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Well, today was my last day of what has been a memorable experience volunteering in Jamaica. I spent the morning in Port Maria seeing children for various urgent care issues. At the end of my brief time here, I’m a little more comfortable with the Patois (although I had to break down and call in a nurse to interpret for me today). I know to ask the nurse for the “docket” not the “chart”. I also know to take a minute, as I’m looking into a child’s mouth, to lecture every parent about brushing or wiping down teeth before bed and limiting box juices (I’ve seen so many rotten primary teeth, it makes me sad).

On that note, I’ve been so impressed at the high prevalence of breastfeeding here. Nearly every mother of a newborn child breastfeeds, popping the breast out so comfortably, it makes me blush in my Western prudishness. But I’m so proud of them. True, a large part of it is due to necessity and limited economic resources to purchase formula; but I commend them all the same.

Aside from clinic, I’ve enjoyed seeing parts of Jamaica that I had not seen before on my previous visits. For one, the drive to Port Antonio is nothing short of breathtaking. On the drive back the hotel on Friday, it had just finished raining as we were driving through the hills along the coast, and the sun shown brightly making every color so brilliant. Green-golden palm trees were glowing; the red flowers on the tops of trees glistened. The painter had come to accentuate the clouds in the sky with specials tones of blue and the Caribbean sea itself sent sapphire jewels crashing on the rocky shores. Have you ever been to someone’s amazing house and looked around you with awe and a little bit of envy? I glanced at my driver, wondering if he took all this beauty for granted as he traveled up and down the coast daily.

Enough waxing poetic, so in my first post, I had mentioned that I was not a frequenter of all-inclusive resorts but that I had come to understand and appreciate their appeal to so many people. A short while after I wrote that, one of my best friends asked me if I had “converted”. I told her that I’d have to see. So after my two weeks here at a beautiful resort in a beautiful country I have to qualify those earlier statements. I missed the spontaneity and adventure of my typical holiday. After a few days, I had to take a route taxi into town to soak up some local flavor. It was a great trip away and I got to stop by the grocery store to pick up some packets of the delicious corn meal porridge, laced with vanilla and nutmeg, that the resort has been serving up for breakfast. My 2 yr old son is going to love it.

OK… I’m signing off. I hope to do this again someday. I certainly encourage people to take ISSA up for the adventure! It’s a win-win.
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On my first day in Port Antonio last week, I had seen a child in clinic who was referred to me because he was “malnourished”. While he didn’t meet a clinical diagnosis of marasmus or kwarshiokor (two different types of severe malnutrution, sadly common in some parts of the developing world) he was certainly not hitting his goal weights. To translate, as I told the mom, while he was as tall as more than half of the children his age, he weighed what the average child should weigh at 8 months of age…and he was nearly 15 months old. Not having any evidence of chronic infection, illness or heart disease, from the history and physical I was reasonably comfortable in my assessment that it was a problem of inadequate nutrition….but mom was young and it nagged my internal (“ain’t right”) barometer that she insisted she was giving him 4 cups of milk a day, sardines and porridge and he was eating it with no problem. That day being my first day as a clinician in Jamaica, I wasn’t too sure what to do with him not being severely malnourished and stunted, but not well enough to send out the door without me feeling at all concerned. After writing for multivitamin supplements, I referred him to the Child Guidance Clinic to find assistance obtaining nutritional milk-based supplements (that mom couldn’t afford herself) and asked mom to follow up every two weeks for weight reassessment. But something about the kid has been gnawing at me for the entire week I’ve been here and after discussing with Dr. Ramos, the local pediatrician, in clinic yesterday, he reassured me that it would be appropriate practice to admit the kid for high-calorie diet and social work consultation. Just like I would in the US for a kid who was failure to thrive.

In my time here, frankly, I’ve been trying to grasp, as a clinician, what is common practice, what would be overly conservative, what is appropriate utilization of resources. I didn’t (and still don’t) have a good sense of the epidemiology of moderate malnutrition here or it’s management and I wrongly assumed that since I was Jamaica, maybe this problem was seen too often to admit all the kids who walked up with growth problems; that outpatient management was a necessity of constraints in available resources–even in the setting of a positive “ain’t right” test. I’ve been trained that when the “ain’t right” test is positive, a good clinician should step back and reassess, questioning a diagnosis until the “ain’t right” feeling is gone. Also, in my short time here, from my perspective as one new to practicing pediatrics in a developing country, I’ve actually appreciated the notion that it is important to manage conservatively at times. Frankly, the odds of seeing a “bad case” is considerably higher here than at home in the States.

Anyway, I made a call to a friend I’d made in administration at Port Antonio –Mr. C.–in the late afternoon yesterday, telling him about the child. And miraculously, this morning the child was waiting with his mom at the clinic to see me. I explained to the mom my plan to admit him and draw labs, she seemed fine and I felt so much better knowing that he would be under close observation for at least the next 3 days for a calorie count. I’m grateful to my Jamaican doctors-colleagues and other hospital employees for their graciousness and cooperative spirits along this brief journey of mine.

Ah, and a funny story. So I had another frustrated mom presenting with a child with tinea versicolor today. (You know, if anyone wants to make his fortune in the tropics, they would invent a potion that eradicates this fungus in days). By this time, after a week, I’ve already gotten used to my Jamaican patients with their lyrical histories and colorful interpretations of the natural world. So as I was going through my third iteration of why I wasn’t going to prescribe her child an oral medication, these words popped out of my mouth: in my best Jamaican accent, I said, “Miss, it’s like trying to shave a goat by having him swallow the razor….it just don’t work like that.” Any other patient in the States would probably have looked at me like I had gone crazy. But this woman looked at me like she was satisfied with that answer…and stopped harrassing me about the orals.

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Apart from missing my family tremendously, I’ve been having a great time volunteering in Jamaica so far. On Friday was my first day going to Port Antonio and I’ve spent the last two days in Port Maria.

The patients and their parents have been very polite and grateful to me in general. I did see a mom today in Port Maria though who was frustrated at the tinea versicolor on her son’s chest and back which seemed to keep coming back despite her treatments and visits to the clinic. Her son had a classic rash. After giving her some selenium sulfide and some clotrimazole, she wanted oral medication which I didn’t feel was indicated. I did my best to explain that it can be a very frustrating problem in Jamaica as well as in the US. She was the exception though. Another parent totally made my day when he returned with his daughter today to bring me a bag full of ripe ackee fruit, freshly picked green bananas and plantain. I had seen his daughter in clinic the day before and she looked much better (OK, so she had a viral illness and got better on her own…fine). I was so happy, thanked him profusely. Unfortunately since I’m staying at the resort without any kitchen facilities, I had to give away my fruit to the nurses who were working with me.

Practicing medicine in a foreign country has its many rewards but also quite a few challenges that one can’t readily appreciate. There are different home remedies, different names of body parts, different perceived etiologies of disease and conditions that can totally throw you off while you’re talking to a patient. For instance, who knew that toilet paper can cause a vaginal infection or that a rubber band can give a child fungus in the hair? Plus, I’ve been totally inundated with all sorts of rashes that I would have been quick to refer to a dermatologist at home in the US. On top of that, there’ve been cases of measles in the area so I’ve been on the lookout for those potential cases as well. Luckily, the health department here has a rockin immunization program and parents are serious about giving their children shots.

Even as I say this, there is one similarity that I was surprised to find here in my rural clinic experience—pharm reps! Yes, I actually got approached with gifts and flatteries by a Jamaican pharm rep who handed me a printed bag, a pen, and a little speech on some new cough syrup for children…I was quite tickled about it. I actually would have appreciated a good ol’ Pharm lunch though—I was getting hungry. Too hungry and not enough energy to go into how I will be following my AAP recommendations and not prescribing cough syrup to children under 6, thanks very much.
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It’s been less than 24 hours that I’ve been here, but I thought a blog about my first impressions would be useful, especially for future volunteers.

Before that though, a snippet about me. My name is Maureen Ben-Davies. I finished my pediatric residency at the University of Chicago this past July. Currently, I’m a primary care research fellow at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and pursuing my masters in public health at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. I have travelled to Jamaica many times before on vacation and for my wedding, which is why I can’t believe I had the good fortune of finding an organization which would allow me to put my skills to use and “give back” to a country that I’ve loved for a long time.

I’ve never stayed a Couples resort before–or any other all-inclusive for that matter. My husband and I have prided ourselves on traveling “off the beaten path” when we venture abroad and everytime we’ve stayed here in Jamaica, we’ve chosen smaller hotels with few amenities so it’d force us to meet locals and feel like locals. That said, Couples is a really nice place. I’ll say that on our previous vacations here, we’ve found it hard to “do nothing” for more than three days, then we get bored. There is no reason for you to feel bored here. You can be as idle or as busy as you like. Today was a day off for me to get acclimated so I went on an orientation for new guests and was blown away by how many activities you could do. Call me naive, but I was like “this is why people keep coming back to all-inclusives…This is sweet.” Not as cheesy as I thought it’d be either. I’ll see if I have time/energy after volunteering to take advantage of some of the resources. The staff have been amazingly helpful, friendly and resourceful.

The bag that I picked up from reception containing my laptop and pre-paid cell phone was very handy. I wouldn’t have stressed about what kind of walk-around bag to use if I’d known this would be available. It has everything that you need to get started seeing patients: laptop, mouse, latex gloves, reflex hammer, a print out of the ISSA Trust Foundation mission orientation manual that had the contact numbers for everyone, a medication formulary print out. All I need to add is my otoscope/ophthalmoscope, stethoscope and pen and I’m good to go! Also, the villa that I’m staying at has many useful handbooks that I didn’t even think (or have room) to pack! Harriet Lane, Handbook of Medicine in Developing Countries, Atlas of Pediatrics in the Tropics, the AAP Red Book.
…Oh! No need to pack a water bottle either; the resort gives you a very durable plastic one with a clasp to hook it onto any bag you’re carrying…super handy!

Tomorrow is my first day and I’m going to Port Antonio, it’s a long ride, about 2 hours so it should be a pretty long day.

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