Daily Diary of Emily Harris

HMO Clinic Trip to El Salvador,
October 19th- 27th, 2012
By: Emily Harris

Oct. 19th, 2012
            Our group’s trip to El Salvador started off bright and early at 7am when our volunteer group of doctors, dentists, hygienists, and general volunteers all gathered at Terminal One of Toronto Pearson International Airport. With cheery smiles and coffees in hand, we were introduced to each other while dividing space in our luggage to ensure we could accommodate the necessary medical supplies for travel. Once we were through security, we took a flight to Cuscatlán International Airport, about 50km from El Salvador’s capital city, San Salvador. After an impromptu weight training workout, consisting of passing and lifting luggage from customs to our bus, we were introduced to the beautiful El Salvadorian landscape as we passed through on our way to the hotel Real Intercontinental. With our travel buddies in tow, we checked into our rooms and quickly got acquainted with the Centro Comercial, a huge shopping mall that included everything from tailor-made wedding dresses to traditional, handmade trinkets. Our group soon headed to the grocery store to pick up snacks and lots of bottled water. Before we knew it, it was time for dinner. We enjoyed a Brazilian-style buffet of grilled meats and tasty desserts. Afterwards, we came together to confirm our schedule for the days to come and get a good night’s sleep.

Oct. 20th, 2012
            Our group met on the first full day and enjoyed a breakfast of fresh fruit, coffee, and pupusas (a traditional Salvadoran dish made of a thick, handmade corn tortilla filled with cheese and refried beans). The vibe and energy around the breakfast table was palpable! Today, we would be visiting two different cities so that we could get acquainted with the El Salvadorian culture.

            Our first trip was to the municipality of Suchitoto, home to a beautiful white church built in the 1700s. There was lots of shopping to be done and our group marveled at the handmade items for sale in a variety of little shops. In this bustling city, our group often heard loud advertisements and music blasting from the large speakers carried on the tops of cars as they roamed the streets.

            We then took a bumpy bus ride through the countryside, where a gallant effort was made by our bus driver to avoid the passing cows, horses, and pigs that lazily crossed our paths. When we arrived in Ilobasco, we had a lunch of comida tipica, including many different options for chicken, rice, or fish. We spent the rest of the afternoon by the water, and many of our group members (myself included) took the opportunity to go ziplining through the trees and across the water. As the day came to a close, we took the bus back to our hotel and got ready for dinner. Our restaurant was absolutely beautiful, and boasted a view from above of the entire city. Our group put on our dancing shoes and salsa-ed, meringue-ed, and even Gangnam style-ed until it was time to go home.

Oct. 21st, 2012
            On our final day of exploring before the clinic, the group once again loaded ourselves onto the bus and traveled to Playa Costa del Sol, a beautiful beachfront resort. We spent the day marveling at the ocean (our view was sometimes blurred by rainfall, but luckily it didn’t last for the whole day). When the sun reappeared, we took the opportunity to go swimming amongst the crashing waves. Afterwards, we had a blast playing volleyball in the pool, and even had the chance to drink some coconut water right out of the coconut! Afterwards, we headed to our home away from home, the Real Intercontinental, to confirm our plans for dental, medical, triage, and management of the clinics for the week ahead.

Oct.22nd, 2012
            Our first day at the clinic site was nothing short of a whirlwind! We started off by setting up the dental and medical areas, a process that involved the unloading of products, the coordination of workspaces, and the wiring of all electrical equipment. Although we started a little late, we managed to work through it all and begin to work on patients. Because the resources that were available to us were limited, dental patients sat on lawn chairs while our dentists and hygienists worked alongside them with their suctions and other instruments – one of our dentists had the interesting first-time experience of doing dental surgery on his knees! On the medical side, examination rooms were quartered off simply by hanging curtains. Some of the highlights of the day included an impromptu meeting with Mayor Norman Quijano, the introduction to our amazing volunteer translators from local universities, and the willingness of our group to work together and help each other out. Most of all, our patients were so happy to meet us, and were grateful even when we had to shut down for the day and ask them to return (as VIPs/priority patients) for the following day. As one of our volunteers put it: “we arrived with nothing, and we accomplished a lot!” 

Oct. 23rd, 2012
            As we already had our work stations prepared, on Day 2 we started right away and soon had patients filling the rooms. After having a day’s experience under our belts, volunteers, dentists, doctors, hygienists, and translators became more and more efficient, and the number of patients treated per hour started to go up. As the temperature rose, we came together as a team to help each other through any task that was necessary. For example, even though some of our younger dental patients shed a few tears, we were ready with fluffy toys and big smiles to comfort them. Another volunteer even began to teach basic English to some of our patients waiting for triage! Our volunteers truly went above and beyond their assigned roles for the good of the group.

            After the clinic, we had the special treat of visiting El Parque Nacional El Boquerón, or El Boqueron National Park. We traveled up to the top of the San Salvador volcano at 5,905 feet to see the park’s main attraction-a crater 5 kilometers in diameter and 558 meters deep. As we breathed in the crisp, clear air, we marveled at the beauty of volcano and the experience we were sharing together.

Oct. 24th, 2012
            On the day of our ‘big push’ (i.e. the day of the longest hours spent at the clinics), we really pulled together collectively. Even though it was very hot out, our volunteers worked hard to treat the highest number of patients possible. We successfully accomplished innumerable, fillings, cleanings, extractions, consultations, and even the surgical removal of an ingrown toenail! Two of our doctors devised a friendly rivalry to see who could treat the first and the last patient – a competition that made us all smile.

            To celebrate our big day, we all went out for dinner to Los Caballeros, a Mexican restaurant, to enjoy burritos, tortillas and quesadillas. As a special treat, we witnessed a fantastic Mariachi band that serenaded us with booming voices and colourful costumes.

Oct. 25th, 2012
            After a few days of experience, our team worked like a well-oiled machine. Many of our volunteers expanded their roles, and accomplished more work in less time. Some of the local El Salvadorian doctors joined us and even ran a parallel clinic! One unexpected surprise was the addition of a young local boy who simultaneously helped us staple our paperwork while stealing our hearts; he would join us for the whole day and just wanted to help. The drive and desire of the El Salvadorians to lend a hand and support their community was truly inspiring.

Oct. 26th, 2012
            Our last clinic day was full of goodwill and blessings from patients. As one of our volunteers put it, the last made what we were doing all week really hit home. After working with our fantastic group of translators all week, gifts were exchanged and appreciation was given all around. We owe debts of gratitude to the city employees that helped us immeasurably all week long, and we will always be thankful for their support. Our final tallies for the entire week totalled close to 1000 medical patients and close to 600 dental patients treated! What an achievement!

            At our final debriefing, we recalled our favourite moments of the day, and even though there were some patients who were beyond our ability to fully help, we knew the impact of our clinic was the cause for thousands of smiles.

            Our final dinner together was put together by Mayor Norman Quijano, and we all enjoyed traditional ‘marimba’ music by a live band and a great dinner topped off by beautiful certificates of recognition.

Oct. 27th, 2012
            With heavy hearts and memories that would last a lifetime, our group packed up our suitcases and checked out of the Real Intercontinental. We loaded up both of our buses (even though we ended up using only one of those buses in the end!) and arrived once more at the Cuscatlán International Airport. After a smooth flight, we said our teary goodbyes at Terminal One, knowing that even if we didn’t see each other again soon, we all had shared an experience that would remain with us long afterwards.

Special thanks go to Roberto Alvarado, Manny Lopez, and Brenda Martinez for their spectacular contributions to our trip. We could not have done it without you!