I recently was accepted to travel to Ometepe, Nicaragua, in December, 2007, on a Natural Doctors International (NDI) medical brigade to participate in naturopathic medical outreach clinics and learn about how global economic policies impact healthcare in developing countries. Naturopathic doctors practice in the US as well; they can prescribe medication and perform minor surgeries but try to resort to changes in nutrition, and supplements or herbal remedies, as much as possible. I was able to join three naturopathic doctors, an herbalist, and two naturopathic students on a mission to build bridges of solidarity and community, to engage in activism for access to naturopathic medicine worldwide, to work alongside our brothers and sisters in Central America for a more just world, to provide healthcare to a community that is in dire need of it and provide support to healthcare systems that would make most North Americans cringe, and to promote a brighter future.
We began by taking an hour-long ferry to Moyogalpa, the main city on the island of Ometepe. The island is breathtaking: two volcanoes attached by an isthmus. We were staying in Los Angeles, a small barrio on the foot of the live volcano Concepcion.
The first day, I met my homestay family, who accepted me into their home as if I were their daughter, cooking typical meals such as spaghetti with ketchup and fried rice and beans, and teaching me to clean laundry on a rock washboard. Most families on the island make 20 cordobas a day, which is equivalent to a dollar, so this diet is typical, and things such as toilet paper are a luxury.
Our second day, we drove over to a coffee plantation at the foot of Volcano Maderas, an inactive volcano with a lake in the crater. We wore large woven baskets tied around our waists and picked coffee beans all morning as howler monkeys passed by overhead in the trees. While this work allowed me to relate to a farmer’s lifestyle, I felt fortunate that I was not picking regular beans, which is the most common crop around December. Bean plants are only two feet tall maximum, causing lower back problems, neck problems, and headaches for almost everyone on the island, including everyone in my host family. Other crops on the island include tobacco, plantains, and corn.
Our NDI brigade group spent a total of 24 hours together taking classes on globalization, Nicaragua’s situation, and the US’s role in world economics, as well as classes where we shared what we were thinking and feeling. I learned that the US has a 15% vote in the UN, giving us the power to veto any decision and allowing us to control the World Bank, giving loans to developing countries which inevitably lead to large unpayable debts. I gained a better understanding of neoliberalism (a term often used interchangeably in Latin America, during the last 25 years, for globalization), which, among many outcomes, leads to deregulation of environmental and safety practices in order to push unregulated and free enterprise. It also leads to structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which allow other countries to own large chunks of the developing country’s economy, monopolizing the price of service. For example, the US owns the rice production in much of Central America, making local rice farmers unable to compete and causing most of the rice consumed in these countries to come from the US!
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. 80% of the population lives on less than $2/day, 43% on less than $1/day, and 12.5% on less than 50 cents a day. In turn, ¾ of the population does not get proper food for sustenance.
In four days, we visited two clinics and the only “hospital” on the island. We spent 90 clinic hours, saw 188 patients, and donated a total of $2600 worth of medical supplies. Every day we would set up shop, unloading suitcases of tinctures, homeopathics, herbs, immune boosters, teas, and salves from the US and from local companies in Nicaragua. I worked one-on-one with a naturopathic doctor and helped to come up with a treatment plan for the various cases we saw. There were so many patients to see that we had to give out numbers, and people would often wait the entire day to get in.
We saw many coughs and colds and often gave out 4-5 different remedies per patient. I helped with two cases of scabies, which were infected with staph. One girl was so inflamed that her eyes were almost swollen shut.
One woman came in with two boys: an 11-year-old with autism and epilepsy, and a 9-year-old whom we found out had either a kidney stone or a severe kidney infection, causing him to urinate blood. His pain was so bad that his mother had been giving him strong adult painkillers.
Another family came in with their two-year-old son, who had developed tuberculosis. The entire family of 10 had tuberculosis, lived together in a small hut, and did not have money to get treated.
We also did a house call for one girl who had a month-long infection after giving birth. We gave her a tea-bath to soak in, some salves, shampoo, and homeopathic treatment.
We saw several women with unplanned pregnancies – most girls have children around age 13 or 14. In general, the islanders seemed to age VERY quickly. A typical 50-year-old would have sunspots, wrinkles, missing teeth, stooped shoulders, veiny hands and feet, and cataracts.
I especially loved giving massages to the farmers to help relieve their back and neck pain and headaches. One lady even fell asleep as I massaged her neck! I also got on the floor to demonstrate different lower back stretches.
The hospital was really just a large clinic. I can’t even fully describe how bare and poor the building was; I broke down crying after the tour and had to exit the building for fresh air. The surgery room consisted of a cot and a few scalpels, and was also used as a consulting room. There was a lab where they collected urine, blood and feces samples; the feces were turned in in matchboxes, and the urine in whatever container people could find.
The inpatient room had several people lying on bare mattresses waiting to see if their condition would get bad enough that they would need to be shipped to the mainland. One girl was going through contractions, and I had the opportunity to feel her baby’s head come down into her pelvis, and measured the baby’s healthy heartbeat.
Overall, the trip confirmed that this medicine is something I have passion about and would love to devote my life to. This trip gave me the opportunity for my heart and mind to be expanded and nourished, making me more excited than ever for the future. I feel drawn to working in another country. The people are on such a different level in Nicaragua; it feels so real the way they interact with each other and with the earth. One of my favorite times of day was sunset. As we would drive home from the clinics EVERYONE would be standing in the streets watching the sun go down and socializing with the neighbors. After I graduate from Cal Poly this June, I am planning to spend a year or two to go to other parts of the globe and help educate, empower, and heal people in countries such as Nicaragua.
Natural Doctors International is a non-profit organization, so all of its revenue comes from fundraising. NDI is a 501c3, grassroots medical outreach organization committed to international health. Since 2003, it has brought needed medical attention by providing naturopathic medicine free of charge to more than 5,000 patients. Medical brigades, such as the one I joined occur twice a year, and volunteers are welcome year round. NDI also teaches classes about the state of global healthcare. To learn more about NDI, go to www.ndimed.org .