My niece, Hannah, a nurse in training at Creighton University, joined a medical service project in Dominican Republic where she dedicated 5 weeks to helping treat impoverished Dominicans as part of Institute for Latin American Concern Program (ILAC). During the week volunteers from the center in Santiago went to work in campos where they were housed by locals and treated like royalty. Host families insisted on providing the best they could offer and showed their gratitude in countless ways by making special treats and cleaning their guests’ clothes.
My niece’s host family, Madeline, and her husband, Chico, niece Saira 9, and daughters Maireli 4 and Mailesi 3 months lived in a tiny house smaller than Hannah’s two car garage back home in Golden Valley, Minnesota.
“The living room was tiny with a small TV. Curtains separated three small bedrooms. The bathroom, connected to the house, had a toilet that didn’t flush, and the shower was a bucket of water with a drain,” Hannah explained, “The kitchen has a mini fridge, counter and stove. The dining room had a table, chairs and a china cabinet, but no china.”
Hannah, who studied at a Spanish Immersion School in the Minneapolis area until high school, found that her background in Spanish was invaluable. She interacted with the locals and took medical histories, urinary samples and treated minor illnesses with minimum equipment in rudimentary facilities.
“While another nursing student took vitals, I did the intake form, figured out the chief complaint and symptoms and did any other translating. We saw lots of skin rashes, kidney infections, colds and body aches from all the work the Dominicans do.”
The most striking difference was the extent of poverty and lack of modern health care and medicine.
“Even in the best hospital in the country, everything is open – doors, windows (without screens,) and the units in ER (diabetes, labor, trauma.) There are no monitors except for ICU/NICU. Restraints are by rope and heavy weights.” Hannah wrote in her journal. “Patients were pushed around ER with entire families following and holding medical supplies. (If a patient needs medicine, a family member must purchase it outside the hospital.) Floors were torn up, paint chipped off and I never saw a nurse in a patients room.”
There were many cultural differences from diet to lifestyle. The volunteers joked about the leisurely pace of Dominican time – which meant a few hours late.
“Beautiful girls with model figures came into the clinic asking for ways to gain weight,” Hannah said. “In their culture being overweight is a sign of wealth, but we tried to tell them they were perfect as they were.”
Biggest challenges that volunteers faced included communicating with the language barrier, feeling comfortable in a different culture, and adjusting to living with lower standard of hygiene.
“Even though I never felt clean,” Hannah said, “I learned how to co-exist with spiders the size of my hands and lizards in my bed, how to throw rocks at trees to get mangoes down and how to take a bucket shower with 3 small scoops of water.”
I felt privileged that Hannah shared her journal of events with me. Even reading it made me feel ashamed. I was spoiled with riches that I no longer noticed or appreciated like indoor plumbing, running water and electricity.
Life, when stripped to bare necessities, seemed purer. Good health, family, and community matters more than material goods.
After meeting a prosperous land owner and visiting his rice plantation, Hannah, unimpressed, wrote in her journal, “I hope that as times change and technology advances in the DR that the people will stay the same: doors are always open, people are always outside talking with neighbors, the community is your family and sometimes you sleep at your neighbors because it is just like sleeping at your grandmas.”
“All the Dominicans were so hospitable, they would do absolutely anything to make us feel comfortable and happy,” Hannah said. “They showed me how to appreciate time with people rather than things, how to slow down and how to make the most of each day.”