It is tough to know where to begin. We arrived in Panama close to 11 pm Thursday (Panama is in the same time zone as we are on the East coast) and by the time we got to our hotel rooms, it was 1 am! We had to be at breakfast at 6 am to hear about our assignments for the day and this lack of sleep was to become a norm. By the end of the trip, most of us were running on sheer adrenaline.
We arrived at Hospital San Tomas around 7 am but nearly all the entrances were blocked by numerous rescue vehicles. When we finally got to the hospital and were in the cargo room on the 5th floor, we saw why - a massive tree had fallen early in the morning and smashed a car that was being driven by an intern who had just made rounds at the pediatric hospital. It took the firemen hours to remove his body because they had to chop the massive tree in pieces before they could get to him. It was a very sad way to begin our mission.
At any rate, we spent hours in a hot room going through supplies and building packs for the surgeries. At noon we got word that the Panamanian doctors were finishing for the day and we would have 4 OR's at 1 pm. It was pretty much what one would expect of a third-world hospital. Very few resources, antiquated equipment and less than ideal conditions. At home, we work in rooms that are nearly freezing cold. Here, it was difficult not to complain about the heat. Soon, the first patients arrived and in just one afternoon we were able to provide about 6 joint replacements.
After the surgeries concluded we were sent back to the cargo room to build more packs for the following day - single knee or hip, bilateral knee or hip. Everyone was pretty much exhausted but no one dared complain. Around 10 pm we left to go back to the hotel where a lovely buffet dinner was waiting. My roommate got home an hour after I did and she was too wired to sleep, so we talked to nearly 1 am which isn't very conducive when you need to get up at 5:30 am.
Saturday was a repeat of Friday except the American surgeons had the run of the OR except for a few trauma rooms. Many of the Panamanian nurses were there to observe and help translate as best as they could. I left the hospital around 6:30 pm for a trip to the Panama Canal. Anyone who was new to Panama and Operation Walk was permitted to go. It was quite an experience as we got to see several large tankers pass through the locks. We were given a private tour of the musuem and then headed to dinner at the invitation of Dr. Booth. Again, it was midnight before we got home.
I was very fortunate to be able to attend Mass Sunday morning at 6 am. I barely caught a word that I understood and the Mass was very different from what we do here in the US. The tabernacle was off to the side, the congregation never knelt for the Consecration and I couldn't even recognize the Gloria or the Creed. The sermon sounded like a Spanish fire and brimstone variety and the few words I caught were that the treasures of earth amount to nothing in the end and where do we choose to go? I was completely mesmerized by the statue of the Virgin of Mt. Carmel that sat above the altar surrounded by red votive lights. It was the most beautiful depiction of the Blessed Mother I'd ever seen. I couldn't linger to take photos because I had to catch the next bus to the hospital. We operated until nearly 6 pm Sunday and then we were treated to dinner at a fun Panamanian restaurant by Dr. Dennis. The next day we operated until about 4 in the afternoon, and then we had to be in the lobby by 7pm to go to a reception in our honor at the Union Club. I used the down time to back over to the church to take some photos and pray my Rosary. The guardian angel who looked after us, Alfredo, a wealthy philanthropist committed to making the lives of others better, arranged the dinner and provided traditional Panamanian dancers to entertain us.
The next morning, we attended a reception at the hospital with the President and First Lady of Panama along with the remaining total joint patients we did. In less than four days, we did 64 joint replacements for 59 patients (some had bilateral joints). Many of our patients went home the day after their surgeries. One of the patients the group had done last April came and she was a marvel to see. She had been wheelchair-bound for 10 years until Operation Walk replaced both hips and she was overjoyed to see the surgeon who had helped her. One of the patients walked to greet the president and first lady and then President Martinelli shook hands with each and every one of us and thanked us for our help.
Afterward, we left for an afternoon of relaxation at Alfredo's idyllic beach house on the Pacific. I was struck by how in every room of his house, there was no shortage of Bible passages. I pray for God to give him more wealth because he uses most of it to help others. He was truly an inspiration. We got home around 8 and everyone packed up for home.
We arrived back in the US a little before 4 yesterday.
Panama is a country of extremes - opulence here, abject poverty there. As we were traveling to one of our destinations, I saw one-legged man hopping along the side of the highway as fast as someone running on two legs. He had no crutches or walker and he was a picture of both tragedy and triumph. For me, he summed up the difficult circumstance many of these people live with as well as their determination and ability to make do. We learned as a group that we were capable of reaching down and finding more to get the job done. We had very little help and a great deal of work. Things we are accustomed to in our own OR were not to be had in Panama but we managed. It was fun sometimes to have to improvise so that we could get the job done well.
Anyway, it was a wonderful experience. I thank God for putting these people in our paths so we could carry out His Holy Will and for bringing us home safely and looking after my family in my absence.