Folks from Acadiana join a Louisiana mission team to provide medical relief to the people of Barahona, Dominican Republic.
September 25, 2002
Deacon Don Leger helps an expectant mother with her five children.On a Sunday morning in August, the parishioners of Jesus Peregrino (Jesus The Pilgrim), wait patiently on wooden pews. They are mostly women and children. The rector of the church, Father Smith Milen, is delaying the Eucharist until their guests arrive.
Oscillating fans mounted to the walls are purring and stirring the warm air. The aluminum louvers in the windows are opened, letting a breeze into the room. Behind the concrete altar, written on the wall in red letters are the words La iglesia haciendo el trabajo de dios, “The church doing the work of God.”
Before there was a church on this little piece of land in Barahona, Dominican Republic, it was a dump. It was home to the neighborhood’s trash, what couldn’t be reused or burned. But today, the cinder block building is the finest in the neighborhood, even though the second story is still under construction. Steel reinforcement bars protrude from the concrete like thorns. As long as the church remains under construction, they won’t have to pay taxes on the building.
Twenty-six people from Louisiana, the medical mission team, finally arrive. The group consists of two doctors, two dentists, two pharmacists and four nurses. The rest of the team provides support for the medical staff.
Forest Gremillion of Opelousas is a veteran of the annual mission. He has been on every trip since it began four years ago.
“It’s different cultures coming together to achieve a common goal, to treat these people and keep them well,” he says. “I answered a call. I don’t have a goal down here. God called me to work, and I answered.”
The church service is more relaxed than an American church service. The people walk in and out of the church as they please. Some kids are cutting up and catching the evil eye from their mothers.
An old man, hunched over, wanders into the church with his straw hat in his hands. He looks confused, and he can’t find a place to sit. A young man sitting in the front pew leaves his seat and walks down the aisle. He takes the old man by the hand and leads him to the front pew.
Deacon Don Leger is the canon missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana. He coordinates mission work for the diocese, under the direction of Bishop Robert J. Hargrove Jr. Leger also serves as an assistant to Father Mike Adams at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Lafayette.
“We’re not going down there to save anybody,” Leger says. “Our goal isn’t to save souls. We just try to love them, just as Jesus would do.”
The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, where the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean meet, east of Cuba and Jamaica and west of Puerto Rico. The rest of the island is occupied by Haiti. It’s a land of deserts, rainforests, beaches and plush valleys. There are 8 million people living in the Dominican Republic, and 3 million of them live in the capital city of Santo Domingo.
The national language is Spanish, and 95 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Nearly 60 percent of the people work in either a government job or a service-related field. Fourteen percent of the population is unemployed, and about 20 percent of the population is illiterate. It’s a Third World country, plagued with the problems of poverty, deforestation, water shortages, coastal erosion, contaminated water and unreliable electricity.
The United States Agency for International Development estimates that 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and that the per capita annual income is $2,326, about $194 a month.
At one time, the major exports of the Dominican Republic were rum, sugar and tobacco. Today, the nation’s primary industry is tourism. Like all tourist destinations, the economy has suffered since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
The Dominican Republic’s political system, a representative democracy, is shaky at best. Revolutions, coups d’etat and insurrections have plagued the nation’s history since its independence from Haiti in 1844. The most recent revolution occurred in 1965.
The unstable political system makes for an edgy populace, where civil unrest is a part of everyday life. Just two blocks away from Jesus Peregrino, two days before the mission team arrived, locals burned tires and rioted in protest over an increase in taxes. The government raised the road toll from 5 pesos to 15 pesos for cars (about 30 cents to almost 90 cents) and from 5 pesos to 25 pesos for minivans (about 30 cents to $1.50). When the police arrived at the protest, they opened fire on the crowd, killing one young man who lived near the church.
Another mission team working at the church only a week before the Louisiana group’s arrival was led out of the church on two separate occasions because of civil unrest within the community. The danger is not in the Dominicans turning their aggression toward Americans, but in the police force showing up and opening fire without asking questions.
Just two weeks ago, after the medical mission team had returned to Louisiana, violence erupted again. In Santo Domingo, protestors burned tires and hurled Molotov cocktails at police, who retaliated with tear gas. Two people were killed and more than 50 people injured.
Private power companies had cut off the electricity until the government agreed to pay $90 million of the $200 million it owes. While electrical blackouts are common, they usually last for only a few hours. But after days with no electricity, the Dominicans where unable to draw water from their wells with their electric pumps.
The theft of electricity is more common than the blackouts. The electrical poles on the roadside are perches for tangled, deadly nests of electrical wires. The Dominicans shimmy up the poles and tap into the electrical lines whenever they need power. Consequently, one of the leading causes of death is electrocution.
There are at least 100 people, and sometimes more, waiting at the gate in the mornings when the mission team arrives. They crowd together in the shade. A woman has set up a stand where she sells sandwiches to those waiting all day. They are all Haitian refugees.
For 10 pesos (about 60 cents), a villager can see either a dentist or a doctor and receive any needed medication at no additional charge.
Patients enter through the front gate guarded by parishioners. The church has sold a limited number of tickets in advance for the clinic. Half of the money raised goes to the church, and the other half goes to the Episcopal Diocese of the Dominican Republic. The two entities split the $462 collected during the three and a half days.
The church serves as a waiting room and a makeshift triage unit, where two mission team members gather information about the patients and document their symptoms. While a few of the mission members know some Spanish, team members in the triage must have a working knowledge of the language. It’s imperative to specify the patients’ symptoms so that the doctors can effectively diagnose the problems.
Another difficulty is getting the patients to wait their turn. Waiting in line is a foreign concept in a world where every day of your life is spent fighting for what little you have. Occasionally arguments between women over their rightful place in line have to be resolved by church members.
After a patient’s blood pressure is checked, he waits again before being led to the parish hall, where there are three nurses’ stations, two doctors’ stations and two dentists at work.
The majority of the patients are children, and most of them are treated for upper respiratory problems, caused by ash from the burning sugarcane fields and the smoke from cooking meals inside their homes over open fires without sufficient ventilation. Every child is treated for intestinal parasites, a result of the contaminated water that they ingest and use for bathing.
All day long, the dentists extract teeth. They use flashlights to see inside the patients’ mouths while they work. Most patients are prescribed only Tylenol-3 for their pain. Dr. Richard Campbell of Minden says the patients complain very little of the pain and seldom cry. He says, “These people are stoic. They are used to discomfort.”
There are times when the visible signs of poverty become overwhelming. One afternoon while the team is eating lunch, a woman walks to the window of the parish hall and motions to her mouth for food. Women from the church give her a few plantains, but she hangs around, waiting for everyone to finish in hopes of getting the leftovers. She is given a pot of rice, and she walks back into the barrios.
But after that pot of rice is gone, where will she go? Will she return to the church for more food or will she beg other strangers? It’s a sinking feeling to realize that no matter how much you work and no matter how much you give, you are only placing a Band-Aid on cancer. But if a Band-Aid is all you have, it’s what you use.
People come in and out all day long, and while the faces of the people change, they are still faces devoid of hope. The team works in the heat, from morning into the early evening, in a din of crying children and mothers fighting over their place in line. At times it seems futile, as if all the work is never enough, that it’s only a drop in a rusty bucket already riddled with holes.
Leger says that the team must ignore the hopeless in order to do the work they have been called to do.
“We could be here every day for the next 10 years and not meet the health needs of this one neighborhood,” he says. “Their needs are so great.”
After his first trip to Barahona, Leger dreamed of the Dominicans’ faces for weeks. It’s a sight and a feeling that sticks with you long after you’ve returned home.
The pharmacy is situated in the vestibule of the church, and it’s a constant hive of commotion. The patients wait in a semblance of a line for their medication. A mission worker explains what each medicine is, what it’s for and how to properly take it. Every patient receives the necessary medicine, acetaminophen and a 30-day supply of vitamins.
At one point, the pharmacy runs out of parasite medicine and amoxicillin, an antibiotic used to treat the children’s upper respiratory problems. Leger leaves the clinic and returns with the whole town’s supply. He spends $375 for 115 bottles of amoxicillin and 80 bottles of the parasite medicine.
For three and a half days, the mission team members work all day, with a 30-minute break for lunch. They manage to treat 771 people, an average of 220 patients a day.
Most of the Dominicans and the Haitians live in the inner city slums. Work in the fields is scarce, so they flock to the cities in search of jobs. They live in cinder block boxes painted in bold shades of pink, yellow, turquoise and baby blue. Under the rusted tin roofs, an entire family lives in the one room.
They might also have a modern luxury, like a solid oak dining room set or a big screen television. At first it’s peculiar seeing such indulgences amid the poverty. But in time, you begin to realize there is little hope here, that every day is a rainy day and, since there’s nothing to save, they live for today, because a better tomorrow is only a distant dream.
Where there isn’t dirt, there’s trash. Driving to the church one morning through the barrios, you might see a woman sweeping the dirt from the sidewalk in front of her small house with Styrofoam and plastic littering her yard. They burn their trash, and there is a constant flurry of ash floating in the air, creating an eerie effect of a gray snowfall.
Their medical problems could be lessened through the use of soap and water. It seems simple enough – soap and water – but it’s not that easy. If they can afford soap for their families, finding a clean water supply is less probable. The church’s well, where children in the community draw water for their families, is probably tainted with the waste that sat on the site for years before the church was built there.
Sometimes, when you’re working, you feel as if you’re not doing enough. You work. You sweat. You do all you can, and they never stop coming into the clinic. It’s agonizing to see the despair in their eyes, but it’s heartbreaking to do nothing about it.
What you do come to realize is that all people want the same things. A home. A loving family. A full stomach. A smile. A handshake. A kind word. You might not speak their language, but there are some things in life that don’t require words.
A mission team requires not only doctors, dentists and nurses, but also individuals who are flexible enough to work where they are needed. Here are the people who participated in the medical mission trip to Barahona, Dominican Republic.
Dr. Wiley Baldridge, Shreveport
Ian Baldridge, Shreveport
Mary Ann Bernard, Lafayette
Aaron Broadwell, Shreveport
Louise Broadwell, Shreveport
Hooker Campbell, Minden
Lisa Campbell, Minden
Dr. Richard Campbell, Minden
Stuart Clason, Homer
Thomas Dalton, Keithville
Susan Doehling, Lafayette
Forest Gremillion, Opelousas
Deacon Don Leger, Opelousas
Noelle Leger, Opelousas
Ashley Moss, Homer
Junie O’Donnell, New Iberia
Jeri Olivier, Lafayette
Latonya Sibley, Shreveport
Angie Wadlington, Lafayette
Trent Wadlington, Lafayette
Cindy Walters, Church Point
Bridget Ware, Kinder
Dr. Bob Winston, Lafayette
Deirdre Winston, Lafayette
Lauren Winston, Lafayette
Pam Wood, Eunice