Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Winter is officially here. We had a gully-washer of a thunderstorm a few days back, and since then nightly rains. The rains are late this year, and the heat had become almost unbearable, but the regular rainfalls help keep temperatures reasonable.

It's hard for someone from the Pacific Northwest (where it is still 50 degrees and raining on June 1st) to think of El Salvador's rainy season as winter - but this is the season when travel gets difficult because of mud and floods, when you have to look at the sky before leaving the house, when the mosquitoes and flies and toads come out to play, when - a little further on - absolutely everything gets damp, mildewy, soggy. So it's reasonable enough to call it winter, the more challenging of the two seasons.

Meanwhile, we are in the transition period, which is the classic time for catching a cold in El Salvador...plenty of sniffles all around. Farmers have started their corn crop, and have been waiting anxiously for the rains to catch up with them. Now they have: primero Dios, this year's crop of corn and beans will be big and healthy, unlike those of the last two years when dry weather came at the wrong time.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A source of comedy indeed

During our surgical mission, I spent time in the afternoons with our volunteers from San Rafael Cedros, Yanci and Victoria (in the photo with Iris Alas, our Cedros coordinator). Yanci and Victoria were gigglers, and they found my Spanish pretty hilarious from time to time (as it is from time to time). So I tried to explain to them that one of my goals was to be a source of comedy for Salvadorans - only instead of saying that I wanted to be a fuente de comedia, I heard myself saying that I wanted to be a fuente de comida, a source of food. And, strangely enough, they thought that was really pretty funny.

Onward to further adventures in mangling the beautiful Spanish language!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sweet retreat

Lately our mission groups have stayed in retreat houses during the week, a choice that gives us an unbeatable combination of good food, quiet (except for the critters, see below), beautiful surroundings, and simple lodgings. Our eye surgery group, like the February General Medical Mission volunteers, stayed at the Casa de Retiro Santisima Trinidad - the Holy Trinity Retreat House - in Candelaria, about 20 minutes away from our work place, the Hospital Nacional de Cojutepeque.

Santisima Trinidad is run by the Carmelite Sisters of Saint Teresa, the same community that runs the Hospital Divina Providencia, the cancer hospice in San Salvador where Monseñor Romero lived and died. They're a lively and friendly group of Sisters and we've enjoyed getting to know Sisters Mari, Paty, Francesca and Amparo.

Santisima Trinidad is set on the hills above Lake Ilopango, and the chapel and dining room look out on the lake. The gardens are full of flowers, especially at this season-changing time of the year. And the beautiful fountain - it's the trinitarian fountain of St. John of the Cross - is home to toads with some of the deepest, loudest, and most demanding calls I've ever heard. There was also a nightly dog chorus...but after the first night, we mostly slept through it all.

Indeed, a sweet retreat, and a perfect home for our mission team.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A week well spent

Sometimes in the last few weeks it looked as if our cataract surgery week would never happen. We hadn't registered as many patients as usual in San Rafael Cedros in February and half of the patients we registered didn't go to Hospital Cojutepeque for the required pre-surgery tests. One of our surgeons was unable to get the required Apostille (look it up on the internet!) for his license and curriculum vitae in time, and he couldn't come. The other surgeon mistakenly sent in last year's license, duly Apostilled, and I didn't even notice until the Medical Board called me. The paperwork for our franquisia (permission to import medications and supplies) was delayed in the Archdiocese because of a staffing change until too late. In the last couple of days before the mission team arrived on May 14th, it felt like a recipe for disaster.

Instead, it's been a wonderful and inspiring week, and a reminder to me that trust and patience are such necessary elements in this work. The hospital found us enough additional patients to keep our team busy each day of the week. The customs officers at the airport very kindly helped us find a way around the franquisia problem. And while we brought only one ophthalmologist, the amazing Dr. Tony Piscano (the Medical Board kindly said he could work as long as he had his current license with him), Dra. Ana Vilma de Burgos, a local ophthalmologist and our sponsor for SEE, International, worked with him for three of our five days. Our team performed 40 surgeries on 33 patients (we had a number who required more than one surgery). Our patients came away smiling, delighted with their new vision.

Our mission team had three Salvadoran members this time: Silvia Pleitez, a Salvadoran doctor now studying for a medical license in the U.S., has been on most of our mission trips; Rosy Melara, a recently retired scrub nurse, volunteered her time for the week; and Rosa Aguiar, a community organizer from Comasagua, joined us as patient coordinator for the third time. Here's Rosa wheeling a patient in for his post-op check.

I'm grateful to the Sisters and friends who responded to my urgent calls for prayer for this mission: as you can tell, they were abundantly answered. Thanks be to God!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Yesterday, Tomorrow

Yesterday... I almost forgot to post a photo of my friends from Agua Escondida (hidden water - it's the name of a colonia of San Juan Opico) who came for lunch on Sunday and treated me to an amazing concert. I met this great group in 2010, when we had our general medical mission in San Juan Opico. Carmen and Chita, the two singers (their friend Toño is singing with them in the photo), were volunteers during the mission, and the group sang to welcome us and bid us farewell. They've been singing together for 25 years, and sing many of their own songs - Chita has quite a collection of lyrics for any occasion. The instruments and music are traditionally Salvadoran with a lot of punch - I hope to post a video someday when I don't have a mission group coming tomorrow. The three instruments in this photo are, left to right, the requinto, which is tuned higher than a guitar and plays melody; the bijuela, a small guitar, and the bajo, or bass; the two guitars are out of the photo on the right.

Tomorrow, well tomorrow the surgery mission team arrives at the airport at 7:45pm. I didn't iron 10 shirts this time, it's too hot; instead I chose all my iron-free tops, and ironed 3. But still, I'm ready. Primero Dios, may this coming week be a blessing for many.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ojala que llueve

¡Ojalá que llueve! - if only it would rain! That's how we're all feeling now at the end of the dry season as it gets hotter and hotter and hotter, with no rains to provide a bit of divine air-conditioning. The water around is coming out of our bodies instead: it's hard to drink enough to replenish what I'm sweating out. I'll confess that these temperatures have made it really pleasant to get into the project car (air-conditioned) and drive to the city to make those last-minute preparations for our surgery group, arriving on Saturday for a week of cataract surgeries at the almost-new and very welcoming Hospital Nacional de Cojutepeque. That's the national hospital for Cuscatlán, the departamento we live in.

¡Ojalá que llueve! I love this phrase because it recalls the time, centuries ago, when Spain was a Moslem country. Ojalá was a petition to God, O Allah, and is one of many Arabic words that are inextricably woven into the Spanish language. I'd also want to say tonight "¡Ojalá que todo vaya bien con nuestra misión!" - may all go well with our mission, with the group and their work next week for the people of Cuscatlán.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

It's been a long blog silence, for a couple of reasons. I've been really, really busy this past week, getting ready (I hope) for our cataract surgery brigade, and that process has been more complicated than usual. But the real reason is that I've been shocked and deeply saddened by Gema Rodriguez' death. My usual reaction in such times is to go inside - which may be helpful to me, but doesn't do much for anyone else.

So I'm breaking silence to tell you a little bit about how Gema was lovingly waked and buried. It's hugely different from death in the U.S. where an undertaker shows up in a black suit and whisks the body away. Here the undertaker - not sure if there's a comparable term in español - showed up at Hospital Bloom in a pickup truck, wearing jeans and a tight shirt. She and the pickup and Sonia, Gema's mother, went in together to reclaim the body and put it in the coffin - which must have been, like everything that day, a nightmare for Sonia.

Meanwhile, other family members had come to Bloom to be with Sonia. They and the pretty white coffin rode together in the back of the pickup, while I drove Sonia and a couple more folk back toward San Juan Opico. Thanks to the great generosity of one of the donors who has been helping Gema and the family, we were able to pay for the funeral and burial expenses. It's not much from a U.S. standpoint, but it would have been a crushing and impossible burden for this poor family.

Gema was waked together with an aunt of Sonia's who had died on the same day in Hospital Rosales, the San Salvador national hospital. The two coffins sat in state for a day and two nights in a room in the community where most of Sonia's family lives, and people came to pray and visit and drink coffee and sit in the plastic chairs supplied by the funeral home, while the turkeys and geese and ducks wandered around outside. The larger family, like many here, is a mixture of Catholic and Evangelical, and the prayers and music were various.

When I arrived on Tuesday, the yard and house were packed. All the schoolchildren from Gema's school had come to say goodbye to their friend, all the family and neighbors were there, including Gema's sisters Julia and Kelly and her brother Jarrison. Two pickup trucks had been transformed into hearses by the addition of glass-sided catafalques and holders for flowers. Family members carried out the two coffins, and we processed slowly to the graveyard. Normally, it's a true procession, with the mourners walking behind the coffin, but the distance was a little too great for that, so we - the two pickup hearses, a large number of pickups and trucks full of people, and a couple of cars, including mine - drove, but at a funereal walking pace of about 2 miles an hour.

At the graveyard the coffins were arranged for a final viewing, prayers (Evangelical) were said, the coffins were lowered, and young men took on the work of shoveling as we all stood in silence.
This week Sonia's mother, who represents the Catholic side of the family, has been holding the nightly rosary that will culminate in the ultimado, a night of mourning and celebration, on the 8th day.

These final rites are very direct, very beautiful, and very matter-of-fact in El Salvador, where death is so much more frequently a part of a family's life. The richer folk in this country may be buried in one of the grand new cemetaries with astroturf carpets available to hide the earthiness of the grave, but most Salvadorans will come to country graveyards followed by a procession of those who loved them. To my eyes, these ceremonies are fitting and loving, but nothing takes away the sorrow left by the death of a beloved child.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A sad goodbye to Gema

Gema Rodriguez, a lovely, bright eleven-year-old girl, died on Sunday from toxic shock syndrome that was most probably a complication of lupus.

Dr. Dale Heisinger met Gema during our 2010 general medical mission in San Juan Opico and loved her bravery under great physical pain, her flashing smile, and her sweet nature. Dale sent Gema some school supplies, which she treasured, and, through Dale, I connected with Gema and her family - her mother, Sonia, sisters Julia and Kelly, and brother Jarrison.

Dale became Gema's honorary godfather, and he, his wife Jane, and Kris Keough Forte joined forces to assist single-mother Sonia and the family with much needed living resources. The friendship with Dr. Dale and Jane and with Sister Kris was a great joy to Gema during a time when she confronted health crisis after health crisis.

In the last two weeks of her life, Gema faced two crises of vomiting and diarrhea; she was treated for the first at Hospital Benjamin Bloom, the children's hospital in San Salvador, and released feeling pretty good. She went back home, took her exams for entry to the 6th grade, and had received grades of 8 (a very good grade here) on the ones she'd done so far. She fell ill again after taking her last exam, and Sonia again took her to Hospital Bloom, but the doctors were unable to stabilize her. In her last hours, she told her mother "ya me voy," - I'm leaving - and told her not to cry.

But we are crying, all of us who knew and loved this beautiful girl. She is free from pain now, she lives with God now - but she's no longer with us, and so we cry.