $8,000 and $12,000 per trip on medicine that it can’t procure through donations. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • MED CENTRAL: Although most of the medication and vitamins that Waves of Health brings on each mission are donated, the nonprofit spends between $8,000 and $12,000 per trip on medicine that it can’t procure through donations.

“I guess it’s going to be cliché, but it’s the right thing to do. You’ve got to follow through; you’ve got to keep it going,” Boni says. “And the other thing is, some young person will be inspired. That’s my secret wish.” 

From what I see, that wish is already a reality. One of the volunteers I spoke with, a nurse, said on that first day she was having a hard time. There’s no hot water anywhere, running water is intermittent, it’s hot, the food is basically starch (rice) and protein (beans, chicken, pork), and we are working out of classrooms—desks that have sheets thrown over them. She told me she thought she might have made a mistake in coming on the mission. 

But after working with patients all day, she changed her mind. We are making a difference in their lives, she says. They need this clinic. 

Several volunteers are young people who are “old timers”: They can’t get enough of that Waves of Health medical mission feeling and keep returning. Michael Bonifacio, a 30-year-old Walgreen’s pharmacy manager, is on his sixth medical mission with the nonprofit. He’s now a member of the Waves of Health board of directors and helps Jimenez organize the pharmacy, get money and medications donated, and recruit volunteers. 

click to enlarge GIFT OF SIGHT:  A patient tries on a pair of glasses to see if they’ll make it easier for him to read. On the November trip, Waves of Health paired more than 100 reading glasses with people who needed them. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • GIFT OF SIGHT: A patient tries on a pair of glasses to see if they’ll make it easier for him to read. On the November trip, Waves of Health paired more than 100 reading glasses with people who needed them.

It’s hard not to laugh around Bonifacio. He’s loud with a huge smile and quick wit, and Waves of Health fills the part of him that became a pharmacist to help the people that need it the most. That feeling is addicting.

“I can’t get enough. There’s still so many people we need to treat. Health care disparity has not been fixed,” he says. “I always say every trip I have a moment.”

We’re sitting on the bed in his hotel room. It’s the night of Nov. 4; we’d just completed the third day of the clinic. He starts telling me about this woman he encountered yesterday with bad arthritis. 

“Literally, the lady couldn’t bend her fingers because they were so swollen from the infection,” he says. He grabbed some steroid crème and sprayed it on her hands. Within five minutes she could bend those fingers. “To see the actual look on her face. She was so happy.” 

He asked her to come back so he could check on her. Tomorrow afternoon, the makeshift clinic in Barrio Sur will be strictly for follow-ups from earlier in the week. Today, we traveled to a campo known as Bahia. Later in the week, we will also set up clinics in the campos of Sabana Larga and Aviacione. 

“The mission never ends. There’s always continuity,” Bonifacio says. “The story never ends.” 

In translation

click to enlarge HOW TO :  Pharmacist Michael Bonifacio gives directions to a mother about the prescriptions her children are receiving from the clinic. That list includes multivitamins. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • HOW TO : Pharmacist Michael Bonifacio gives directions to a mother about the prescriptions her children are receiving from the clinic. That list includes multivitamins.

Translating is exhausting. For me, for my sister, for the poor people we’re trying to communicate with. Shadi’s Spanish is better than mine, but still. When a patient looks at you with a big question mark on their face, it’s easy to feel defeated. I start tripping up on the same words I’ve been using all day long. 

“Tiene problemas?” I ask a 16-year-old sitting on a desk covered in a sheet. It’s a makeshift exam table. She’s wearing a short red dress with lace-like designs cut into the back of it. I’m crouched down so I’m not standing above her. 

My sister’s best friend Dr. Rasha Aurshiya listens as I explain that this young lady is looking for birth control. Rasha shakes her head. We don’t have any pills. We do have condoms and sex education material, though. 

She was the only patient we saw in five days who asked for birth control. Many of the teenage girls who come to us already have a child or two and have one more on the way. Birth control can be a touchy subject, as most of the schools that Waves of Health works with to put on the clinics are Catholic organizations in an extremely Catholic country. I apologize and tell her she needs to go see a Dominican doctor.

Talking to Jimenez, the pharmacist, birth control is something the clinic might look into in the future. For now, Boni says, the clinic will treat patients to the best of its ability. You can only treat what you can treat with limited medications and equipment and no ability to send out for labs. 

“If you help one person, then it’s worth it,” Boni says. “So you don’t save the world, but you save one kid.”

Most of the visits are short, quick. We try to help as many people as we can each day. Shadi works with Afsha, Rasha’s sister who is currently in medical school, and I work with Rasha. 

click to enlarge BARRIO SUR:  The Waves of Health medical nonprofit visits this impoverished neighborhood in the Dominican Republic border city of Dajabòn twice a year. A border crossing into Haiti is less than a five-minute walk away. Waves also set up clinics in Bahia, Aviacione, and Sabana Larga during the first week of November 2015. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • BARRIO SUR: The Waves of Health medical nonprofit visits this impoverished neighborhood in the Dominican Republic border city of Dajabòn twice a year. A border crossing into Haiti is less than a five-minute walk away. Waves also set up clinics in Bahia, Aviacione, and Sabana Larga during the first week of November 2015.

“Tengo gripe,” many of them complain. “Me duele la cabeza.” “Tengo problemas en mi estomago.” “Mareado.” 

It seems like everyone has the flu. Their heads hurt. Their stomachs hurt. They’re dizzy. Many of the adults have high blood pressure and diabetes. My sister tells almost all of them to eat less salt and drink more water as she writes them a prescription. For most of them, we are the primary care doctor and the pharmacy. Medication can be prohibitively expensive. And unless you’ve got money for a private doctor, you’re option is the state-run hospital in Dajabòn—which is sort of an emergency-only option, and that’s if you can find the transportation to get to the hospital. 

The high blood pressure or diabetes medication Waves of Health provides could prolong their life, Boni says. 

Some of the kids are really sick. You can see it in their eyes: They have that glassed-over look. On day three, our first patient walks into our dimly lit “exam room” (a classroom) with his grandmother in tow. They sit at desks with attached chairs, a big blackboard behind them with the days of the week taped to it. Scabby yellow skin is peeling off his black head. Dry white skin is patched in with the yellow. 

Rasha snaps on a pair of purple surgical gloves—latex free—and gently touches his head, tilting him this way and that way to get a better look. It’s a gnarly skin fungus. She stretches his arm out, noticing circles of dry, darker skin. He also has scabies.

- MISSION VOLUNTEER:  Volunteers commit to paying their own way and working five days of medical clinics in four different locations in the Dominican Republic. To find out more about Waves of Health, visit thewavesofhealth.org. -
  • MISSION VOLUNTEER: Volunteers commit to paying their own way and working five days of medical clinics in four different locations in the Dominican Republic. To find out more about Waves of Health, visit thewavesofhealth.org.

My sister asks his grandmother if the other children in the household sleep in the same room, the same bed, are experiencing the same symptoms. Grandma nods her head. Shadi writes a prescription to treat both ailments so there’s enough for the other kids, too. 

Rasha then listens to grandma’s heartbeat; Shadi asks her questions about health; Afsha checks her blood sugar levels. I point to “La Pharmacia” across the outdoor hallway. That’s where they’ll get what they need. 

Executive Editor Camillia Lanham can’t wait to go back. Send comments to clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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