100×35. Upon the Longest Mile of My Volunteer Humanitarian Journey… Part 2

How a foreign-born, proud Honduran immigrant’s contribution to a dental mission in Puerto Rico, would help change the course of healthcare and lead the way to eradicate oral cancer throughout Puerto Rico, the beautiful mountainside of Borinquen.

Dedicated to all immigrants, who have loaned their valuable contributions to the United States of America and its territories.

As our group of young people whom we’d brought down from New York City, worked side by side in the field, together with their counterparts, chaperones, Rev. Dr. Damaris Whittaker, and the local farmers, whom we’d contracted to teach our youngsters all about farming, I decided to use my 35mm camera to document. I immediately noticed that each time I focused on these local young people, they’d turned their heads covered their mouths, and refused to smile. As a mental health professional, trained to observe, report, and document. My assignment was to observe for mental health deficiencies, which we’d already realize was almost impossible a challenge on which to embark, due to such being a continuous plan of care that we were unable to deliver.

So I immediately quit taking pictures and went over to Dr. Karen and reported these to her, while suggesting, that if she could also observe and depending on the volume and need in town, perhaps we could head back to New York City, sound the alarm and arrange for a dental visit to the island. We both reported our findings to my wife, Rev. Whittaker, who almost immediately got on the phone.

Thanks to modern technology, several meetings had already taken place before we got down from the mountains. Although at first, we thought it was going to be easy… but as you know, nothing good really does. It’s always an uphill battle. We got back to New York City and were in the process of organizing a fundraiser to help cost the airline tickets for dentists, mobile laboratories, and all of that good stuff that comes with conducting a dental-medical mission overseas. Not an easy task, but we were blessed. And as we struggled, I mean, it was as if we had mobilized the entire New York City, we held a Caribbean dance party and raised some funds although the big surprise would come later, as our blessed angel, Johanna Castro contacted us, to notify us that the graduate students at Pace University had recently completed a film about the storm, Puerto Rico, Hope In The Dark, it was being screened at the Children’s Museum in Manhattan…she then asked if we would like to form part of the panel and share our thoughts, observation and ideas that’ll help aid in the recovery of the island? Of course! That big yes resounded on the other end of the line! A great film, and much applause and gratitude were shared by the delightful viewing audience at the end. They asked many questions, offered suggestions, and voiced their concerns regarding our government’s slow response.

However, among the audience, there was Dr. Joseph Carrion, who respectfully raised his hands, identified himself, and told us he was a scientist at the Faisntain Research Institute of Health, in Long Island. Although, even more importantly, he invited us to drive up there, and offered to give us all of the supplies needed for our mission.

Fortunately for us, our car is a Chevy Equinox, which gives us nearly 35 MPG, and I could run the entire Manhattan and Long Island all day without having to stop and refill, and I did. Up early that scheduled morning headed over to pick up, Proud Dominican Republic, med student, Jennifer Murillo, then down to the Lower Eastside, super committed New York born, Puertorican, Deacon, Edna Benitez. We arrived to the Feinstein Research Institute, Norwell Health Hospital right on time, identified ourselves with security, and headed straight to our meeting. Not only that the good Dr. Carrion was ready, but he also was proud to introduce us to his colleague, Dr. Francis Santiago Swartz. A very proud groundbreaking, Puerto Rican research scientist, who’d been awarded several prestigious awards. Very proud of her people and was more than eager to help out. She also had a “boatload” of medical supplies left over from her previous research to donate to our cause. More importantly, she gave us locally on the ground, in the island’s direct connections with Dra. Elba Diaz and University of Puerto Rico dental school at Centro Médico.

Our young, medical student, Jennifer, was also very joyful since she too had also made some clear connections with Dra. Santiago Swartz appeared very motivated to help a future potential young colleague and even shared her direct number.

On our way back, we had to take our time driving back slowly, since our car was now overloaded with medical supplies. “All that was needed,” just as Dr. Joseph Carrion promised. Hungry, while searching for Latin American food, we somehow stumbled right into this authentic Cuban restaurant, which appeared as if it had taken us back in time to December 1958, right before the Cuban revolution, with classic antique cars parked in the driveway, and all that represented such an era. Great food, heart content, stomach satisfied, now it was time to drop off my partners in the struggle, then head back to the church to ask the staff for help in unloading and securing our donations until we were able to mail them down to the right persons and get them to Puerto Rico on time for when the dentists and rest of specialists where scheduled and ready for the combined dental, medical mission.

The planning of such took a couple of months and a couple more trips down to Puerto Rico, in order to properly ensure protocol and follow Puertorican medical guidelines. Our goal wasn’t to step on anyone’s toes, nor to come down here believing we knew everything and trying to tell people what to do, but rather to form partnerships and learn from what they had been doing. Rev. Damaris and Dra. Karen would make another trip down to meet with Dra. Elba, charge dentists at the Centro Médico, Escuela de Medicina, Universidad de Puerto Rico, who’d be leading our team… and I would later make another trip down with Dra. Karen to meet with her now-organized dental team, layout logistics, and analyze the best way to effectively mobilize and operate a full dental mobile mission without even a minor difficulty. We were up in the mountains, nearly three hours away from the nearest hospital and there was no room for errors. Dra. Elba, lab technicians, dental assistants, students, and other dentists would take over the headquarters of Casa Solidaria, where they’d spend the night and be in place, locked and ready for our very early morning start.

As we laid out our logistics and the doctors traced their final plans, it was time to head back to New York City and ship down our supplies directly to Amarilis Pagan, director at Proyecto Matria’s headquarters in Caguas. Nearly two years had passed since the storm, yet shipping remained still complicated. Shipping a cargo of such volume and specification, we had to be clear, cautious, and just not depend on faith, but rather accuracy, besides good insurance, which turned out to be costly, although while employing the church’s 5o1c3 plan.

We arrived back down to Puerto Rico late that evening, before the mission, this time we were able to rent a house less than a mile away from where we’d be operating, had some dinner a good night’s sleep, and were ready to head out bright and early that morning of June 8th, 2019… 7:00 A.M sharp, as previously agreed. Although we only had a few other medical doctors and nurses available on the ground in Puerto Rico, Centro Integral de La Montaña joined us to help provide the much-needed support.

Additionally, the governor’s office perhaps had finally realized the medical crisis and doctor shortage the island was facing, and the Governor himself had recently issued a report, allowing all doctors in Puerto Rico with a valid US. medical license to practice, could tend to patients and even order prescriptions for up to 90 days, while in Puerto Rico. This allowed us to bring down and seek the ultra-valuable help of Esteem Yale University professor, and pediatric, pulmonologist specialists, Dra. Beverley, Dra. Karen’s beloved wife. Who together with other doctors would canvas the small town and go house to house, checking on the children, prescribing their needed medications as they evaluated them, paying out of their own pocket to have these filled, and picking them up at the pharmacy… I know this since it was part of my assignment to drive them to these pharmacies.

Anyway, the day of the dental mission went on as smooth as ice cream. Far better than previously estimated… although I’m not exactly sure how many patients were attended, nor how many new dentures, teeth’s nor how many new smiles created on such a blessed day. What I do know, however, is that many, many lives were changed for the better. The balcony, living room, and every other available living area inside and out at Casa Solidaria had been turned into individual dental clinics, with chairs, lighting, running water, etc. The entire street surrounding such, appeared as if it being a carnival atmosphere or that aspirating event… and when each patient received their new set of teeth, was given a handheld mirror, and was asked to smile, they cried, meanwhile, our team, their family members and rest of patients, clapped and cheered. The love in the air was palpable, you just had to be there… something to smile about, it was a sight to see. We later invited all of the team out for dinner, including some of the parents of their young dental students, who’d now arrived to pick them up and take them home… bringing a nice bit of business for the small local mountain restaurant and wait staff, whom I’m quite sure had never before cooked and served that large number of customers at once.

However, it got even better when our mission found another purpose, that of eradicating oral cancer. In the months and weeks that followed, Dra. Elba had contacted Rev. Whittaker in New York, this time with even better news. She informed her that her recent research indicated a new laser being applied in the field of dentistry, which could be used to eradicate oral cancer with one swipe. The patient needed no sutures and very minimum follow-up.  She then went on to explain to her that a special dental chair was also needed. Her scientific, public health-led investigation, indicated that towns throughout the mountainside of Puerto Rico had the largest number of cases diagnosed with oral cancer throughout the western hemisphere. As Damaris reported this to our team, we got ready for our new mission. This time, although being assisted by a few silent donors, we would gather to organize another Caribbean dance party to raise the needed funds and reach the required $15,000.00 to help us purchase and ship down the medical laser and chair in order to proceed with our mission.

Dra. Elba would then have to be flown to New York City to attend the required services and become certified to obtain licensing to operate this new system on her patients. Traveling with her partner, husband, and best friend, Dr. Heriberto Marín, they’d spend time with us at our penthouse in New York City. Upon her return, she’d reembark on visiting her patient up into the mountains, throughout the years, and would almost dingle-handedly, eradicate oral cancer in her beautiful, beloved island nation of Borinquen. This all started from my simple observation, but God always led the way. And the rest of it, is medical history for the books of those who may document.

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